South Africa, Life, etc

Q&A: South African creatives take on violence against women and children in new operatic work

By Diana Neille 22 May 2017

Renowned opera director Kobie van Rensburg and founder of Umculo, Shirley Apthorp, have returned to South Africa to present their new work, Schande!, a showcase of Lieder (songs) by Franz Schubert performed with local artists which makes an interpretive statement that doesn’t mince words: the country’s levels of violence are a disgrace. DIANA NEILLE sat down with the duo for a Q&A.

Schande! The title of Kobie van Rensburg’s new Liederabend (evening of song) shouts at you from posters advertising the event. For shame! Shame on us for tolerating violence in our society to the extent that we do, especially against women and children. The premiere of their new work comes in the same week as details of the brutal murder of Karabo Mokoena and at least half a dozen other young women emerged. So what, I wanted to know, could the performance of reimagined, reinterpreted classical music written in Europe in the 1800s bring to the urgent conversation needed in South Africa around how to change the violent, patriarchal society we live in?

Kobie van Rensburg: It is a disgrace that these social conditions are accepted in South Africa. Why aren’t you doing something about this violence? Shall we sit idly by and do nothing? And that question is aimed at the general man in the street, because (the German) Lied – song – was historically aimed at the man in the street. It’s aimed at people who have a social conscience already, but also aimed at those that have not developed it yet.

Schubert in his time suffered from a sexually transmitted disease — he died from syphilis. And I thought that the situation that we have in South Africa of Aids still being a very big issue, the education around that, the social issues around it and the violence that we have in our society, especially violence against women and children – those aspects interested me: to make a piece to speak to those aspects of our South African society; one that would help communities also realise that opera, classical music or music theatre is a contemporary art form that has a lot to do with their everyday lives. They are means of expression that are stylised and therefore very powerful. But because South Africans sing a lot, it’s also an art form that speaks directly to them. Classical music is not about some ethereal, dreamlike state in which unicorns roam around. It has to do with reality. And Schubert’s music is very human. It cuts to the core of our human existence and our human suffering and pain – and also hope and joy. But they have to be done in a balance that people recognise as contemporary.

Shirley Apthorp: The stage is a safer space than any other that I have found in terms of giving freedom to talk about subjects which are taboo elsewhere. These are conversations that must be had and we have a form through which that can be done. I truly believe violence against women and children is the single most important issue in South Africa today. And I think it’s a totally valid question for everyone – “What are you doing to make this place safer for women and children?”

DN: This is this first time the show is being performed. You’re both based in Europe, so why premiere in South Africa?

Apthorp: I founded Umculo after I’d been to performances around the country and seeing that there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of youngsters singing the music of opera but not having the opportunity to have access to excellent live performances. I personally believe that every young child should have the right to an aesthetic experience. And we talk a lot about how kids should do music because it’s good for them academically. That’s also true, but we don’t have to justify it. Kids deserve good music and so we fundraised in Europe with that audience as our primary focus. We want to bring music theatre to people who are doing the music anyway, and I want to do that as well as we can — we want to meet them at intellectual eye level.

Van Rensburg: Schande! is a scenic Liederabend. Art songs are the pinnacle of a singer’s art. And an evening of art song is really the most that a singer can do with his voice. But the art of Lieder is in decline, because all throughout the world, even the most expert exponents have difficulty in getting younger interested audiences. A Liederabend is based on a Victorian practice. It’s the bad habits of the recent past that we’ve perpetrated, and often, sometimes correctly so, the broader public has an idea that a Liederabend is a stuck-up affair. In Schubert’s time it wasn’t. It was a wild drinking party in which artists exchanged ideas about their contemporary society. So, from an academic point of view, it’s at the crossroads of performative expression, performative excellence in art and participation.

It was as if the musicians of the early 17th century tried to supercharge the spoken word through this alchemy of text and tone and therefore opera and the medium of singing in storytelling was created. The public participated in Schubert’s events. They were part of the communication. And in my work as an opera director and before as a singer, I believe that the most important thing in an operatic evening is effective communication.

DN: How do you communicate effectively to a South African audience?

Van Rensburg: This project also combines another modern element, which is video projection and multimedia techniques, specifically chroma keying and blue screen, to make this music more accessible to the public. We are projecting subtitles in English and in Xhosa simultaneously, because we see that our audiences relate quite intimately to the content of what is being transported. And I believe that art should not just be veiled emotional content that you can pick and choose what you see in it.

DN: So are you trying to create a new standard, a new normal for classical music in South Africa? Are you not trying to do too much at once?

Apthorp: No, I don’t think we can revolutionise the music scene in South Africa. I would hope that we could plant some seeds. I’m not in the business of criticising the South African music scene. Cape Town is the only opera company south of Cairo. But (negative feelings around classical music) have complex causes. It’s about remoteness, it’s about colonialism, it’s about lots of different things. And of course I am informed by my decades of living and working in Europe, on the continent, in a very pluralistic operatic context that has enough state subsidy to be able to afford a high level of artistic risk. And that’s what floats my boat. Of course, when you see the level of intelligence and talent here it’s impossible not to think, “why aren’t they doing A, B and C?” My challenge to myself in founding Umculo back in 2010 was just to say I’m passionate about a certain kind of opera, and instead of telling people, “it could be like this”, I’d rather show something again and again and make something that says exactly what I mean – and let people reach their own conclusions.

DN: You’re attempting this at a time in which there’s huge pushback in South Africa against anything seen to be overtly Western or colonial. Have you factored that in?

Van Rensburg: I feel that in these times when people are pressed to take a stance and they feel themselves disenfranchised, this type of musical communication is an outlet and it puts the finger in the wound of many of these things happening. Therefore I think that I see no danger. If you see cast members like Ronald Melato singing Schubert’s Der Kamph in our production that is played as a second-in-command gangster who, while his boss is in jail, fawns over his girlfriend. I think that it’s something that people will be able to relate to and realise that this music belongs to everyone. And apart from that, the interpretation of it is truly South African from the ground up. I see no reason why South Africans should not own up to the international stage and say “this is a South African interpretation of a piece that is perhaps at a standard that can be used to measure artistic excellence internationally”. And why shouldn’t South Africans have a voice in that as well?

Apthorp: The opera stage is a social utopia. It’s one of the few occasions where people from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds have to all work together with a common cause in order to achieve something beautiful. And that is also an important statement at a time when our country is being encouraged to focus more and more on the things that divide us. In fact, music is one of the things that South Africans do well. So we try to work together towards something that speaks to our shared humanity, and I think that’s terribly important. DM

Performances of SCHANDE! | SKANDE! | SHAME! | IHLAZO will take place in Hout Bay, Kraaifontein, and Langa from 22-24 May. Workshops are also available for schools. For details, contact Mimi Makapela on 074 287 8562

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Photo: Soprano Christine Bam features in Schande! during its premiere in Cape Town. Photo provided.

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