Our Burning Planet

THE BIG INTERVIEW

Katherine and Andrew — of wild things, magical music and being creative

Katherine and Andrew — of wild things, magical music and being creative
Katherine Jenkins performing at Sanbona. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Katherine Jenkins, a singing superstar, and her husband Andrew Levitas, a top US movie producer and director, jetted quietly into South Africa with their children over Christmas for some game park time and two exclusive, invitation-only concerts. They talk about their passion for wilderness.

As the sun turned towards evening, its angled light dipped below the banked clouds, flooding the cliffs of the wild valley with gold. A jackal yipped. Back up the dusty track a leopard had been seen lying, digesting its kill.

In a remote valley of the Warmwaterberg, the black rectangular stage in the clearing before an audience of about 50 people on folding chairs was as incongruous as a giraffe would be in New York’s Central Park. As Katherine Jenkins in a glittering blue, ground-length dress mounted the small stage, the incongruity deepened. But as she started to sing it all came together. Her amazing voice in that place echoing off the ancient Karoo cliffs was both a prayer and a celebration of the wilderness we so often forget. Some in the audience, overwhelmed by what they were experiencing, teared up. When the first song ended, the response was more a collective gasp than applause.

Katherine is a superstar, loved by millions, who has performed in the greatest concert halls of the world. She is also startlingly beautiful. Why she was singing up a valley in the heart of Sanbona game reserve, accompanied by her equally famous film director and producer husband Andrew Levitas needed explaining. Graciously they consented to do so a few days later as we sat on the veranda of an apartment below Cape Town’s Table Mountain.

jenkins levitas sanbona

Wild valleys of the Warmwaterberg at Sanbona Game Reserve. (Photo: Supplied)

DP: You’re a film director and producer and Katherine’s a singer but you’re also patrons of the elephant conservation Tusk Trust. What’s your connection to animal conservation?

Andrew: We’re here on a fundraiser for the Wilderness Foundation Africa — I’m a patron of Wilderness Foundation Global. The question you’re asking is actually central to our relationship. Our paths are very different but in that space we connect. In my early 20s, I went to Kenya. It was an immersive experience: I was staying with the Maasai. 

jenkins levitas sanbona

Katherine Jenkins and Andrew Levitas. (Photo: Margot Muir)

I’d done a lot of things, been through all the American national parks, hiked, done scuba diving. But in Kenya, something happened to my brain. It was the touch, the smell, the sound of Africa. The Masai Mara is incredible. If you have a close enough interaction with nature, with a rhino or elephant, it’s impossible not to immediately want to protect them, or be an ambassador for them.

Katherine: I was coming to South Africa on concert tours and I’d be taken on a safari. But on one particular trip, I was taken to a secret rhino orphanage — they were heavily guarded because of poaching — I’m ashamed to say at the time I didn’t know why. I had an amazing few hours with the babies. A person I met there said: “Katherine, please go back to the UK and tell people what’s happening here.” And I went home thinking: what can I do to help? How can I use my voice? At about that time, I met Andrew and he was telling me about a film he was creating and I felt he fully had the sense of how to get people invested in an idea — he’s so amazing at what he does. People go to his films to be entertained but leave with a completely different view on something. You care so deeply.

Andrew: She married me for it!

Katherine: Well, in a way, yes…

Andrew: For me, it started with art, really. The images of the photographer Eugene Smith about Minamata in Japan, which I eventually made a film about, but also people like Ansel Adams and his image of Wonder Lake which forced me to go see Denali. As a kid, I would lose myself in an art museum. There’s a straight line from a 10-year-old boy seeing the image of a young Tomoko crippled by mercury poisoning in her bath with her mother to a film-maker 30 years later writing and directing and fighting to make an almost impossible movie about it. 

The interpretation of these photographers landed heavily on me at a young age. I wanted to make films that made you feel different, feel a sense of self, a sense of belonging, a sense of connectivity, of being part of something bigger, to do what you are capable of and take action.

DP: So you’re an activist?

Andrew: Not really. I’m not telling people what to do, I’m just showing them and they can make up their own mind. When you see the horror of Minamata it’s pretty obvious, right? What’s right and what’s wrong and who’s right and who’s wrong. I don’t preach in my work. I just lay it out for you. Katherine wrote and sings the song of the soundtrack. Her voice is Mother Earth calling out showing its pain and its pain is beauty.

DP: You both have a big social imprint, huge audiences who are influenced by what you do and say. Are you consciously trying to get a message through? And if you are, what’s that message?

Andrew: I’m trying to find the balance between authenticity and nutrition, appeal to a broad enough audience that could actually move a generation, try to get younger people to look a certain way or read a certain way, whether in my sculpture, my artwork or my films. 

levitas sanbona

Andrew Levitas with one of his metal sculptures, taken from his website. (Photo: Supplied)

I think Katherine works in a different way. I may just be a husband that’s crushing on his wife — I hope you don’t mind me saying that Katherine — but you’re so genuine, this angel that expresses these deep honest feelings. I’ve seen audiences all over the world burst into tears listening to you because of that authenticity. She doesn’t have to hear me say all these nice things, Don. But it’s true. She taps into this reservoir, this pure rightness which she offers to the world. It comes through her work so naturally because I think it’s expressive of who she is. 

What I do requires more thought and consciousness to touch people, the way that artists touched me when I was young and how they made an impact on the millions of people who will have seen the Ansel Adams Wonder Lake image or saw the Smith’s photos in Life magazine at the time.

Katherine: Thank you Andrew, that’s so sweet. My mum was a radiographer at a local hospital in Wales and from a young age she taught me and my sister that you have to be involved, to give back. I don’t remember a time when my mum wasn’t fundraising for something. 

I’m a very energetic person, when I wake up I’m ready to take on the world. Now being a mum to our two children and thinking about what they will encounter, I want to help them to be responsible, to be global citizens and not just focused on their little area of life.

Andrew and I both lost our fathers at a young age — I was 15 and you were 20 — and it was a bonding experience in a way. One of the charities I work with in London deals with bereaved children, another uses music therapy for children. I think it’s about finding ways to do what you love that can help other people. Music helps everybody in some form or another. It’s strange and magical.

We all have a different soundtrack to our lives. I’m particularly drawn to music that’s either emotional or anthemic. On one hand, I’m trying to make people feel. I don’t want to make people cry, but they do. I only sing songs I feel a connection with.

jenkins sanbona

Katherine Jenkins. (Photo: Supplied)

My parents never played opera or classical music at home, really. I learned to sing in the church choir. I found classical music through a path of church music as many people do. I never want to just sing straight classical opera. Whether it’s folk music or music from Broadway or just songs that I love that I hope will move people. I think that lends itself to the kind of work that we’re trying to do, using certain songs that have a lovely message about trying to create a better world.

Andrew: In a way, we’re doing couple therapy here — I hadn’t ever realised that about you. Neither of us were taught any of this. Katherine, you found the music that you performed completely organically. It wasn’t thrust on you, that’s why it feels so authentic. For me, no one ever told me to make these kinds of films. I followed those things that inspired me and I have a feeling that was the same for you as well. There are a lot of easier films I could have made along the way that people wanted me to make.

DP: Your children are so normal and balanced. How have you managed that with the hectic schedules you must keep? Has having children changed you in any way?

Andrew: I don’t know. Probably. We’re hyper-aware of the fact that our children’s generation is the generation that’s going to feel the brunt of the abuse we’ve done to the earth’s climate and the Anthropocene extinctions. These two events happening at the same time could destroy their lives and we’re seeing it in our lifetime, obviously.

Katherine: I think from a really young age we’ve wanted to make them feel like they’re part of what we do, whether it’s on a soundcheck with the kids running amongst the orchestra or on the film set with daddy. They’ve been doing that since they were little, so they don’t see it as mummy and daddy go into work. It’s just like mommy’s doing this, daddy’s doing that. They’re very open to it aren’t they? 

Andrew: Yep. I think, with our kids, if we can just be a blueprint for our children because they’re a blueprint for us. Our kids can be devastated and upset over whatever. And two seconds later, if you can make them giggle, if you can tell them something funny, if you can engage with them, you lift them entirely out of that space, back to being a joyful citizen of the world, which in turn is contagious to the next and the next and the next. You know, that’s what we have to be pushing toward.

I think the way to live your life is to live it responsibly with kindness and generosity. Try to be inspiring and make the choice to help or add positivity or add a smile. It sounds hokey, I get it, although I’m becoming more comfortable with the hokeyness of this type of speak. I can get as angry and upset and crabby as the next guy. But smiling at a person on the street makes a difference in the world. If everybody smiled at more people walking down the street the world would just be a happier place.

DP: Do you view the world with equanimity or concern?

Andrew: I’m often sitting on panels with a bunch of environmentalists and they’re talking about the end of the world as we know it. But I’m seeing progression and positive moves. So yes, it’s dire out there, doom and gloom. But I’m not sure we’d be having this conversation 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. The goalposts of society are changing. Young people get it. It’s going to be their world, the news is not good and they know it. If we can’t hold down global temperatures it’s going to be a shitstorm. 

But organisations like Wilderness Foundation Africa and Wilderness Foundation Global are having a huge effect in shifting the narrative. That’s why we’re here in South Africa with Katherine doing benefit concerts, helping in our way to grow that narrative. 

Katherine: Of course there’s heartbreak, but I think we in our way try to turn that to good. Andrew’s a romantic who believes good will win out. I can sit with that, you’re really good at it. And I go to something like the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Awards at Hampton Court Palace celebrating people who put their lives on the line for wild animals and the environment. You’re surrounded by individuals doing amazing, amazing work and you sit there and think, actually, there’s so much good in the world as well.

Andrew: I’m probably too forgiving. But I’ll tell you a story. We were creating the final scene of Minamata, with Tomoko in the bath just as Eugene Smith photographed it. Frame by frame it felt so real, in the moment, in that environment — we were all weeping. And somewhere in all of us, in the crew, was the feeling of wow, we are actually doing something as artists in this moment that’s authentic and real, close enough to one of our heroes. We were reflecting back the same principles that Smith had in that moment. And we talked about that for years afterwards. We were showing the hope, the humanity and the absolute best in what we can be as human beings in the face of the darkest, most fucked up things that we can be as a species.

jenkins levitas minamata

Tomoko in her bath by Eugene Smith, from the film ‘Minamata’. (Photo: Supplied)

DP: You both have such demanding careers. In what ways do you actively support each other?

Katherine: Andrew has been able to open my mind as an artist rather than just to see myself in singing terms. He makes me think almost like your Artists Mind classes [which he teaches at New York University], allows me to think creatively outside of that. At the beginning of my career things were so full I didn’t have space to do that. 

So I really appreciate the confidence and the support he gives me to be able to do that now. You allow and encourage me to do that, Andrew. That’s when some of the really incredible moments have happened. You’re always making something, always working on something. What’s amazing about you is your brain is so open to creativity in ways that I like. It blows my mind regularly.

Andrew: Wow, thank you Katherine! One of the great gifts of our marriage is that though we’re in different spaces, there’s the same language underneath. I am not a musician but she brings me into the studio to say what do you think of this? The things she’s asking about are the intangibles in the music and wanting my opinion on them. Just like I’m giving her scenes to read or talking about ideas. We’re watching hundreds of edits of short films and I’m, like, what do you think of that? Or here’s a 700-page book, please read this, because I need to talk about it with you. 

Having that person you utterly trust to bounce things off is amazing. I respect her so much as an artist, I feel she can explain things to me in terms that aren’t necessarily filmic. She’ll do it in a way that gives me the note I need to make my work better. I think, I hope it’s vice versa. I need to be able to talk stuff out in safe spaces. You know what? It’s a fantastic thing! A treasure. I think it’s a lot to do with being in the same sphere but in no way in competition. It’s very unlikely that I’ll ever be a better singer.

Katherine: (Laughs)

DP: Have you ever before given a concert in a wild setting like Sanbona, Katherine?

Katherine: Never! That was a first. That golden sunset…wow.

Katherine Jenkins OBE is a mezzo-soprano born in Neath, Wales, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. She has performed operatic arias, popular songs, musical theatre and hymns throughout the world and has millions of followers. Among her hundreds of performances, she sang in Westminster Cathedral honouring Pope John Paul II’s silver jubilee, before the Queen in the Royal Albert Hall, to British soldiers in Afghanistan and with Andrea Bocelli. At Universal Music, she landed the largest recording deal in classical music history. She appeared in the film Minamata and Dream Horse. Her autobiography, Time to Say Hello, was released in 2008 and was also serialised in The Mail on Sunday

Andrew Levitas is an American painter, sculptor, filmmaker, writer, producer, photographer, restaurateur and actor. In addition to a growing list of American and international gallery exhibitions, his work has been sold through top auction houses, museums and art fairs. Films he has produced or directed include Minamata (Johnny Depp, Bill Nighy, Hiroyuki Sanada), My Zoe (Julie Delpy, Daniel Brühl, Gemma Arterton, Richard Armitage), Georgetown (Christoph Waltz, Vanessa Redgrave, Annette Bening), The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes), Farming (Kate Beckinsale, Gugu Mbatha-Raw), The Gateway (Bruce Dern, Olivia Munn, Frank Grillo), Last Moment of Clarity (Samara Weaving, Udo Kier, Brian Cox), The Quarry (Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham), Flower (Zoey Deutch), At Any Price (Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron), Affluenza (Nicola Peltz) and The Art of Getting By (Emma Roberts, Freddie Highmore). He is a patron of the Wilderness Foundation Global and an ambassador of the Tusk Trust.

The concerts at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve and Shamwari Game Reserve were to honour the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Foundation Africa. BM/DM

Gallery
Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hari Seldon says:

    Thank you Don – just a wonderful article about wonderful people.

  • David Bristow says:

    Nice to be famous …. I mean you Doc, to get such invitations. It is a real privilege some of us are gifted. What a lovely and enchanting story.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    What a wonderfully warm, embracing story; it makes me wonder what more I can do to protect our fragile, and deeply at risk, World.

    And is not making us think, deeper and more broadly, what good art should do?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz