Opinionista Sandile Mabaso 4 September 2016

Black Bodies at the Opera

The excrement was everywhere to be seen when I heard, from a variety of people, that there was a dispute between Cape Town Opera chorus members who participated in this production and the company’s management. This is not an isolated incident.

I smelt a rat when I heard about Cape Town Opera’s award-winning opera chorus travelling to the Aix-en-Provence Festival to sing Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. Surely, a piece with more than a few pages for the chorus to sing would’ve made sense.

I quickly dismissed my reservations for this trip. After all, this was an international work opportunity for singers based in Cape Town. This appearance would be valuable exposure for South Africa’s premier opera company. It may lead to future appearances for the company and result in more work for singers.

The stench grew when I heard about the production.

The director, Christophe Honoré, set the action of this piece in 1938 Eritrea when the country was an Italian colony. He used singers from Cape Town Opera, all of them black, to portray the horrific degradation of black people at that time. The depictions must ave been too explicit for certain audiences. A warning was given to audiences at the Edinburgh Festival, another showcase where the production would be presented, that the production may be offensive. The tickets were refunded for patrons who wanted their money back after this warning.

A friend, who attended a performance in France, recalled an audience member screaming, several times, to express her disgust during the offensive bits. As a little extra, Ferrando and Guglielmo – the two male protagonists – apply blackface when they disguise themselves as the Albanians.

This production seems like another insensitive use of black bodies and black pain for the entertainment of white people.

The excrement was everywhere to be seen when I heard, from a variety of people, that there was a dispute between the Cape Town Opera chorus members who participated in this production and the company’s management. This is not an isolated incident. In this instance, the chorus members discovered that they’d been paid far less than their French counterparts.

In the end, the singers have been fired from Cape Town Opera and the company plans to sue them for the money they earned at the French festival. Cape Town Opera wanted to send another group of singers to participate in the performances at Edinburgh. However, the European production team offered contracts to the original singers without the involvement of Cape Town Opera.

I’m doubtful that this whole endeavour has benefited the black singers who participated in this production or the current project to create a just South Africa. The black singers will earn better wages after they’ve performed in the other cities where this production will show. But, what will happen when the life of this production ends? They’ve small chance of being hired again because they’re “troublesome”.

The use of black bodies in the way they’ve done in this production is the easiest and most superficial way to address colonialism and its consequences. It will not yield good results. I’m not convinced of its necessity in this opera.

The real benefactors are white opera managements in South Africa and the world. They will receive praise for bringing important conversations to the opera house, nurturing opera in South Africa and their “cutting edge” productions. This whole exercise will help propel them to their next project. DM

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