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Cape Town Opera: Rising to the occasion during a milestone year

By Keith Bain

Making the most out of lockdown & the digital realm

It was to have been a year of celebration around the company’s 21st anniversary, and if circumstances dampened the celebratory mood, they had the opposite effect on creativity and innovation.
     If anything, CTO was inspired by 2020’s restrictions to not only meet the challenges but reach beyond.
      ‘​The pandemic propelled the company to realise its future plans of bringing CTO in line with the 4IR objectives of the country a lot earlier than anticipated,’ says Africa Melane, who held the post of interim managing director of the company through much of the crisis. ‘Being able to provide company members with the tools to work remotely was a massive achievement for a company that thrives on the dynamism of in-person engagement.’ 
     This fast-tracking of CTO’s embrace of digital technology led to the creation of webcasts, online learning programmes, and filmed productions for audiences to stream at home. There were even rehearsals conducted via Zoom across global hemispheres.
    When its annual national schools tour – during which a team of singers travel the country to provide music workshops for thousands of learners competing in South African Schools Choral Eisteddfod – ended abruptly due to lockdown restrictions, CTO developed ‘Sing like a Pro’, a series of 12 instructional videos available on CTO’s YouTube channel. Produced by CTO’s Youth Development and Education Department, the e-learning programme enabled learners to continue preparations for the SASCE competition.
     The making of a newly commissioned one-act opera, Amagokra, formed the subject of the first of CTO’s pandemic-era webinars, originally streamed on the company’s YouTube channel in May.
     And, 68 days into lockdown, as restrictions eased, CTO for the first time brought three musicians together to collaborate with a small crew to create a video of songs as part of its Phoenix Central Park Behind Doors project. In it are Director of UCT Opera School Jeremy Silver on piano, violinist Refiloe Olifant, and soprano Brittany Smith, who is one of six singers employed by CTO as part of its Young Artist Training Programme. The unique programme gives graduate singers, with soloist potential, not only advanced training, but opportunities to refine their technique and stage skills before launching professional careers.
     Another example of what’s possible in the absence of live audiences was CTO’s collaboration with Cape Town City Ballet and Camerata Tinta Barocca to create a filmed production of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

‘It was the limitations of lockdown that spurred this project,’ says Wild. ‘When new lockdown regulations allowed performing arts companies to create work for streaming or local broadcast, we looked for a collaborative project which we could create in isolation, bring together very quickly and then produce for broadcast. Stabat Mater is a lovely compact piece, ideal for the circumstances.’

CTO’s artistic director Matthew Wild

     Since the team wanted to engage London-based South African choreographer Mthuthuzeli November, the decision was taken to try a previously untested process of having him choreograph the entire work over Zoom. ‘It took a good deal of innovation within our music department in terms of remote coaching and collaboration,’ says Wild, ‘And everybody involved only came together in the flesh in the last few days before we filmed.’
      The result? An arresting film in which dancers and singers perform in a grid, marked by upright neon strip lights that reference the pandemic’s spatial alienation. The voices, intoning Mary’s despair at the crucifixion, pierce the soul as they echo the anguish of our present calamity. And, because the camera takes the viewer – virtually – closer to the action than is possible in a theatre, the various limitations imposed by circumstance offered new possibilities.
     The production was available to stream for a month-and-a-half, affording almost unlimited audience access. It’s also been screened on DStv.
     Smith is pragmatic and positive about such developments. ‘While we know what we do, the pandemic forced us to look at how we do what we do. So, we explored other mediums that are new, innovative and at a socially appropriate distance.’

Continue reading Cape Town Opera: A return to physical performances

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