Opera interview: Matthew Wild talks about curating the innovative and exciting, Cape Town Opera 2021 season

In the pandemic, the challenges of working in live performance are staggering: Will there be another wave and harder-lockdown? Will there be an audience in attendance or streaming only? There are many variables and in opera, staging logistics are heightened with the sheer numbers of orchestra and company. Undaunted, Cape Town Opera’s artistic director Matthew Wild has curated a thrilling Cape Town Opera Season 2021. The season includes a newly commissioned South African opera, grappling with the blight of Gender Based Violence and collaborations with South African based, visual artists such as Roger Ballen and Shakil Solanki.  Wild is outgoing artistic director of the opera company and for his last year of tenure, with his signature theatrical verve and passion, he has put together a season which is innovative and exciting; daring and brave. It is about embracing opera during the pandemic and igniting themes, ideas, stories – which will engage us, make us reflect; entertain and transport us through voice, music, images and movement.

TheCapeRobyn: How have you factored in the uncertainty of Covid, in curating The Cape Town Opera 2021 season?

Matthew Wild: The planning for the entire 2021 season has got some in-built flexibility, which we hope will be resilient through the course of this unpredictable year, with the developments in the pandemic. For all our projects in the 2021, we have fall-back plans: Scenario B, Scenario C and Scenario D. For example, Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine was initially going to be a live performance and we had to pivot, quite quickly into a filmed production when it became clear that we were not going to be able to have audience in St George’s Cathedral in mid-February. Going forward into 2021, if it is not possible to let in an audience, some projects may end up going onto film. We have fall-back periods in the schedule, so it could be possible to shift a staging by a month or two.

TheCapeRobyn: Can you tell us about the extensive and exciting collaboration with visual artists for The Cape Town Opera Season 2021?

Matthew Wild: Yes, there is absolutely a collaboration with visual artists for the 2021 season. This is taking place in two ways: Productions in which we are working with visual artists and in which their contributions will be visible on stage. The second way is through our communications campaign for the year. In the first category: Hänsel und Gretel and The Pearl Fishers. We are doing The Pearl Fishers, in concert.  Michael Mitchell is designing the basic environment and costumes. Within that environment, we are going to have huge spectacular, projected imagery by the wonderful young Cape Town artist, Shakil Solanki. He draws inspiration from his Hindu upbringing and from classical art and images from the East. I think that there is going to be an absolutely wonderful dialogue with Shakil’s illustrations and the fascinating South Asian fantasia that is Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

TheCapeRobyn: Amagokra is a new commission by Cape Town Opera which grapples with the scourge of Gender Based Violence and you have paired this new South African opera with Britten’s Curlew River. How did this innovative double bill come about?

Matthew Wild: Amagokra [‘Heroes’] was scheduled to premiere in our 2020 season, in May, but we had to postpone in the ‘early days’ of the pandemic. It is going to be a very topical, hard-hitting, unflinching look at Gender Based Violence [GBV] in South Africa and the resilience that South African women are showing in the face of the scourge of GBV. The concept has remained unchanged since last year and we look forward to premiering the production at the Novalis Ubuntu Institute.

We actually started off with the idea of the Benjamin Britten piece which is described as a church parable, rather than an opera. It is very compact in scale. It is based on a Japanese Noh play and essentially focusses around the suffering of a woman who is searching for her son. In the style of a Japanese Noh play, it is written for an all-male cast. A tenor sings the central role of the ‘madwoman’. This was something that Britten wrote for his life partner, Peter Pears, to perform. We sat down, some years ago, with Jeremy Silver of the UCT Opera School. We thought that it would be wonderful if we could have a new South African commission to pair with Curlew River. It seemed natural that we would do something with an all-female cast, as a companion piece for Curlew River. We wanted to do something which has small instrumental resources. Our feeling was that it was really important to tackle a topic which is very relevant and very real and up-to-date for the students who are going to be performing the piece. We approached Sibusiso Njeza and Asanda Chuma Sopotela to work together on the piece and they came back to us quite quickly with an idea about a piece which would really tackle GBV- head-on.  Amagokra will be directed by Christine Crouse.      

TheCapeRobyn:  In June 2021, you have the dream team of Vuvu Mpofu, Lukhanyo Moyake and Jan Latham-Koenig (UK) will headline three concert performances of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Insights into this production which sounds amazing?

Matthew Wild:  We are so delighted to have this incredible team, joining us for The Pearl Fishers. It is such gorgeous, sensual, intoxicating music which we haven’t heard in Cape Town for a long time. Most singers in the world are still in the midst of hiatus with most theatres closed so that has helped us assemble on fairly short notice an exceptional cast of singers for the production. Cape Town audiences are going to be over the moon to have the chance to have Vuvu Mpofu, back on stage in Cape Town, before she heads back to engagements in Europe, from September onwards. This will be the first time that Lukhanyo Moyake is back on stage, since his very successful seasons at the Wiener Staatsoper. Jan Latham-Koenig is an absolute star maestro, based in London. He is a hugely respected and admired figure with a very extensive discography. I expect that many members of the Cape Town audience will own some of his excellent recordings and we are really looking forward to hosting his South African debut in that concert.

TheCapeRobyn: From September to October 2021, La bohème will go on regional tour, under the helm of Cape Town Opera’s new artistic director, the British director Michael Hunt. Is this the same La bohème, we saw, directed by you in February 2020?

Matthew Wild:  The touring La bohème which Michael Hunt will be directing is going to be an all new project so it will be unconnected to the La bohème, staged at beginning of 2020, just before the pandemic kicked in. This is part of a big new initiative which Michael Hunt is spear heading, to engage in more national touring, throughout South Africa, with compact productions.

TheCapeRobyn:  Up next is Hänsel und Gretel, Easter 2021. It was on the programme for 2020, but wasn’t staged because of lockdown. Any significant changes to the production?

Matthew Wild: The Hänsel und Gretel production is the exact concept as conceptualised for late 2020. The major aspect that has changed is that we decided to move it from The Artscape Theatre to Artscape Opera House, which allows us to have a bigger orchestra- 34 socially distanced players. We took the decision to expand the sets in order for the production to go into the Opera House. The concept has been developed by Alessandro Talevi with artist Roger Ballen and Roger’s creative director Marguerite Rossouw; with lighting design by Kobus Rossouw and maestro Kazem Abduallah conducts the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra.The team has used the themes; the pre-occupations; the methods of Roger’s artistic practice and applied them to this fairy tale.

NOTE: As of writing, March 2021, there is a limit of 100 seats at each performance and bookings are essential. Subscribe to Cape Town Opera, to receive booking alerts at www.capetownopera.co.za

Matthew Wild – the outgoing artistic director of Cape Town Opera has curated an exciting programme for Cape Town Opera Season 2021. Supplied.

Image credits. Supplied. Featured image: Self portrait by Buhlebezwe Siwani.