Throughout the history of theatre, it has become evident that the serious performing arts remain an enterprise that is not self-sustaining. Globally the arts are reliant on state and private funding.
State funding for the arts is not a simple matter. With more and more arts practitioners and arts organisations wanting a slice of the cake, slices have become disconcertingly thin. Too thin for many arts operations to stay afloat.
Only this month, both Dance Umbrella and Gauteng Opera announced their termination, this due to financial difficulties.
The National Arts Council, a funding agent of the Department of Arts and Culture, is very specific in their provisos of transformation and education. The arts as a sector has been exemplary in its measure to ensure both transformation and education.
Even with Dance Umbrella and Gauteng Opera’s stellar transformational measures and inherent educational structures, neither of them is receiving enough funding to continue their operations.
The question remains as to what good can come from raising a new generation of black artists when there is no industry for them to be absorbed into.
Vocal arts and dance departments at our universities are filled to the brim with aspiring young black singers and dancers who, as graduates, enter a non-existing industry. It is a fallacy that most of our artists go to work overseas. Most arts graduates end up not working at all.
The National Arts Council emphasises the importance of funded organisations to become self-sufficient. For most of the performing arts, this is not possible as ticket sales simply cannot cover the costs of running professional companies and staging productions.
Conroy Cupido, senior lecturer at the University of the North West Music Department, says that opera is no longer a Eurocentric elitist art form. Opera, as a music genre, has undergone significant Africanisation in South Africa.
Not only are more and more black opera singers making names for themselves, but the producing of African operas has also been taking prominence, such as Winnie (by Bongani Ndodana-Breen), Madiba the Opera (by Sibusiso Njeza) and Heart of Redness (by Neo Muyanga).
In his Save Opera in South Africa campaign, Cupido is both launching a petition and drawing up a proposal to be presented to Minister Nathi Mthethwa and Shadow Minister Mponeng Winston Rabotapi from the Department of Arts and Culture.
Cupido says, “I am encouraged by the mobilisation we have seen in South Africa’s arts community this week to save opera. We are in the process of putting together a task team to present our request for sustainable and consistent funding for the arts to government, as well as legislation which will allow private sponsors to get tax benefits when they donate to the arts”.
Regarding the closing of Gauteng Opera, Cupido says,“Many people will be losing their jobs. Arts funding and legislation to allow private funding with tax benefits is a priority for South Africa now. We produce some of the world’s top singers, but they have no place to work in Africa. Producing opera is an untapped job creating opportunity. We need government to intervene and make the arts a priority, the same way they support sport in South Africa”.
Magdalene Minnaar, singer, director and producer of opera and other music productions, has been prolific in the staging of vocal art performances nationwide. Minnaar has been hailed a “musical rebel” by the press, mostly due to her mission to re-invent the face of classical music in South Africa.
Minnaar’s most recent works include the opera The Recycled Magic Flute (Johannesburg International Mozart Festival), La Voix Humaine (IMPAC film festival) and L’Orfeo (co-directed with Jaco Bouwer for Cape Town Opera).
While she fully supports Cupido’s efforts, Minnaar adds that we need to see the bigger picture with regard to government funding. In a country where poverty prevails, funding of the arts, seen by many as a luxury, will be placed on the back-burner.
Minnaar stresses the need for tertiary institutions to place more emphasis on entrepreneurship and business skills in order for young artists who enter the workplace to not be solely reliant on opportunities offered to them, but to instead create opportunities of their own.
She believes that smaller and more mobile touring productions may, besides providing employment to many singers, also foster a greater awareness of opera as an art form.
Putting her money where her mouth is, Minnaar, in collaboration with Soprano and Cape Town pianist José Dias, founded The Studio.
The Studio is aimed as a platform for opera singers to hone their skills through a series of workshops and master classes that will travel to all the main centres in South Africa. Along with these learning opportunities, they will also take in four talented singers who will form the core of this studio programme by performing in various operatic and other vocal productions throughout the year.
“The dream is to start this as a travelling company, to take opera to the many fantastic theatres across the country, thereby growing awareness of this poetic and entertaining art form,” Minnaar says.
In a country in which the public is still predominantly indifferent to the arts, tremendous ingenuity is needed to make the arts the priority it ought to be. To achieve this, it remains vital to persistently produce and perform work to as wide an audience as possible. With the private sector’s purse strings tighter than ever, artists’ resourcefulness has become essential and the governments’ backing thereof indispensable.
Sadly, the closing of Dance Umbrella and Gauteng Opera makes the extent to which this is of national concern questionable.