Media, Politics

Summertime and the Cape Opera ain’t living easy

By J Brooks Spector 1 November 2010

The controversy sparked by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s opposition to the Cape Town Opera’s forthcoming tour to Israel has opened old wounds. The wounds caused by physical and cultural barriers between people in Gaza and the West Bank, in apartheid South Africa, in Belfast and in Berlin. But the “Goldilocks” option may still prove the bravest and the best route. By BROOKS SPECTOR.

A morally uncompromising Anglican priest once made world headlines when he announced: “I am asking those who believe racialism to be sinful or wrong … to refuse to encourage it by accepting any engagement to act, to perform as a musical artist or ballet dancer…” Those were Trevor Huddleston’s words more than half a century ago when he initiated a movement that eventually evolved into the broad, international cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa.

Last week, yet another internationally renowned priest, this time, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu – a man who had done much to encourage the anti-apartheid cultural boycott a generation earlier – urged the Cape Town Opera to stand down from its plans to take its acclaimed production of “Porgy and Bess” to Tel Aviv in Israel next month.

In his statement, Tutu said it was, “wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel,” in the same way as it had been “inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity” during that country’s apartheid era. Tutu went on to say the company should put its tour on hold until “both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances”. He added it would be “unconscionable” for the opera company to perform “Porgy and Bess,” which he said had a “universal message of non-discrimination”. The very same Cape Town Opera has previously organised some pretty politically pointed productions – not the least of them a production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in an actual prison exercise yard on Robben Island.

Watch: Ella Fitzgerald sings Summertime.

“Porgy and Bess” is one of George Gershwin’s most famous musical works – more an American verismo opera of real life than the trivial Broadway production that musical critics had first categorised it as. It uses the joys and tribulations of daily life in a segregated quayside community in the American South of the 1920s as the backdrop for a compelling, but painful love story between Porgy, a crippled beggar, and Bess, a woman with both a past and an increasingly troubled present. Drawn from the then-popular book by DuBose Heyward, Gershwin spent months doing what we would now call anthropological field work, researching Gullah Island life and music along the coastal settlements of South Carolina before composing his music. Songs such as “Summertime”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing” have gone on to become beloved musical standards. And the music of “Porgy and Bess” has become a virtual touchstone for African-American operatic singers.

Over the past five years, the Cape Town Opera production has been performed in Cape Town and toured northern Europe to much applause. Four years ago, when it was first invited to go to Israel, there seemed to be relatively little controversy about the trip. But now, just before the tour is about to take place, the international media has reported Tutu’s criticisms and the growing controversy about the trip. In the past several days Israeli opponents of the tour (as well as being opposed to much current Israeli government policy) have placed ads in South African papers, arguing that accepting an invitation to perform at the Tel Aviv Opera House is wrong because Palestinians are denied the right to enjoy equal education and cultural opportunities by Israel through its military checkpoints, its 700km-long “Apartheid Wall” and discriminatory laws. A Palestinian opera fan living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank village of Bil’in will not be allowed to go to Tel Aviv (30 minutes away).

In response, Michael Williams, the opera’s managing director, said his company was, “reluctant to adopt the essentially political position of disengagement from cultural ties” with Israelis or Palestinians, and that he was “proud that our artists, when travelling abroad, act as ambassadors and exemplars of the free society that has been achieved in democratic South Africa”. Williams said the company was negotiating to perform in Arab countries as well.

Is this the 1980s all over again?

While the cultural boycott, together with the sports and academic boycotts, didn’t overthrow the apartheid regime by themselves, they contributed importantly to isolating the apartheid regime, gave hope to a generation of apartheid’s opponents that they had international support and backing and made sure white South Africans would have little reason to believe de-politicised international contact could ever become easier until South Africa changed fundamentally. 

Since South Africa’s own anti-apartheid struggle, international cultural, sports and educational contact – or the lack of it – have actually become increasingly important to international relations. Proponents of such approaches have increasingly drawn strength from the lessons of the South African experience and they have tried to apply those lessons to other causes and other countries.

Consider, for a moment, what happened when the right wing, even neo-Nazi, Freedom Party under Jorg Haider joined Austria’s ruling coalition in 2000. This quickly led to debate about how the international community could best register disapproval and force Haider’s party out of the coalition government. Anti-Haider activists encouraged people to cancel tourist bookings and participation in conferences and cultural events in that country.

The Prince of Wales quickly ducked out of a UK-sponsored trade fair in Vienna, French actress Catherine Deneuve publicly turned down her guest-of-honour status at the very posh, very exclusive Vienna Opera Ball, the Salzburg Festival’s Belgian-born artistic director resigned in protest, and one of the festival’s main foreign backers cancelled her financial support for the festival itself.

These were not frivolous or marginal threats since Austria’s tourism industry comprises nearly 15% of the country’s economy. And because so much foreign tourism was tied into cultural festivals and the like, Austria was particularly vulnerable to international pressure from the threat of a cultural boycott. Support for a boycott wasn’t universal. In the midst of the controversy, the French daily, “Le Monde”, agonised: “Is it better to refuse all cooperation with any cultural event or exchange programme that has Austrian government backing? Should intellectuals put principles behind them so as not to isolate their counterparts in Austria? Or should they, on the contrary, accept invitations to bring the international protest against Haider to Austria itself?”

There has also been a long-simmering campaign by activist groups of academics in Europe, the UK and the US to establish academic and cultural boycotts directed against Israel in response to the country’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza. As with Austria, proponents argued their inspiration was South Africa – only this time the Israeli leverage points were the country’s international intellectual and academic connections. As British academic Peter Keele told CNN back then: “I’ll draw an analogy here with the successful boycotting of apartheid … Some people argued we should constructively engage with South African institutions, but I think history proved that, in the end, the intellectual boycott was helpful in bringing an end to apartheid.”

Now, with the sudden fracas over the Cape Town Opera’s Israeli tour, some old South African fault lines seem to be coming back to life as well. Over the weekend, the IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi came out swinging against the retired archbishop in a reprise of their earlier tangles over South African disinvestment and sanctions, dismissing the call for a cancellation of the opera tour as foolish at best.

While Israel is not apartheid South Africa – unless you are Ronnie Kasrils – the challenge for the Cape Town Opera is that there is a fundamental awkwardness in dealing with the Israeli state. Despite Israeli justifications, it is hard to argue away the reality of discrimination inherent in the West Bank border wall being constructed, the welter of checkpoints and crossing gates imposed on Palestinians in the West Bank, and the ongoing encroachment of West Bank lands by new Israeli settlers. While many Israelis disagree with these policies, they continue regardless.

The argument of tour opponents that “Porgy and Bess” represents a plea against oppression and apartheid is an odd one at best, but there is no avoiding the truth that Palestinian opera lovers who want to see the Cape Town Opera’s production (assuming such people would freely choose to attend a theatrical performance in Tel Aviv) would face a huge struggle in successfully getting to see the production. Any performances before essentially segregated audiences should be a flashing yellow light for South Africans. However, does this mean the tour shouldn’t go on? Not necessarily.

There are at least three possible positions one could take. One is to ignore the criticism, take the heat, and simply carry on as planned – arguing that art and politics simply are from different universes. A second position, of course, would be to heed the call and cancel the tour. But a third way could be to build upon the tour – no matter how hard a slog it would be – to reach out to Palestinians by connecting with theatre groups in the West Bank and finding a way, somehow, to work with them as part of this tour.

To follow this “Goldilocks” path could mean insisting that Palestinians be welcomed, both to see “Porgy and Bess”, and to join in the lectures, parties and master classes that would inevitably be part of this visit, in spite of the wall and barricades. Easy? Of course not. But not, perhaps, impossible. The late Trevor Huddleston’s own behaviour may even be instructive. As the story goes, when he learned violinist Yehudi Menuhin was in Johannesburg for concerts, Huddleston contacted him and brought him to his Sophiatown church and invited audiences, no matter who they were or where they came from, to attend the maestro’s recital, in spite of local law, custom and possible police sanction.

And, of course, if this production of “Porgy and Bess” is the same one that premiered in Cape Town a few years back, it begins with a wrecking ball tearing down an old building on Catfish Row to make way for urban renewal. In doing this, the production alludes to the destruction of District 6. At the time this seemed incongruous and not in keeping with Gershwin’s story. But, on this tour, that opening could well serve as a symbol of breaking down walls and removing barriers – something from which Israel and Palestine can only benefit in the long run. DM


For more on comments about this controversy, read Politicsweb, the New York Times, the New York Times, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jerusalem Post and the Mail and Guardian, among other sources. For historical material on earlier efforts for a boycott of Israel, see the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Photo: “Porgy and Bess”, New York Harlem Theatre, 2009.

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