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ANGELA GILBERT (article first published : 2003-01-22)

(Angela Gilbert was in Pietermaritzburg to perform with her friend Christopher Duigan at a Music Revival concert in the Hilton College Theatre. She has been a Music Revival favourite ever since her first performance there some years ago, and on trips to her South African home, she tries to fit in a visit whenever possible.)

Opera divas have a name for being tempestuous and forbidding. It may be undeserved, and certainly it is a description which does not fit Angela Gilbert. Friendly, bubbly and open, she is a delight to meet.

I last talked to her over two years ago on the eve of her departure for New York. Now, after two years at the New York Metropolitan Opera, Gilbert's career is taking off. Besides an increasing number of international engagements and roles in America, she has just received the South African Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music for 2003.

This gives her a cash prize and guaranteed participation on the main festival programme in Grahamstown next July. "I'm going to put together quite a serious recital - things I've worked on during my time in New York," she says. "Some arias - both the Traviata arias, I think - Strauss, maybe a little excursion into French music - Poulenc, Debussy - some spirituals."

"Winning was a massive shock," she admits. "Recently the award has been going to young black artists, and it didn't even occur to me that I might have been nominated. It's a national thing, and I've never had a following in Gauteng - I couldn't break into the scene there. It's Mimi Coertse territory." But Gilbert is delighted; when you are building an international career, notice and exposure are always good news.

Gilbert has applied for a Green Card in America, though even if she does get it, she will still be coming back to South Africa on a regular basis to see friends and family. "And I'll perform, make it a working holiday," she says. Because she is already making what she describes as "okay money" in New York, she reckons she will be able to fit these trips in. "You don't have to work as much there to survive," she says.

Nonetheless, her programme is a busy one. In South Africa until mid-December, she then headed for London, and then to Palm Beach to sing the role of Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lamermoor in January. In Februray, it is back to South Africa for La Traviata at the Spier Festival and then to New York in March. "I'm going to cover Rossini's La Donna del Lago at Carnegie Hall. That means I sing with the orchestra and get them prepared. It suits me to a T; I like preparing music, I get a new role under my belt - and should anything happen to Ruth-Ann Swenson, I suppose I get to go on."

Gilbert admits her first year in New York was tough but now, with a rent-controlled apartment in Queens, which she loves, and work coming in, she reckons no-one could ask for a better working environment. She has singing lessons twice a week, and gets to work with top conductors. "I have no regrets. I still have fears, but every day I know that this is a good job," she says.

Like most performers, she hates the auditions she has to go through. The pressure is enormous and Gilbert admits that she performs much better to an audience, needing the response and the sense of intimacy they give her. But working in America in the world of music and opera, Gilbert is one of a big group of young singers. It makes for a lot of competition, but has its advantages too. "Everyone there is my age - it's like being back at university again," she says. Before she went to New York for the first time, I remember her saying how she was determined to live a "normal" life, even though her choice of career was one that could make that difficult. "Now I meet people like me who are doing what I do. That had stopped in Cape Town before I left."

Gilbert is very aware of the advantages she has from having come from South Africa. Because she was a big fish in a small pond here - a description she is happy to agree to - she had sung a lot of big roles. "I know what it feels like, to go through the rehearsal process. I've done things my contemporaries there have not done. It does set me apart and it has given me a head start - I was really lucky."

Maybe so, but Gilbert has the mixture of determination, talent and charm which creates its own luck. It's a winning combination. Margaret von Klemperer




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