CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA: Friday 17 February 2012, during the 80th birthday celebration of Mimi Coertse, legendary South African opera singer, at the Artscape Theatre. The performance was part of the Suidoosterfees. Photo by Roger Sedres/Image SA

It is a measure of the extraordinary fascination of Mimi Coertse that at 80 she is still very much in the limelight on the musical scene. Mimi’s legacy of recordings attests to her status as arguably the greatest, unequivocally the most popular, classical singer this country has produced.

Since her debut in the Johannesburg City Hall in Messiah on December 11, 1951, there has been no letting up for 60 years for this Durban-born soprano.

The singular quality of Mimi’s voice could be attributed to her solid vocal technique, taught her by her first teacher, Aimee Parkerson, in Joburg and later by Maria Hittorf and Josef Witt in Vienna. And, she maintains, her younger brother, Willie, had an enormous influence on her career.

Mimi possessed a voice capable of singing light, lyric or dramatic soprano while at the same time possessing great flexibility. By using her rapid, pure and sparkling pianissimo she achieved a tonal colouring in her melodic line that electrified the listener.

Precise phrasing with the finest differences of shading was another remarkable component of her vocal make-up. Even more, she was able to invest this kaleidoscopic phrasing with an eloquence of unparalleled capacity of diction and emphasis.

Although Mimi settled in Vienna, she travelled all over Europe, from Stockholm, Copenhagen and Odense to southern Italy and Portugal to the east. Asked why the two citadels of opera, the Metropolitan (New York) and La Scala, did not feature, her explanation was pure and simple: “Both houses did invite me but I was committed to the Vienna State Opera.”

She sang at Covent Garden and the Glyndeborne Festival to great acclaim. But the trade union Equity in effect prohibited Mimi from further guest appearances in the UK. She travelled to SA on a regular basis, in fact in such quick succession that conductor Karl Böhm warned her of overstepping the line.

At the zenith of her career she stunned the opera world with her decision to return to Pretoria where she settled with her husband and two children.

Despite the demands of a highly competitive career, Mimi did not limit herself to the pursuance of these goals. She has given royally and loyally of herself to the community.

In 1977, for instance, she founded the Pretoria Branch of Kontak, a body for the promotion of racial harmony. She was involved with a host of diverse organisations, ranging from the board of the SABC to the Bulldog Society.

This is not only illustrative of an uncommon zest for life but even more so of a compassionate human being who has enriched the lives of others with her intimate art and vivacious personality.

She can be ever so charming, fresh, original and devastingly witty. We can but herald the words of a former state president when he glowingly acknowledged Mimi as “Onse Mimi, one of our 10 great South Africans”.

• Tonight a documentary on Mimi Coertse will be broadcast on KYKnet (channel 111) at 7.30pm. It is part of a series on formidable women.

A love letter from Nataniël to Mimi on her birthday:

THE MIMI I KNOW

One of the strongest memories of my childhood is the fact that my parents had a turntable in the sitting room. In the cupboard were a few seven singles and four LPs. One of them was music by a possessed person with a panflute, one was a collection of stories by Verna Vels, one was a German orchestra playing music for ice skating and one was a collection of songs performed by Mimi Coertse.

I had no idea of how the world worked. I grew up thinking Mimi Coertse was the world’s only singer and there was no need for others. I did not know there were different styles of music and singing, there was only one voice. Like there was only one Table Mountain, one Atlantic Ocean, one Earth and one sun.

At that age it would have been impossible to imagine that one day, many years later, I would peep through the curtains before one of my own shows and see Mimi Coertse take her seat in the auditorium. To see me! Even less imaginable would be the fact that I one day would be singing with her, touring the country, releasing a cd and becoming friends.

One of the most important things about meeting Mimi was that she took away my fear of serious music. She taught me that singing was singing and music was music, all given to us to be enjoyed and loved, not to be judged or categorised. She showed me that all the “classical” superiority, ranking, competition and envy I came to loathe as a student was a lot of nonsense. God gave us talent and we used it and that was that. If Mimi would have received a different voice she would have been a rock star today. The joy is in the singing and the sharing, that is it.

To really understand Mimi you just have to listen to the top notes of her famous rendition of the Queen of the Night Aria, they are perfect, strong and fearless. Every second person in the music industry has a favourite Mimi-story. I can tell you now, half of those are not true. But that is the stuff legends are made of. People talk, gossip, embroider, imagine, admire and fantasise.

The Mimi I know does not care about the small foxes; she is busy, timeless, surprising, grand, plain, glamorous, difficult, easy, kind, straightforward, a force to be reckoned with, a storm to watch out for, a diamond with many facets, a friend to love.

One thing very few people know is that Mimi is an incredible homemaker. She has the gift of decorating a house to perfection. I remember the time when she moved to her new house, I arrived a day or two later with some flowers, expecting to find chaos and exhaustion. Instead, the new place was perfectly in order, hundreds of artworks already in their place, furniture arranged as if it had been there for a long time, fresh flowers everywhere, the redesigning of the garden already under way.

Mimi has the rare gift of creating the perfect balance between beauty, excitement and comfort. Not only with furniture, but also with friends, family and music.

My dearest Mimi, happy birthday, may today be the splendid occasion you deserve, may you be surrounded by all those you love, may you continue to inspire us and keep us on our toes for a long, long time.

• Mimi will be celebrated tonight at the University of Pretoria by all her music friends who will perform in her honour.