Wendy Fine receives the Western Cape government’s Lifetime Achievement Award at The Artscape during the Classical Youth Music Festival on September 2.
WITH a jangle of bracelets and a charming hint of gravel in her voice, Wendy Fine flings her arms up in an expansive gesture to declare that, in world opera today, South Africans are the best.

Hers is not the overblown brio of a dizzy publicist, but the considered judgement of one of the leading performers on the world stage of late 20th century opera - even if many today are not aware of it.

The Pinetown-born diva, who performed with noted distinction at La Scala, the Met, Bayreuth and Covent Garden, among many other opera houses, has the distinction of having been the only South African soprano to have sung leading roles with two of the world’s greatest tenors, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras.

But her consideration of South Africa’s operatic contribution is also informed by her own engagement with it, at close quarters.

One day in the late 1980s, having retired from the world stage, Fine had gone to listen to a choir in Langa - she had by then launched her own studio to develop home-grown singing talent - when a baritone voice from the back row resonated with her, and she singled out the performer.

From her studio, Fikile Mvinjelwa went on to study at UCT, then compete internationally and eventually find a musical home at New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera.

If Mvinjelwa turned out to be the first black South African to make it big abroad, he is not the only young South African singer to benefit from Fine’s continuing involvement in the world of opera and music.

Among other singers Fine has been instrumental in helping are George Stevens, now Head of Singing at UCT’s College of Music, and James Bhemgee, the City Council employee who went on to win the SA’s Got Talent competition.

She has also founded three singing groups, The Brilliant Baritones, The Terrific Tenors and The Fine Singers.

Fittingly, then, for someone who half suspected she had been forgotten, Wendy Fine was the deeply grateful recipient last week of the inaugural Western Cape government’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to arts and the opera genre.

The citation, which acknowledges that “this iconic opera singer” was “one of the first South African sopranos to have become an international opera star”, sums up a long and varied singing life by noting not only her “exceptional vocal versatility, excellent range and commanding stage presence” which enabled her to “perform a wide repertoire and grace opera houses around the world”, but her commitment to “nurturing singers and finding talent in our communities and taking them to the world”. Wendy Fine, it concludes, “is truly a remarkable South African and activist for the arts and the opera genre”.

Cape Town’s choral maestro Barry Smith said in a tribute to Fine: “If she were a British citizen she would have long ago been ‘Dame Wendy Fine’.”

He went on to recount how, “after a Munich performance of Büchner’s Wozzeck, conducted by Carlos Kleiber - considered to be among the greatest conductors of the 20th century and one of her greatest supporters - a critic wrote: ‘Wendy Fine made a triumphant first appearance here, it will prove to have been the first of many. Overnight she became a new star in Munich. Acting with wild impetuosity, she exhibited a tremendous voice of immense dramatic intensity, characterised by the most moving of pianissimos to the most ringing of forceful utterances produced with a warm opulence of tone’.”

And it all began with scrap metal, Fine laughed in an interview this week, though warning quite sternly this was nothing to scoff at.

There was a link - of affection, of course, but also of hard graft, resourcefulness and stamina - between the grubby world of the scrap metal dealership her Russian grandfather, Jacob Max Fine, established after his arrival in Natal in 1903 and his granddaughter’s stellar reputation in the heady cosmos of world opera half a century later.

The business is still in the family, just as Fine herself remains actively engaged in the musical career it sponsored at its launch. Early musical encouragement from her mother and father, Eva and Leslie, led to her singing operatic roles in Durban in her late teens. Fine went on to the Music Academy of Vienna, and a glittering, if demanding, career of international performance opened before her.

At 28, her Munich Staatsoper debut under Kleiber in the role of Marie in Wozzeck made her an overnight sensation, and Fine soon became the most sought-after performer of this role, touring with Kleiber worldwide. This led to her being the first South African to be invited by the esteemed Claudio Abbado to sing at La Scala Opera House in Milan in the Italian premiere of Wozzeck and in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. She became the first South African singer to be put under contract at La Scala in two separate roles for two years running and to be invited back again two years later to perform the same roles.

She later went on to a 10-year stint at the Royal Opera House in London. In 1977 she was invited to sing the lead role in Janácek’s opera Jenufa for Queen Elizabeth II at her Silver Jubilee. She was also the first South African to be invited to perform “behind the Iron Curtain”, as it was called at the time, at the Prague Spring Festival, singing two famous Slavic roles, in the original Czech.

Her debut in Bayreuth, at 29, was in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung produced by Wolfgang Wagner. She made her US debut under the baton of Sir Georg Solti. Among other renowed conductors she performed with over the years are Pierre Boulez, Istvan Kertesz, Marek Janowski, Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Colin Davis, Lamberto Gardelli and Carlo Maria Giulini.

At 79, Fine is evidently as irrepressible as ever she was on stage - “Me, shy? How do you spell that?” - though her energy since her retirement from professional singing in 1988 has been channelled into developing the talents and dreams of others. Knowing when to stop singing, she observed, was a skill of sorts, too - though some singers, men especially, didn’t know when to stop.

“Some carry on and sound like old lawnmowers and you think, ‘Jirre!’”

In fact, Fine admits that when sometimes she gives a brief demonstration of a passage to a student, they often respond, “but you should still be singing!”

But the “big thing” in her life now is an opera competition she intends launching in conjunction with Artscape in the new year.

“It will be just for sopranos,” she said emphatically. “I want it to be different. And I can’t wait for it!”

It would be a showcase of the font of South Africa talent she really does believe is momentous.

“The greatest opera singers today are from South Africa. Worldwide, they are winning all the competitions there is no stopping them.”