FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC
By Nadia Essop
Miss Pretty Yende won the World Opera Competition, Operalia 2011. Operalia is an annual event that attracts hundreds of hopefuls from across the world. The soprano triumphed in 3 categories! Pretty Yende is a South African – she is of Zulu ancestry.
One may wonder what the colour of her skin, her small town roots, or her cultural heritage have to do with her credibility as an opera singer. Nothing… Except perhaps, as reason to pause and reflect on our South African musical past. During Apartheid it was undoubtedly a different experience for gifted young singers, as well as for members of the audience.
My mother loves to reminisce about the ‘good old days’, how she would endure the 60 km expedition from Paarl to Cape Town, to attend the opera. The train journey would involve a segregated ticket office, a segregated pedestrian bridge, and separate carriages according to the colour of one’s skin. She would sit in the gallery of the Cape TownCity Hall, mesmerised by the music, the sets, and the unfolding drama. But her reminiscence invariably concludes with the same recollection: how, at the end of a performance, she was approached by a stranger, who was astounded that someone like herself – a person from a different culture and race – could appreciate classical music. All these years later, she still mutters and shakes her head in disbelief.
When my mother was young, classical music and musical instruments were considered a status symbol, a privilege which few people from our side of town could afford. But our community was not bereft of musical talent. I recently went to visit the retired tenor, Mr Gerald Samaai, at his home in casino online thePaarlValley. His wife, Serena, hauled out albums bulging with photographs and newspaper cuttings. We were ready for a saunter down memory lane.
As a young man, Gerald Samaai went to Johannesburgto pursue studies towards a teachers diploma – a sensible career choice. But fate had other plans. Music teacher Stenck Grijzenhout was walking past the dorm one morning, when he heard singing emanate from the showers. He offered Gerald Samaai singing lessons.
It was 1959, the Apartheid era. Being talented and passionate about singing was not enough. As a coloured opera singer, the pursuit of his dream would involve an obstacle course of discriminatory laws. Even so, Gerald Samaai embraced his vocal training.
Once back in theCape, he joined a cultural organization based in District Six, the Eoan group. He would travel from Paarl toCape Townfor rehearsals, usually after work or over weekends. Nobody was compensated for travelling expenses, and neither were they paid for performances. Referring to the Eoan membership fee, he chuckles, “we were the only singers who had to pay to sing!”
Furthermore, few venues were available to them because of Apartheid policies governing group areas, freedom of movement, and the mingling of the races. They often staged productions at theCape TownCity Hall, a barrier segregating the audience. But there’s no trace of self-pity, “ Dr Joseph Manca, our musical director, and Alessandro Rota, our vocal trainer, urged us to get ready, to push harder. We did not refer to themselves as ‘coloured singers’, rather as ‘excellent singers’”.
Both Joseph Manca and Alessandro Rota were of Italian descent, and at times the singers costumes were made in Italy, and sent to South Africa time for their performance.
Emerging artists of any era have a difficult time launching their careers, and talent is hardly enough to guarantee success. But the obstacles facing artists during Apartheid must have been disheartening. During its 79 year existence the Eoan group has had to navigate the ever-changing political landscape and its challenges, as well as how Eoan is perceived and received by the community they had set out to serve.
When asked why he persevered, Gerald Samaai replies, “for the love of music.” His diligence bore fruit, and he performed all overSouth Africa: Verdi’s La Traviata, Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, Verdi’s Rigoletto. He sang his way toAberdeenandLondon, and he always flew home again, to Paarl.
Although much is left to be desired – such as adequate state funding for the arts -South Africa has changed, we have come a long way. Pretty Yende’s costumes are probably also sewn inItaly – she is currently a resident singer at La Scala Opera inMilan,Italy. In a world of possibilities one wonders, whether in time, she too will fly home again to South Africa.
11 January 2012