Interview Africa Melane talks about Cape Town Opera during Covid – and the excitement around Così fan tutte – the 1st live on stage, CTO production, during the pandemic

Cape Town Opera presents Così fan tutte at the Baxter Theatre, October 2020 – live on stage

Dates: October 28, 29, 30 at 7pm; October 31 at 3pm

Tickets prices: R150-R275


“Business unusual”, is how Africa Melane describes his tenure as interim managing director of Cape Town Opera (CTO) during the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown, in South Africa. Melane is thrilled that the CTO is able to pivot back into a theatre and perform in front of an audience with Mozart’s Così fan tutte which is on for four performances at the Baxter Theatre on October 28, 29, 30 (starts 7pm) and October 31 (starts 3pm), 2020. There will be two casts. The production is a collaboration between Cape Town Opera and UCT School of Opera. Jeremy Silver will conduct The UCT Symphony Orchestra. Costume and set design is by Michael Mitchell. Lighting design is by Kobus Rossouw.

Covid safety protocols will be strictly in place at the Baxter– masks, sanitiser etc. It will be ‘opera unusual’– masked audience and masked orchestra in the pit. Mindful that the virus is still with us and that it is not prudent for health compromised people to attend live performance, Melane says that CTO will be filming both casts – live – in the theatre. In addition to health and safety concerns, Melane points out that many people have been impacted by the pandemic and income loss and cannot afford to buy a ticket. By making opera available as video-on-demand (VOD), a group of people may enjoy the production at a later date – either on the CTO YouTube channel or on another platform which requires a ticket purchase.

It is the company’s commitment to artistic excellence, innovation, community access and development which sparked Melane’s interest in CTO. Melane was inspired through the experience of a friend who was a member of the Cape Town Chorus. Lacking the funds to study at a tertiary institution, he auditioned, was accepted and trained with CTO. That led him to have an exciting opera career in SA. He toured abroad with the company. In addition to being empowered artistically, he was able to purchase a home for his grandmother in Gugulethu. Cape Town Opera literally changed the trajectory of his life. Through his voice, a world opened.  Melane’s was intrigued and began to attend the opera. He was smitten. Through his work as a talk show host for Cape Talk and 702 in Gauteng, he has interviewed theatre makers. He is an ardent supporter of the arts.  However, within the ambit of the arts, Cape Town Opera -was – and – is a stand out for Melane.

Inspired by his friend’s life changing experience, he did not miss an opera performance. He was captivated by the company’s unique take on opera – voice, staging, design and choreography. The CTO repertoire includes classical operas, commissioned original works and musicals. I put it to Melane that there is an African aesthetic and approach which reflects that CTO is an opera company working in Africa. This may be conveyed through costumes, inclusion of instruments from the continent, choreography and voice. CTO surtitles include isiXhosa translations, along with English. You may be watching a Eurocentric classical opera, sung in Italian and set in period but the isiXhosa immediately shifts the libretto into Africa. Melane concurs and muses that there is something distinctive to opera voice in SA. He quotes the legendary opera singer and teacher, Professor Virginal Davids. Melane: “Professor Davids says that there is a particular timbre that a South African singer offers. If you look at just about every major opera company overseas, a SA singer is part of the company.”

The CTO took note of his interest and six years ago, Melane was invited to become a member of board. Three years ago, he took on the role as vice chair. When he took up the temporary position as interim MD in July 2020, he vacated his vice chair perch but after handover to Alexander Gabriel, the new MD on November 1, 2020, he will once again become vice chair. As interim MD, Melane has had the opportunity to use the skills that he acquired from his accountancy degree at UCT. It has been back to spread sheets and financials. The outgoing CTO MD, Elise Brunelle put in place sponsorships and partnerships which enables the company to be self-sustaining. Brunelle recently relocated back to the USA – her home country – with her family. With the lockdown and no income from ticket sales, remarkably the company did not have to retrench any of its artists and that is testament to Brunelle’s stewardship. During lockdown, Melane has been there as interim MD, making sure that the operational aspects were not interrupted. In addition to the financials and keeping the balance sheets in order, he was very much involved in putting in place interventions to assist the artists.  “As a company, we needed to develop a new set of skills and we have done so behind closed doors. For instance, tablets and data were issued so that classes and rehearsals could continue during hard lockdown.”  When lockdown was eased, it was back to work; rolling out Cape Town Opera at Home projects.

This month, one of these projects, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is premiering on DSTV’s kykNET, October 11, 2020. CTO brought together a power team of creative to work on this production, such as acclaimed South African choreographer, Mthuthuzeli November who is currently based in London. Behind closed doors, CTO has been very much focussed on continuing to create innovative opera and its selection of Stabat Mater was deliberate – an opportunity to explore the “emotional and artistic response to the COVID-19 pandemic”  See below for details regarding the première of Stabat Mater.

As for Così fan tutte, the CTO was proceeding with rehearsals –and hoping for the best outcome. Melane: “Every year we do a collaboration with UCT School of Opera. Our intention was to go ahead and perform – even if we didn’t have an audience. This production features CTO’s Young artists and the graduating class at UCT Opera School. Every year, we showcase their work. Following the level 1 regulations and with the Baxter’s and UCT’s support, we agreed that we would be selling tickets for the performance. The main theatre at Baxter is a 600 plus seater. My understanding is that we can have 310 seats. The music on its own is wonderful. When you have an audience, that takes the performance to a different place. We are very excited. I cannot wait to see live opera again on a main stage. There have been adjustments in staging the opera –physical distancing where possible for performers. Conductor Jeremy Silver is conducting musicians from UCT Symphony Orchestra. Jeremy has reduced the number of players in the pit to make sure that there is enough space between each artist for social/physical distancing. All those involved are being closely monitored with temperature and other checks.”

Regarding The Cape Town Opera 2021 season, it will be “business unusual”, until the pandemic ceases. No one can say when that will happen. Yes, there is a CTO programme and rehearsals are under way for several productions but as to whether they will be staged, that depends on lockdown regulations, which may change at any point. Going forward, we are likely to have a hybrid CTO – live performance to a socially distanced audience and high quality filming of the productions for broadcast as VOD. Melane: “Capetonians are eager to go into the theatre. Almost on a daily basis – we are receiving calls –‘when can we see a live show’.” And there is the contingent of visitors who escape the winter in Europe and USA who love CTO. They want to know to what expect- what will be on the CTO stage. The answer: The CTO is at work. It is going to be very much about releasing tickets a few weeks prior, rather than months in advance. It is hoped that the company will be able to perform at Artscape in early 2021. The CTO is adopting a flexible approach. Melane: “This production of Così fan tutte was scheduled for August and has been pushed out to the end of October. No one in March expected us to be in lockdown for six months and here we are ready to get going. It is exciting to be back in theatre with opera. These are stories which are relevant to all of us. We all fall in love. We are all disappointed. They are human stories.“

Così fan tutte is sponsored by the City of Cape Town, Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport and the Rupert Music Foundation. 

Cape Town Opera at Home –  October 2020

  • Stabat Mater – October 11, 2020 – KykNET – channel 144 (at 10.30)am and KykNET Nou! channel 146 (at noon) on October 11, 2020

Cape Town Opera in collaboration with KykNET, Cape Town City Ballet, Camerata Tinta Barocca and Wyrd Films presents Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Choreography is by renowned South African, Mthuthuzeli November who is currently based in London. The City of Cape Town and the Rupert Music Foundation supported this project. This project was conceptualised by Cape Town Opera as “an emotional and artistic response to the COVID-19 pandemic” and was filmed for the digital stage – to make this opera accessible for audiences watching at home- in South Africa and internationally. This opera was deliberately chosen to reflect on the times that we find observes in these challenging times. At the nub of this opera is the suffering of Mary at the Crucifixion and that interfaces with our grief and despair triggered by the pandemic

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Image credit: Photo of Africa Melane, courtesy of Cape Talk. Supplied.