It seems this is Neels Hansen’s time. Not only was he honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award last Thursday during the Kyknet Fiësta festivities, but a concert with invited guests is being held at the State Theatre on March 5 to honour a man who is being called a genius by those who were mentored by him.
This former artistic director of opera grew up on a farm with a mother who had a beautiful contralto voice but wasn’t encouraged to sing.
However, she did influence the young Hansen, taking him to shows and movies, which required long train journeys.
As a family, they also saw pioneering touring theatre companies led by theatre legends like the Hanekoms.
“Those days, booked seats were kept by placing paper and stones on the chairs,” he said.
This was also when he first saw Siegfried Mynhardt in a play he remembers as Die Rooi Pruik (The Red Wig), a mystery story.
Decades later, he directed Mynhardt in the operetta Die Fledermaus.
Hansen knew from a young age that he wanted to be a fashion designer – male fashion specifically. If women weren’t given the nod for stage at the time, fashion certainly wasn’t part of the Afrikaans male’s career options.
“I qualified as a teacher and began teaching,” he said.
It was a circuitous route but one followed by many in artistic careers – and often much of their in-house training was done on school productions and the like.
The first time he heard operatic voices was when an older brother brought some records to the farm and they used the kitchen worker’s gramophone to listen to the music.
“I was absolutely partial to the music,” said Neels, but it would be many years before his partiality turned to passion.
In his teaching days, he was always in charge of cultural activities, and this was how he slowly made his way into the theatre, first as a designer for opera and later as a director and designer.
He spent many productions shadowing directors to learn the ropes.
“I can remember my first day at the then Civic Theatre in Joburg, being absolutely petrified. Everything seemed so large and the cast so many,” he said.
One of his first professional jobs was designing the costumes for Taubie Kushlick’s Kismet.
“It was all about Anthony Farmer’s fantasy of showgirls,” he said, remembering how he went way over budget. “I had no idea of the cost of all those sequins.”
Hansen is a gentle giant, still a man of style who even for morning tea at his retirement home has a scarf nattily tied around his neck.
He knew he didn’t only have to pick up the intricacies of design but also learn to work with actors and singers.
Grand dame of the stage, Anna Neethling-Pohl, also sent him travelling. “You can’t lecture here if you haven’t been to Europe,” was her advice.
And that started his cultural hobnobbing, which later led to singers like Tito Gobbi gracing the State Theatre stage. It also gave birth to great memories like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, Maggie Smith in her first West End production, and Judi Dench as a young Juliet in Shakespeare’s tragic romance.
He also had the gift of great directors like Francois Swart on hand to guide and tutor him. Following many re-stagings of operas can sometimes be a tiring process, but also a fantastic way to learn. He described his first “real” production, The Marriage of Figaro, as “not very good, but acceptable”.
Hansen was the director of the majestic Aida that launched the South African State Theatre in the mid 1970s and he is proud that it was also the first time black singers were introduced to the chorus.
“Those were tough times and nothing came easy but I was determined not to go the black stockings and black-face route.”
Operas with a total South African cast were a rarity – “those who could sing Turandot would leave”.
He recalled the expertise in the magnificent wardrobe department, which has disappeared.
“We had a wigmaker and even fabrics were designed specially.”
When the formalised arts started tumbling down in the latter days of apartheid and early in the new democracy, Hansen – who had worked with the cream of South African and international opera singers and conductors – took a leap of faith with his chum Mimi Coertse and founded The Black Ties, a company that would train young operatic voices.
While still at the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, the pair had often talked about establishing an ensemble of young singers, but they couldn’t get it off the ground.
“We felt strongly about opening doors for young singers of all cultures,” he said – and they wanted it to last.
The Black Ties have finally transformed into Gauteng Opera, with Marcus Desando and Arnold Cloete determinedly leading the charge. Through the years, many fine singers travelling the world today started with this enthusiastic group.
“I’m so grateful there’s an opera company today,” he said. “Now the public needs to support them. It’s all about the quality of the singers.”
As for this opera darling, he still has a gathering with fellow admirers every week when they watch good opera. “I was lucky, but you have to take that step through the door when it’s opened.”