ENCORE: The Roodepoort Theatre was relaunched on Friday.

Roodepoort Theatre Re-launch
PRODUCTION: Aria! – Opera for Everyone
SINGERS: Stéfan Louw, Aubrey Lodewyk, Elizabeth Lombard, Otto Maidi, Antoinette Olivier, Alexandra Wald
CONDUCTOR: Eddie Clayton
ORCHESTRA: Johannesburg Youth Orchestra
CHORUS: Voices of the Nation. Conductor: Xolani Frazer Gqasana
VENUE: Roodepoort Theatre
RATING: ****


BY THE time La Favola d’Orfeo (The Legend of Orpheus), the first opera written by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), was premiered in Mantua, Italy in 1607, music drama had had an extended history.

Every dramatic high point in world history was accompanied by some form of music – even if it was at times only noise to frighten off the enemy.

The Greeks used primitive music and sound effects when staging their antique plays. The gods had great respect for it, and loved it, the Greeks, and later the Romans, believed.

When attending opera today, we’re often shocked and surprised how universal the themes can be, no matter when (after 1607) they were written. With the invention of the aria another phenomenon became a central focus point: the triumph of the singer. In the next four centuries the basics didn’t change much, except that opera became more soul-stirringly exciting and even relevant to the times we live in.

Everyone attending live opera in, say 1994, and those who still do, must agree that our South African landscape has mainly changed for the better. Opera is not a prerogative of a particular group any more.

Boundaries of yore have disappeared and a younger generation of black singers has developed a passion and a technical level of superior expressive quality to compete with the world’s best.

The Roodepoort Theatre, once one of the most productive centres of operatic activity in Gauteng because of the enlightened vision of its first director, Weiss Doubell, was relaunched on Friday.

The producer, director and tenor Stéfan Louw prepared a special edition of his Aria! – Opera for Everyone series for this auspicious occasion.

Dr Wally Serote, chairman of the board of the three Joburg City theatres, clarified in a short speech, as only a poet can, that part of the city’s 2014 vision included developing the “cultural skills of youngsters in Joburg, while making the learning processes accessible to all citizens”.

Part of this envisaged process was made palpable on stage through the inclusion of the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra and the Voices of the Nation chorus – representative of widespread communities in and around Joburg. Their collective artistry under the guidance of their conductors, Eddie Clayton and Xolani Frazer Gqasana, added lustre to the occasion.

Apart from the Tomb scene from Act IV of Verdi’s Aïda, which did not gel ideally and lacked some inner tension, every other aspect of this production was alive with the frisson opera should reflect – including a bubbly brindisi from Verdi’s La Traviata, given as an encore. Louw’s rendering of Nessun Dorma (Puccini) and Salut! Demeure Chaste et Pure from Gounod’s Faust carried the full emotional and dramatic spectrum of these arias in well defined and contrasted vocal terms.

His two colleagues, Aubrey Lodewyk and Otto Maidi, were brilliant in their arias and ensembles, the latter especially in Oh chi piange?... Del Futuro… from Nabucco, together with the chorus who preceded it with heart-rending singing in the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. Soprano Antoinette Olivier shone in an aria from Rusalka (Dvorák), as did mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Lombard in singing an aria from La Favorita (Donizetti). Together they stirred the soul with the duet Mira, o Norma from Bellini’s Norma. Marisa Louw, the narrator and production manager, introduced each extract with great contextual clarity. Clayton held the production tightly together, although the orchestra showed some weaknesses in the operatic idiom.

One wishes Loran Robertson and her Roodepoort team lots of inspiration and wisdom in making this cultural asset a guiding light in the wide community it serves.