Interview: Classically trained pianist Germaine Gamiet imbues the award winning Vincent, the cabaret, with beautifully nuanced musicality and he combines his performance work on stage with his day job in arts management

Vincent – the Cabaret- on tour in South Africa

Next season: November 10-19, 2022 in the Artscape Arena, Cape Town
Booking link for Artscape November 2022:
Performers: Daniel Anderson (vocals) and (piano)
Writer/director: Amanda Bothma
Musical direction: Jacques Du Plessis, Germaine Gamiet and Amanda Bothma
Producer: Wêla Kapela Productions

I saw Vincent – the Cabaret – at the 2022 National Arts Festival [NAF] in Makhanda and was blown away by the Daniel Anderson singing his way through Vincent van Gogh’s story. I was also bowled over by Germaine Gamiet on piano. His role had been described as ‘piano accompaniment’ but he delivers much more than that. It is like Vincent – the Concert. Pictures and images make us ‘feel’- beyond words. In Vincent, the piano heightens the intensity of the art of Vincent van Gogh which was shaped by his struggles – mental health, relationships and career. A lot of that cannot be ‘described’ by words. The presence of the classically trained Germaine Gamiet at the piano, makes Vincent – The Cabaret – a sonorous experience. Vincent received a Bronze Standard Bank Ovation Award at NAF- a worthy recipient of this award.

I was intrigued to find out that not only did Gamiet study at UCT at the South African College of Music, under the renowned Franklin Larey, where he received a Bachelor of Music [Western Classical Performance], but he also has a Masters degree in arts management from University of Oregon in the USA. He received his Masters as a Fulbright Scholar. Yes, a Fulbright. This unassuming artist (it took way into the interview, for the Fulbright to be mentioned, by the way), combines performance on stage with arts management. He is the programme manager for the Johannesburg branch of Pro Helvetia, The Swiss Arts Council. Bravo to Wêla Kapela Productions, based in East London for creating shows of excellence and for providing a performance platform for artists like Germaine Gamiet.

Award winning Vincent

Vincent recently won a Bronze Ovation Award at NAF 2022. You are the pianist and musical director and arranged the music? Did you have input in the process of selecting the songs- with Amanda Bothma and Daniel Anderson- and the sequencing of the songs to particular parts in the narrative?

Germaine Gamiet: I share the role of pianist and musical director with Jacques du Plessis. But yes, I had the very favourable opportunity to work with Daniel for our presentation at NAF 2022. Amanda and Daniel masterfully constructed the frame of the cabarets, research, plot and planning of the synchronising of story and song. As pianist and musical director, my role is to bring to life the character of individual songs, the transitions, and generally to provide accompaniment in a seamlessly complimentary manner. In the workshop space, Amanda’s approach is collaborative. Daniel arrives thoroughly prepared with internalised historical context and clear ideas of interpretation, both contributing to my ability to explore how to imaginatively link, place, and shape the presentation of these beautiful songs.

Creating a musical soundtrack and landscape for a legendary artist

Daniel remarked how Vincent the cabaret is about a visual artist. It is not a cabaret about a singer like Eva Cassidy or Judy Garland. One wouldn’t necessarily think of Vincent as a cabaret and yet you and the team pulled it off spectacularly. I watched and said to Amanda Bothma of Wêla Kapela- afterwards – “who is THAT on the piano”. You and your piano are like another character in the cabaret of Vincent and it is a sense a piece of musical theatre – on a small scale – but that is what it comes across for me?

Germaine Gamiet: There is always the potential for tension between the accompanist who creates together with, as opposed to the accompanist who is vying to outshine their collaborator. I’ve always preferred working alongside other musicians to make the magic. I love knowing that the placement of every single note I play alongside that which the singer delivers, every pause, contributes to illuminating the story, and that in fact each collaborator is intrinsic for the presentation of the work. There are so many incredible accompanists in South Africa that I’ve had the privilege to model, and I draw from them in my playing.

Genres and definitions sometime complicate and uncomfortably box what a work is. Vincent isn’t wholly one or the other in terms of the musical theatre smorgasbord. I experience this show as such a deeply personal expression of each of the creatives involved, in response to Vincent’s work, his loves, his heart and his struggle. There are often moments in the show when I have to remind myself to take a breath, because as much as I’m concentrating on the placement of each note, and the ensemble with Daniel, the story is quite demanding. While there is so much yearning in the telling of these aspects of his life, which could dissuade one in need of escapism, it gently normalises what so many of us have and are experiencing in life.

Digital nomad- juggling stage performance and arts and policy management

You work for Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, The Swiss Arts Council, as the programme manager for Southern Africa. You live in Cape Town. You were in Makhanda, at NAF. Vincent has been touring. You are a veritable digital nomad?

Germaine Gamiet: Yes, I am a digital nomad. As long as there is good internet, I’m open for business. Pro Helvetia Johannesburg has a decentralised office so I have colleagues in Kampala, Lagos, and spread across South Africa. I’ve been quite fortunate that my employer sees the value in me being engaged in the facets of art making that are so crucial for my holistic well-being, and ultimately makes me a more inspired contributor in my administrative work life. We moved to Cape Town because my wife, Yentl, specialised as a paediatric surgeon at in Johannesburg, at WITS and then she got a post at Red Cross which is how we landed up in Cape Town. We are from East London.

My work in arts administration is all encompassing, but is so interesting, and so relevant. I work with a dynamic group of people and artists of quite exceptional ability and vision. It is an inspired space. On its own, administration can make one dull, so seeking out the ‘other’ hat is integral. Most of my engagement as a performer in the last two years has been with the Wêla Kapela team, specifically working on cabarets with Daniel Anderson. Daniel is probably one of the hardest working artists I have ever worked with, which means that when we arrive at rehearsals, he has done his work and I have done mine. The value of time is a shared concept among the team, and makes it possible for me to ‘juggle’ both hats. 

Fulbright – social and economic development

Circling back to your work in arts administration at Pro Helvetia, what was your thesis on for your masters in arts management from University of Oregon?

Germaine Gamiet: I looked at the policy dimensions of social and economic development at the local government level, with the arts as the mechanism. I looked at good practices in the Pacific Northwest, and test and explored similar dimensions in South Africa

Life journey- discovering the piano at the age of ten

Do you come from a musically inclined family? How old were you when you started piano and what drew you to the piano?

Germaine Gamiet: I was born and raised in East London and have always had a yearning to be in the Eastern Cape ever since leaving for UCT in the early 2000s, so I manage to create touch points as the seasons go. I’ve taught at primary, high school and university level in East London and also met my wife [a fellow East Londoner] while doing a production of Evita at the Guild Theatre.  I am the child of two school teachers. My mother was also drum majorette coach, and my father loves singing, so there was always music in the house. When I was 10 years old my grandparents moved to East London and brought my mother’s childhood piano along with them, it signalled the beginning of a magical journey for me.

Working with Wêla Kapela

How did you get involved with working on Wêla Kapela shows? And what is on the cards for the rest of 2022, with the stage?

Germaine Gamiet: “I have collaborated with Amanda on an array of projects since 2007. I moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg last year [2021] and serendipitously Wêla Kapela presented its first season in Cape Town and Amanda invited me to join the production of Mad about the Boys [starring Daniel Anderson]. It was an absolute blast to play in Wêla Kapela’s production of the musical, Once on this Island, shortly after NAF. Regarding what is next, when you have a full time day job and a young family, to give the commitment required for big musical theatre projects can be challenging. For the moment I’m sticking to small format productions and looking forward to working on a piano duet project with Jacques du Plessis and of course 2023 will yield a new cabaret from the Wêla Kapela team. We have a two week run of Vincent at Artscape, this November [2022], and that closes out my 2022 performance calendar.

National Arts Festival: Team Vincent – the Cabaret– in the Beethoven Room, at National Arts Festival 2022- Amanda Bothma (producer/director of Wêla Kapela Productions), Daniel Anderson (performer in Vincent) and Germaine Gamiet (pianist – Vincent). NAF is the largest arts festival on the African continent. Vincent won a Bronze Standard Bank Ovation Award at NAF. Pic © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

✳ This interview has been marginally edited for length and clarity. Featured image supplied by Germaine Gamiet.