Rich daddies and easy livin'

CAPE Town Opera's acclaimed production of George Gershwin's Porgy & Bess arrives at Birmingham Hippodrome this month and Nancy Groves has been talking to the opera's managing director Michael Williams and one of its stars, Italian based soprano Tsakane Maswanganyi about the current tour.


Was there ever a song as seasonally appropriate as Summertime? Guaranteed to raise temperatures, this standard of the American songbook has been covered more than 25,000 times by artists including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin – even The Doors.

So many times, in fact, that it's easy to forget it started life as an operatic aria in George Gershwin's 1935 masterpiece, Porgy and Bess.

This summertime, however, the tune will be restored to its rightful origins by Cape Town Opera (CTO), the pioneering South African company whose triumphant version of Porgy and Bess took the UK by storm in 2009 and now returns for a six-venue tour throughout  June.

Transferring the story from the sweltering humidity of Charleston, South Carolina to the deep heat of South Africa's Western Cape, the production boasts a cast including Soweto-born soprano Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, last seen in the title role of Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Hall, and a chorus that Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph opera critic called “quite magnificent”.

Given the rapturous reviews CTO received last time round, bringing Porgy and Bess back to the UK was a no brainer, says managing director Michael Williams. He said: “It was a revelation to see how warmly the Brits took to a South African company tackling an American standard which such vigour and in such a novel fashion.

“People were taken away by our enthusiasm, the quality of our voices and the opportunities for those voices which Gershwin's score provides.”

Porgy and Bess was George Gershwin's attempt to write an opera that showcased the true depth and range of African-American voices.

Despite the beauty of his music, the concept challenged both white and black audiences alike, and for many years the opera was presented in a watered-down ‘musical' format.

Williams said: “Even by Gershwin!

“He wrote the piece to give black singers an opportunity but when it turned out that it wasn't cutting it with the opera glitterati – the mink and pearls brigade – he tried to make it into a Broadway show.”

Happily, Porgy and Bess is now a stalwart of the operatic canon and “people know they shouldn't tamper with it.”

Sibongile Mngoma (Bess) and Xolela Sixaba (Porgy) in Cape Town Opera's production of Porgy and Bess. Picture: Wayne Keet

 At least not with the music – transferring the setting is another matter, says Williams, who insists that the South African relocation is faithful to the themes and spirit of the opera. Not to mention the characters of Catfish village: beautiful but broken Bess, her brute of a boyfriend Crown, no-good drug pusher Sportin' Life and, of course, noble but crippled Porgy himself.

“If you pick up any newspaper in South Africa, you'll see the issues we deal with,” says Williams.

“First, there's the poverty – in South Africa the gap between rich and poor is the largest in the world. Then, the drugs – there are many Sportin' Lives roaming our schools and city landscapes. And finally, the male on female violence – South Africa's rape statistics are well known.”

But it's not all doom and gloom, says Williams. “In amongst all this death and misery, there is an abundance of joy to Porgy and Bess, which is what we have in this country too. You've got to realise that singing is a way of life here. We have choral competitions that last five days, every high school has two or three choirs, and when I do auditions for our ensemble, at least 500 people turn up!”

He said: “When you have a piece with so many great tunes, it's ideal for our singers. Turning life into song is very much what our people do. They sing about marriages, about death, about lovemaking, about harvesting, about buying a new car. For every significant event, there's a song.  Singing forms the patterns of people's lives here.”

Tsakane Maswanganyi agrees. “We are a nation of singers,”

The 32-year-old soprano is based in Italy but she was back on home-turf for Porgy and Bess rehearsals.

“There is something very familiar about singing this music,” she says. “I heard my own African music from when I was a tiny baby and here I am singing with my people and my nation again. It reminds me of where and who I am. It takes me back to being young and the reasons why I'm a singer.”

Maswanganyi was 13 when she first heard opera via a chance clip on TV. “I think it was La Bohème and it was just one clip, one aria, but I was mesmerised, completely taken over.”

Throughout her teenage years, she sang acapella in her local church choir, but it wasn't until university, when a friend invited her to a music masterclass, that Maswanganyi realised her calling.

CTO may have moved the setting from the Deep South port of  Charleston, South Carolina to the Western Cape but the problems and lives of the characters have hardly changed

She said:  “Opera is the highest form the voice can reach for me. Not in the sense of the highest kind of living, but in the capacity of what your voice can do when music and emotion are combined. It's so expressive and yet so composed at the same time – combining nature and art together into a more powerful form.”

Maswanganyi had to go abroad to pursue her musical career, which included an award-winning stint in best-selling opera group, Amici Forever – alongside, incidentally, Lucy Van Gasse who played Elieen in Wonderful Town at the Hippodrome in May.

Opera, once a strong tradition in South Africa, fell out of favour along with other ‘classical' art forms with the arrival of the ANC government in 1996, who withdrew public subsidy for the arts to channel much-needed funds into impoverished rural areas. Regional opera departments and orchestras folded and only Cape Town survived, thanks to the benevolence of its supporters and the leadership of Williams and his team, who fought hard to win it charitable status.  

CTO is still South Africa's only full time opera company – its nearest competitor almost a continent away in Cairo – but it works hard to spread the gospel of opera as widely as possible.We do a national tour every year to 10 different cities and the kids who do our workshops are the same kids who say, ‘We want to come and sing and audition for you',” said Williams. “We did La Bohème and every one of the soloists came through our programme. The average age on stage was 23.”

The company aims to present at least one new African work each season. Recent successes include Poet and Prophetess, a NorrlandsOperan co-production with a libretto by Williams, and Mandela Trilogy, which will be performed twice at the Wales Millennium Centre before Porgy's Cardiff dates.

 “What we strive to do is not only the European classics,” said Williams. “Do foreign audiences really want to see our version of La Bohème, or is that taking coals to Newcastle? We want to represent the miracle that is South Africa: look at what we can do here, look at the art we can produce.” And people are looking – this September, CTO will travel to Berlin at the personal invitation of Sir Simon Rattle to perform the complete Porgy and Bess with the Berlin Philharmonic.

“All this and we're a country still in our adolescence,” said Williams. “We are only 17 years old, you must remember – we're the pimply kid who drives his dad's car down the highway.

“l wonder what Gershwin would have thought of a South African cast singing his piece.”

Maswanganyi is in no doubt. “This works. Storytelling is storytelling. Once you put music to it, it's going to communicate. Porgy and Bess is from the Western world but there's nothing Western about it. This is African song, this is South African opera, and music is a universal language.”  


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