Neels Hansen (Cornelius Johannes Hansen)
April 16, 1936 to November 17, 2014
NEELS Hansen died early last Monday morning in his bed in Pretoria’s Fleurenville, a retirement home, after battling lung and bone cancer.
It is fitting that the maestro of opera in Gauteng was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Kyknet Fiësta Awards and that a concert presented by the operatic group started by Hansen and Mimi Coertse, the Black Tie Ensemble, was held at the State Theatre to honour a man who was called “a genius” by those who were mentored by him.
The former artistic director of Pact Opera followed a circuitous route to reach his destination in the opera world, but one followed by many in artistic careers with much of their in-house training 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.
He slowly made his way into the theatre, first as a designer for opera and later as a director. He spent many productions shadowing directors to learn the ropes.
One of his first professional jobs was designing the costumes for Taubie Kushlick’s Kismet.
People who knew him will remember a gentle, kind man, a man of style who even for morning tea at his retirement home had a scarf nattily tied around his neck.
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 1981 and he was proud that it was also the first time black singers were introduced to the chorus.
Operas with a total South African cast were a rarity – “those who could sing the role of Turandot would leave”.
When the formalised arts started tumbling down in the early ’90s, Hansen –who had worked with the cream of South African and international opera singers and conductors – took a leap of faith with his chum Coertse and founded The Black Tie Ensemble, a company that would create work opportunities for young trained singers and later establish a training facility for young operatic voices in the “Incubator Scheme”.
“We felt strongly about opening doors for young singers of all cultures,” he said – and they wanted it to last.
The Black Ties transformed last year into Gauteng Opera, with Marcus Desando and Arnold Cloete still determinedly leading the charge.
Hansen was determined to keep the country singing.
• Music critic Riek van Rensburg pays tribute:
Hansen was an icon in the world of opera in South Africa. Pretoria in particular was the main arena where he launched his spectacular stagings. The State Theatre of South Africa saw many memorable productions.
His early operas were staged in the Aula at UP. He filled the stage with sheer wizardry. The Stage Theatre offered him more scope for his varied talents. The costumes he created were monumental and his directorial astuteness was infallible. His was a tailor-made art for the Italian repertoire. His craft in particular for Verdi was quite simply immaculate besides being a feast for the eye.
As artistic director for Pact Opera, the Hansen essence was the opulence and detail of the productions from the vast canvas of Tristan and Isolde (Johan Engels designed and Michael Rennison directed) to the solemnity of Death in Venice (Peter Cazalet designed the set and costumes and Hansen directed).
In producing the German and French operas he was no less succesful. The Wagners were presented with great majesty and his French repertory charmed with his idiomatic instinct in productions such as Faust and Les Contes d’Hoffmann.
He thrilled with his costume designs and directing in bel canto operas, such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda and I Puritani.
Hansen will be fondly remembered for his nurturing of the youth for the cause of opera. Johan Engels (who died shortly before Neels) was such a singular protegé. He was employed while barely out of university.
• There will be a memorial event at Foxwood House in Joburg on Saturday at 11am. Visit www.foxwood.co.za for directions.