Survival of note: Gauteng Opera artistic director and tenor Phenye Modiane, who is performing in the VerdiOpera Gala and in Cosi fan tutte in 2019, is one of the people keeping the company afloat. Picture: CLINTON LUBBE
Survival of note: Gauteng Opera artistic director and tenor Phenye Modiane, who is performing in the VerdiOpera Gala and in Cosi fan tutte in 2019, is one of the people keeping the company afloat. Picture: CLINTON LUBBE

The curtain that closed with heavy finality in March following the farewell performance by Gauteng Opera has been yanked back again for an encore as the feisty company refuses to be silenced.

Last-minute donations and some requests for performances at retirement homes have kept the company afloat, but singing to the aged or the converted won’t pay the bills for long, so Gauteng Opera recently staged the showcase event Opera For Everybody to encourage event organisers and companies to book performances or sponsor them.

The slogan didn’t sound convincing. "Opera for everyone except me," I thought, as I entered Tin Town Theatre in grimy Ferreirasdorp where Gauteng Opera is based. When they began to sing, however, I had goosebumps.

Besides artistic director Phenye Modiane, the singers were all trainees or interns, yet they sounded world-class. One of them, Solly Motaung, will join a company in London in 2019.

Gauteng Opera CEO Arnold Cloete says the company’s demise had always been staved off by ad hoc sponsorships or by performing for donations — until the cash ran out. A few days after their closure in March, they regrouped for a concert at a retirement home.

"We told them we were so desperate we’ll sing for anything, but R10,000 would at least pay the singers," Cloete says. "That night we made R42,000 because people were really getting emotional. That started us singing in retirement centres and it’s basically saved us."

More donations have allowed the six trainees and two interns to receive their daily lessons at Tin Town Theatre where they’re learning to become top-notch performers.

Most are from disadvantaged backgrounds and several come from poor Eastern Cape communities. They earned their places after tough auditions, and receive a stipend towards their living expenses.

Some are now being supported through one of the innovative fund-raising ideas devised by Cloete and Modiane.

The Adopt An Artist scheme allows sponsors to pick their favourite performer and pay them R3,000 a month so they can focus on their art rather than worry about the rent.

The adoptee and a pianist will perform at an event of the sponsor’s choice, and their patron is invited to all their concerts.

Gauteng Opera has also repackaged their productions to range from full-scale operas to concerts of selected highlights to tempt novice audiences.

"We’ll never survive if we just perform Puccini or Verdi, so we’ve moved on to Andrea Bocelli and Il Divo, who have made light classical music more popular," says Cloete. "A purist will say that’s far from opera, but for me it’s more important that we present quality singing."

It’s such a demanding art form that you can’t have a singer doing eight performances a week, it’s too strenuous on the voice. Operas are also written for an orchestra of maybe 60 musicians, whereas a musical can get away with a band of five
Arnold Cloete

People can also hire the singers for events such as year-end functions. Their new Opera on the Go programme organises performances in townships to reach new audiences.

Opera’s dwindling fan base is exacerbated by a lack of government funding for the arts and a cutback of arts coverage in newspapers. But shrinking support is a global problem.

"Opera is struggling in other countries as much as we are. There’s the Metropolitan and La Scala, but hundreds of smaller houses are closing down.

"It’s an art form that the people who love it love very much, but that group is getting smaller," Cloete says.

Presenting an opera is also an expensive undertaking. "Opera doesn’t work like musicals where you can do 10,000 performances," Cloete adds.

"It’s such a demanding art form that you can’t have a singer doing eight performances a week, it’s too strenuous on the voice. Operas are also written for an orchestra of maybe 60 musicians, whereas a musical can get away with a band of five," he says.

Modiane, 34, began his career by singing in church and school choirs and had never heard an opera until a teacher asked him to represent his school in a competition by singing an aria from Mozart. Now he spends his time fund-raising, performing, coaching students and planning concerts for 2019, in the hope they will actually materialise.

His ambition is to join a European company, but he’s loath to leave Gauteng Opera while he’s one of the two main people keeping it afloat.

"I want to be on stage in Europe but don’t want to leave the company in a bad state — I want to be able to say I’ve done a good job," he says.

As Gauteng Opera has its own theatre, it doesn’t need to raise money to perform there, Modiane says.

Having their own theatre also teaches the artists how to carry themselves on stage and interact with the audience.

"When they’re performing I say, ‘Imagine you’re at La Scala or the Metropolitan — don’t think it’s Tin Town because then you won’t put your best foot forward’. If you come to one of our shows you will be blown away," he promises.

Gauteng Opera will perform at Tin Town Theatre on October21 and November 16-18.

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