SUPPORTIVE: Faith Zungu encourages the children to sing.
SUPPORTIVE: Faith Zungu encourages the children to sing.
WARMING UP: The children recite the rhyme Paw, paw, open the jaw. Pictures: FIONA MAC PHERSON
WARMING UP: The children recite the rhyme Paw, paw, open the jaw. Pictures: FIONA MAC PHERSON

Dawn Kennedy

I’M GOING to the Masiphatisani Primary School, in Vredenburg, to watch the start of the Opera Amabali Ethu outreach programme. Initiated by Cape Town Opera, and funded by the Western Cape Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport (DCAS) and the National Lotteries Commission, this incentive gives a group of young learners, aged 9-14, an intimate introduction to opera and the opportunity to perform an abridged version of The Magic Flute in Masiphatisani towards the end of the year.

Heading along the West coast, away from the powerful geological forces that crumpled and shaped Table Mountain, the Western Cape feels like one big sand dune. Vredenburg’s middle-of-nowhere feel is exacerbated by road works which add an extra 40 minutes to the two hour journey.

Eventually we arrive at the school which is emptying of children who tumble out of the exit, scattering like marbles spilled from a sack. Perched above a small township, the school’s new beige bricks beam like a smile over the huddle of shacks and RDP houses below. In the midst of stories about South Africa’s failing education system, Masiphatisani is a welcome success. The school’s motto, “To develop young leaders, one child at a time”, is emblazoned across the entrance. The signs of poverty, evident in bare feet, broken buckles and too short trouser legs fade to irrelevance amidst the omnipresent optimism evident in the tidy garden, well-managed recycling system and attractive mural. Even the herd of goats grazing insouciantly outside the neat perimeter fence seem happy.

Inside the hall, Christine Crouse who, among many other achievements, directed and toured the world with the opera hit, Porgy and Bess, now faces a group of 80 children who have no idea what opera is and have never heard of Mozart. While Christine plays the BBC’s animated version of The Magic Flute, the huddle of kids watch wide eyed and entranced. When the Queen of the Night hits the top note in her aria, one boy covers his mouth and tries to suppress giggles.

Teacher Nomasanga Nama glares at him. Passionate about music and deeply committed to the project, Nomasanga explains that through Amabali Ethu “Our learners are exposed to a wide variety of tastes, smells, textures, colours, and sounds — experiences that they are not at all used to in the community where they live.”

After watching and listening, it’s time for the children to try singing. Musician and composer in residence for CTO Outreach Roland Perold gets the children to warm up. He makes them stand in a circle and pass along a clap. Then he teaches them a rhyme, “paw, paw, open the jaw”, which they recite as they stroke their palms down the side of their face, encouraging jaws to stretch open.

Then, accompanied by Roland on keyboards, the pupils sing Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika. The hairs on my neck bristle as their young, sweet voices rise, entwine and fill the hall. The impressive vigour of the Xhosa section of the national anthem lapses into an almost comic and less impressive stumbling through the Afrikaans and English sections.

Only about a third of these children will make it through the auditions and secure a place in the performance. Next week they will audition individually; but today, in order to gain confidence, they are asked to sing in groups of five.

As the children divide into groups, Cape Town Opera company members Nosiseko Mbundu and Faith Zungu arrive, carrying juice and sandwiches for the children. Hungry children can’t learn opera.

Faith moves to the middle of one group, flings her arm around the children, opens her mouth and emits an enormous musical sound.

“I don’t want the kids to be shy” she tells me later.

In three weeks’ time, on March 21, Faith’s best friend, Pretty Yende and good friend Sunnyboy Dladla will no doubt receive standing ovations at the end of a sold out, one-night-only Gala Concert in Cape Town. These three firm friends studied at UCT together. As I watch Faith encourage and chastise the children I consider that even the most glittering careers of singing stars like Pretty and Sunnyboy had humble beginnings. Some surely started in a school hall where, with the encouragement of a role model like Faith, Christine or Roland they tentatively began to explore sound and song.

And who knows if there is not a Pretty or a Sunnyboy in the Masiphatisani hall today?

Responding to a particularly melodious sound, Faith asks, “Whose voice is that?” The children point to a tiny girl, who covers her mouth shyly, like a young girl made aware for the first time of her beauty.

Heading back to Cape Town, I think about the multifaceted role that Cape Town Opera plays in the city. Most obviously, having a resident opera company adds cultural prestige to any city. In just over a month, on March 15, Cape Town Opera’s season will get off to a thrilling start with a new production of Salome, performed under the artistic direction of Cape Town Opera’s incumbent artistic director, Matthew Wild. Known for his success with The Rocky Horror Show and Cabaret, there’s no doubt that Matthew’s imaginative genius will enthral and surprise the 4 500 people who will attend the four performances of Salome.

But besides its lavish productions, the company creates much that is valuable but less visible. Cape Town Opera is a key training ground for gifted young African singers, many of whom come from South Africa’s poorest communities.

So at the start of Cape Town Opera’s season, remember that when you buy an opera ticket you are not only giving yourself a glamorous and sophisticated night’s entertainment.

You are also supporting a company of 35 full time singers and even helping the young girl in a hall, just over one hundred kilometres outside Cape Town, who for the first time is feeling the magic, like wings beating inside her chest, of reaching a top c note for the first time.

l To keep Cape Town Opera singing, call Louise at the Development Office 021 410 9918