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THEATRE

Three bite-size operas offer something old, something new, something comic and something blue

Three bite-size operas offer something old, something new, something comic and something blue
'The Impresario', part of three one-hour productions in ‘Shorts: A Festival of Pocket Operas’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

Comprising three one-hour-maximum productions, Cape Town Opera’s ‘Shorts: A Festival of Pocket Operas’ is a showcase of some of the variety that exists within the genre. 

Opera today is not an easy sell. Audiences, generally, are getting older and most folks have a perception of the genre being something inaccessible, strange, foreign, belonging entirely to another era.

Like many opera companies around the world, Cape Town Opera is doing plenty to keep it alive, though. Singing is, after all, part of our lifeblood, and telling stories through music and voice is in our cultural DNA. Yet while those who get a taste of it often fall in love with opera, it is convincing people to try it out that’s often difficult.

With contrasting styles and three very different stories, CTO’s current season of shorter-than-average productions is an opportunity to sample opera without necessarily sitting through long hours of it.

Shorts: A Festival of Pocket Operas includes something serious, something hilarious and something utterly new. It covers complicated music and lighthearted melodies, chilling emotions and a few breezy, silly jokes. And it has all the traits of an experiment, even the venue — Artscape’s Arena, which locates the audience in what feels like the wings of a full-size theatre — is something of an opportunity to try out something new, fresh, alternative.

'Trial by Media', opera

‘Trial by Media’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

Trial by Media

Inescapably, the highlight is Trial by Media. It’s not only brand new and resoundingly South African, but zooms in on a gripping story that actually happened and that played out in full view of the public in recent memory: the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius.

The Conrad Asman-composed one-hour opera is also surely the most ambitious of the three pieces, with complex and sometimes difficult music, a cast of 11 singers plus the gymnastically-fingered pianist and musical director José Dias on stage, and phenomenal design that operates on so many levels: there are visual and lighting effects, projections and snippets of video, plus striking costumes. All of which enriches the drama and adds meaningfully to the opera’s extraordinary music and poignant libretto.

Brittany Smith and Van Wyk Venter, opera

Brittany Smith and Van Wyk Venter in ‘Trial by Media’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

If anything, it’s an hour so exhilarating, so fascinating and so thought-provoking that it feels slightly truncated; how fantastic it is to walk out of an opera wishing there was more.

Which is not to say that it is a very joyous or happy opera. Rather, it manages to push a lot of buttons. It is a gut-twisting hour of riveting music and high-impact stagecraft. It is smart, emotionally taut, and it is challenging. The music does not attempt to set the heart — nor the mind — at ease, but instead is fierce and fiery, and while quite beautiful in places, serves quite rightly to churn one’s insides.

It hurts in places, in fact, and nowhere more so than when baritone Van Wyk Venter transforms Oscar Pistorius’s pleas for freedom into a powerhouse aria — he sings his heart out in a gutsy expression of tenderness and full-body sorrow.

Impassioned, he lets himself go completely.

Brittany Smith

Brittany Smith as Reeva Steenkamp in ‘Trial by Media’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

When he sings about the blood, the attempts at resuscitation, the woe and terror he feels upon realising what he has done, you desperately feel yourself believing him. His tears and anguish are real and the vocal expression of that anguish is quite something to behold. It’s a devastating performance.

Later, once a verdict is handed down, there are glimmers of something else, a reminder perhaps that all those compelling, convincing emotional outpourings might well have been a desperate man simply doing his utmost to keep himself out of prison, because — as he tells the court — he doesn’t want his life to go to waste.

The entire opera winds you up, in fact, so that there is a coil-like tension that stays with you throughout; tremendous, too, is that sense of teetering on a knife’s edge, the music holding you there, just keeping you from falling.

Brittany Smith who plays a kind of introspective Reeva Steenkamp performs the role with just the right amount of wistfulness. She is a ghostly reminiscence, a character from the afterlife who is capable of self-reflection, who grapples with her own composition, tries to make sense of the traces of herself that she left behind. Smith plays her with grace and with a kind of mournfulness that urges us to recognise her as someone other than the beautiful model, to recognise that here was a real human being who was also caught up in a reality fabricated by the public imagination and by social media.

Van Wyk Venter

Van Wyk Venter as Oscar Pistorius in ‘Trial by Media’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

Asman’s score is marvellously multifaceted. At times agitated and angry, at times wistful and light, this strange, dynamic music also grips the audience in riveting scenes when the two opposing attorneys are sparring with their words, and you feel it building and building like something out of a cinematic thriller that keeps one on the edge of your seat.

There is music even in the sound of the harrowed judge banging her gavel in an attempt to silence the incessant noise that comes from the public gallery. There, a chorus of compulsive online scrollers, clickers, photographers and commentators sing their opinions, driving the poor judge to distraction. The opera may be about the murder case and how it plays out in court but it is also about the manner in which the media and ever-pervasive social media have infiltrated every sphere of our existence: even our courts.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA’s divas soar in Cape Town as Operalia in Africa for first time

La voix humaine

While Trial by Media is an intense look at the blurred line between public and private realms, Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine (The Human Voice) is an examination of the conflict and fuzzy dissonance between what is real and what is going on in the mind of its only character. The French opera, based on a play originally written by Jean Cocteau in 1928, is a single monologue, sung by a woman speaking to her former lover on the phone. She is, however, an actress, and therefore both a convincing liar and adept at emotional earnestness.

'The Human Voice', opera

Janelle Visagie in ‘The Human Voice’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

It, too, has uncomfortable music, Poulenc evidently not interested in letting his audience off the hook, not even for a moment.

Janelle Visagie

Janelle Visagie in a scene from ‘The Human Voice’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

Compounding the sense of dread, loneliness and ill-ease, the production includes technical glitches and bits of interference. The call is every so often cut off and, this being an age of telephone party lines, there are even random strangers who end up on the other end of the line.

Like Trial by Media, Poulenc’s opera takes us on a discombobulating emotional ride, and one never knows if what you’re witnessing is a descent into madness, a confession, or simply an elaborate performance. Perhaps what we’re witnessing is a woman on the verge of, well, oblivion.

The Impresario

In an entirely different register is The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor), an English adaptation of a lighthearted Mozart mini-opera that was originally performed in 1786 as part of an artistic “battle” arranged by Emperor Joseph II: guests at a private luncheon were tasked with watching Mozart’s German comic opera at one end of a room and an Italian opera buffa by Antonio Salieri at the other end, the idea being for them to judge which work was best.

'The Impresario', opera

A scene from ‘The Impresario’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

The Impresario is not opera as we might expect, but rather a so-called singspiel, which comprises lengthy acted scenes interspersed with songs. The latter are wonderfully uplifting, filled with beautiful vocal flourishes. The acted scenes, while funny and highly accessible, are a little long-winded.

Described as a “parody on the vanity of singers”, the original text (by the Austrian playwright and librettist Gottlieb Stephanie) has been liberally and considerably adapted, relocated to modern-day Cape Town with up-to-date references that include everything from Eskom to our local currency. It’s also had characters cut and some of the overblown action removed. It might have benefitted from much more cutting, in fact.

'The Impresario'

A scene from ‘The Impresario’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

The in-your-face jokes revolve around the merits and economic feasibility of keeping an opera company afloat. It’s a costly business, of course, and so the story centres on the idea of a rich playboy-type benefactor coughing up the cash to fund the company on condition that each of his two lovers — rival singers, one experienced, one an up-and-coming virtuoso — be permitted to join the company as headline stars.

This, of course, becomes a source of mirth and ribald, and the idea is milked from a variety of angles. It’s a parody, and by contemporary standards not especially sophisticated, the lengthy dialogue tending towards overstatement.

Still, it does the trick: if you have any fear of not “getting” opera, this one — entirely in English — will probably change your mind. It’s also a demonstration that opera is no one-trick pony, that it is not merely some highfalutin, highbrow genre — it can be a lot of fun, too.

A scene from ‘The Impresario’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

On the downside, the acting is a touch cumbersome; the real trick might have been to have more music and singing, less chit-chat.

But perhaps that’s simply a matter of taste: the audience on the night I watched it buzzed with laughter, the singing was sensational, and Mozart’s genius oozed from the piano.

If you’ve ever had any doubts about whether or not opera is for you, a couple of these bite-size operas might be just the place to find out. DM

Cape Town Opera’s Shorts: A Festival of Pocket Operas runs until 21 April at Artscape’s Arena Theatre in Cape Town. Tickets from Webtickets.

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