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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

OSCAR SHOWCASE (article first published : 2005-03-13)

Alarm bells sounded in my head when the arts councils underwent change and the country’s excellent theatre complexes, like the Playhouse, were confined to operate mainly as venues for hire. These alarm bells grew stronger when the Playhouse Singers were disbanded as was the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra which, mercifully, managed to survive independently due to the pro-active energies of its CEO and Artistic Director, Bongani Tembe.

By cutting out avenues for choral work, operas and the like, South African cultural organisations were effectively restricting the thousands of singers around the country who were beginning to flex their musical muscle and moving beyond gospel and church music. Where would they be heard now? Would they be consigned forever to stay within township and community halls, never to appear in mainstream oratorios or operas? From a capacity building level, opera provides major employment opportunities because of its need for large choruses.

Durban’s magnificent City Hall organ is now out of commission with no apparent light on the horizon for its resurrection. This means the lack of a major musical component in oratorios such as Messiah, not to mention Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise which was performed by the KZNPO and the Durban Serenade Singers in November prior to their tour to London and Bremen. No organ at the Durban City Hall, no organ at the Barbican but in St Ansgari’s Cathedral in Bremen – what a truly wonderful experience to hear that superb instrument thundering alongside the powerful voices of the soloists and choir.

The clamour of those alarm bells has now changed its tune – opera and choral music is alive and well and living in KwaZulu-Natal. If you don’t believe me, head for tomorrow’s final performance of the OSCA Showcase at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Opera Studio and Choral Academy.

Among the soloists were Zenneth Cibane who, despite having appeared as a soloist the previous evening in the KZNPO’s concert featuring the world premiere of Qinisela Sibisi’s Zulu Mass, sailed effortlessly through sextets from Lucia di Lammermoor and Cosi van Tutte. Selby Hlangu, recently returned from a residency with Opera Queensland in Brisbane, performed Gounod’s “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Faust and an amusing rendition of the duet from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel with Nomveliso Nocuze.

I enjoyed Nonhlanhla Mthimkhulu’s confident rendering of an aria from Joshua. Lauren Dasappa, who impressed throughout, gave a controlled and generous performance, including a fine rendition of a Verdi aria from Falstaff. I also enjoyed Sibongile Magwaza and Khumbuzile Dhlamini’s Barcarolle by Offenbach. Mhlaba Buthelezi and Lubabalo Nteyi proved a comedy flair in their duet from Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

The full sound produced at the end of the programme in the extracts from the Finale of Act 2 of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus considerably impressed the audience and all kudos is due to conductor David Smith (who heads the academy) and Andrew Warburton at the piano.

I did have a problem in the first half which was promoted as being a 'gala concert' format. I would have preferred the singers to have remained static without the irritating use of costume items such as shawls which were not properly used by the whole chorus; movement which was inappropriate, and attempts at dramatisation. The second half of the programme saw the performers in costume. As students of opera, they must rightly learn how to handle costumes – and some opera costumes are truly outlandish – and introduce a dramatic element to their performance.

In today’s financially-challenged arena of the arts, performers are often being called on to be “scene shifters” in terms of moving sets or props – in this case, columns or pillars could be turned to reveal another image. I liked the lighting design and think that OSCA has now reached a level where it can become a bit more adventuresome and visual in its staging. Skeletal trees or statues take on a different aspect when the lighting changes. This also applies to fabric which means that one can provide the audience with an inexpensive and effective visual imagery to complement the performances.

There will be a further performance on March 13 at 14h30. The venue is the Jubilee Hall at OSCA, situated immediately below the Howard College Campus on Princess Alice Avenue (accessible from either Ridge Road or Francois Road). Secure parking is available behind the Jubilee Centre. (Look for the 'Student Parking' sign). Tickets R40 (R20 senior citizens and students) can be purchased at the door. More information on www.ukzn.ac.za/music/opera.html - Caroline Smart




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