IT’S an opera production’s scheduled rehearsal time and one walks in on pupils running around, chasing each other, watched by what appears to be a teacher. Nearby, a boy has nabbed a girl’s skirt and is wearing it over his pants to accessorise his Mary Poppins twirl across the hall.
An Abdullah Ibrahim-like piano groove consumes the room and, suddenly, we’re watching a finger-clicking boogy. Surely this is a prank; this cannot be the best school choir in the Western Cape.
Then 30 little bodies belt out Giyani Maqhawe in voices that would surely have South African songstress Sibongile Khumalo in tears.
The voices belong to Bloekombos Senior Secondary’s school choir, which makes up the 30-member chorus in The Fairy Queen – an opera to be staged at the Umculo Cape Festival. The school is in Kraaifontein.
The pupils were chosen to work on the opera after impressing the Umculo Festival team last year, when they did King Arthur with a German group.
As teenagers, the young singers have the rare opportunity of performing with a world-renowned 18-piece orchestra and eight opera soloists who are from as far as Europe.
The cast has been in three-hour rehearsals, six days a week, for the past four months .
For Mlondolozi Titi, 14, nicknamed Pavarotti, finding his own voice has been challenging.
“You want to copy those you admire, in the wrong way. It took months for me to learn that it’s not only about how you sound, but feeling too,” he says.
Thabang Willie, 15, agrees: “We’re not used to singing opera. Opera’s more technical than what we’re used to. Not trying to sound like Pavarotti (the real Pavarotti) was difficult.”
The pupils come from the Wallacedene and Bloekombos communities, where opera, they say, is not popular. They’ve received little, if any, support from their communities.
Lilitha Sidlai, 15,
says: “They hate our singing. One day I was playing Chi Mi Frena on my phone and a man stopped me to ask what I was listening to. He said ‘What you’re listening to is useless, it’s just noise’.”
Yamkela Holwana, 17, says: “The community doesn’t know opera, they look at us like we’re crazy.”
Neziswa Dlayedwa, 17, says: “Even at school there are people who discourage us. We need to make people understand opera.”
Sensing the uncontrollable excitement among her peers, Yamkela, a natural leader, restores calm and steers the conversation back to opera.
“Nothing is easy. People can say what they want, what they have to say is none of my business. This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Wide-eyed smiles light up the room as everyone realises how privileged they are.
Thabang says: “This is a great learning opportunity, it encourages me to continue.
“Nothing can take music away from me.”
Mlondolozi adds: “I didn’t have anything I could say I’m good at before this; I was a benchwarmer in soccer, I can’t act, I got injured in rugby. Opera has given me new confidence.”
Neziswa is taken back to her childhood: “I always thought about being a famous singer. Where I’m at now is bringing me closer to my aspirations as a child.”
Even Lilitha, who side-eyed her peers’ emotional responses, is inspired.
“This early start is very helpful. We’ll have an advantage when we get to university,” she smiles.
Lilitha admits she was forced into the choir by her music teacher, Siyabulela Sulelo:
“I’d attend for some days and disappear. Mr Sulelo would scold me, and I’d return only to disappear again. That was the routine. Eventually, I stayed. I’m glad Mr Sulelo gave me such a hard time.”
The group can’t say enough about Sulelo’s dedication.
“He does a lot for us. He’s always got time for us, seven days a week, despite having a child, work, and his own life to live. He’s taught us a lot, especially about discipline,” says Yamkela.
The Fairy Queen opens tonight at the Joseph Stone Auditorium in Athlone.