A consummate artist with an extraordinary stage presence second to none – that is how I will remember bass-baritone George Stevens.
The acting director of the Opera School at the University of Cape Town, Stevens died in the early hours of Saturday, August 11 in a city hospital following an operation. He was 51.
Comfortable in performing classical masses, oratorios and operas, Stevens deployed his extraordinary vocal and theatrical gifts to great effect on stage when interpreting roles.
In recognition of his talents, the Staatstheater Bremen in Germany, where he was the principal baritone from 1998 to 2006, awarded him the Kurt-Hübner Prize for “most convincing singer and actor with extraordinary stage presence”.
This award is no surprise; I can attest to the fact that - no matter the size of the role he was performing in locally - operagoers, especially those from overseas, would cheer when he took the curtain call.
Stevens launched his international solo career in 2007 and was often booked three seasons in advance. A career that took him from the local opera houses to those of Europe did not happen overnight.
He overcame many personal and professional challenges to build the substantial international career he enjoyed at the end of his life. He was a noted interpreter of Verdi’s works.
George Stevens playing the title character in Verdi’s Rigoletto in a European production.
The second eldest of five, Stevens grew up in a musical home in Heathfield. His brother, Paul Stevens, remembers fondly how the three brothers shared a bedroom.
“He showed signs of enthusiasm for theatre and music at a young age. At Heathfield Primary he took part in the school plays, and was excited about learning his lines.
“At South Peninsula High School he took part in variety shows and always sang. I remember the first song he sang (in public) was Nat King Cole’s Too Young.
“While growing up, George was interested in all kinds of music. He had a small cassette player, and he loved The Platters. My brother and I would go to sleep or wake up to George playing The Platters.
“Then there was also Nat King Cole and reggae music. He then found his passion - classical music and opera. His first classical performance was the bass role in Mozart’s Requiem with Vetta Wise. His talent was discovered in the New Apostolic Church choirs, and from there it was all the way up.”
In an interview he gave in April 2013, Stevens said his “wow moment” for opera came when he heard Placido Domingo sing Celeste Aida from the opera, Aida, on the radio as a teenager, and thought “that voice comes straight from God!”. Stevens went on to study with leading voice teacher, Nellie du Toit, and left South Africa in 1993 to try his luck in Europe.
The biggest influence on him was undoubtedly their mother, Lydia Stevens, according to his sister Crystal Stevens. “Mom used to sing in the Eoan Group and the church choir, often as a soloist. She was also a ballroom dancer.”
In the same interview, Stevens says his mother “was blessed with a beautiful singing voice – she was just a natural singer”.
Crystal remembers that there was always music in the house, and that Stevens and their mother had a special bond. “When overseas, George would phone my mother, play her some music, and she would sing the soprano part, and he the baritone or bass part - over the phone. She gave up her career when she got married, and always encouraged George to follow his dreams of being a professional singer.
“When our mother died in April 2012, we had to let George know and he was about to go on stage somewhere in Europe. He got through the performance, and many people remarked afterwards on the intensity of the performance. It was his way of speaking to and taking his leave of her.”
She says Stevens was also an excellent instrumentalist. “He played the flute and trumpet very well, and taught my brothers how to play.”
Another brother, David Stevens, shared a memory of how distinguished Italian baritone, Renato Bruson, would not accept an opera engagement if there was an understudy - unless it was Stevens.
“George understudied for him secretly, but never had to sing in his place because Bruson did not get sick.” Bruson is considered one of the leading Verdi baritones of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Success did not go to Steven’s head, however. He came home to plough back through teaching at the UCT Opera School as a senior lecturer in February 2014, becoming acting director in October 2016.
Crystal mentions that her brother also had a philanthropic side.
“He loved the Cape and the local culture, and would try to uplift the community whenever he could. He sponsored local Klopse and Christmas bands to go on trips. He would take the church congregation he attended in Bokmakierie, Athlone, on an outing to lunch at a leading city hotel.”
I can also attest to this generosity of spirit. At the end-of-year function at the SA College of Music, UCT, in December 2015, Stevens and I had a lengthy conversation as he wanted to know how classical music and opera could be promoted - in particular, in the underprivileged communities on the Cape Flats.
I had mentioned the superb Simó* Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the main orchestra in the renowned El Sistema music project in Venezuela, which I had heard in London under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, while studying for a Master’s degree there.
He was intrigued and we discussed how the Venezuelan model could be adapted to South Africa. Alas, this is an initiative that will have to proceed without Stevens, but one which will always hold memories of him.
Stevens is survived by his father Cecil, wife Zoë, brothers David and Paul, and sisters Tina and Crystal.
* The funeral will take place tomorrow (Saturday, August 25) at 11.30am at the New Apostolic Church auditorium in Silvertown, Athlone.
It will be preceded by a performance by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, starting at 10.30am. The funeral service will be followed by a wake at the SA College of Music at UCT from about 1pm onwards.
* Arendse is a board member of the National Arts Council of South Africa