Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (1858 –1924)

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Puccini’s private life seems to be a good subject for a soap opera. He appears to have been happily married to a good wife who was not a big music fan, but nonetheless supported him and his career for his whole life. She also had patience with a husband who entertained a number of extra-marital relations with women from all social circles. Much has been said already on the overlaps in context of Puccini’s leading ladies, both on- and offstage. In comparison with the detailed psychological exploration of his female characters, the men seem rather a more straightforward band of conventional villains, heroes and poetic lovers.

Women in Puccini’s operas have been the butt of many jokes. They seem to epitomise the worst aspects of opera. Mimi in La Boheme, while dying of consumption, nevertheless remains in good enough health to sing her way through a 20 minute death scene. The slave girl Liu stabs herself to avoid giving away the true identity of her beloved, to save his life from the icy princess Turandot. Sister Angelica drinks poison out of guilt at having been in a convent while her child died far away.

Tosca preparing to jump to her death (Karita Mattila - Met 2009)

Tosca stabs the evil Baron Scarpia, killing him violently. To avoid arrest for his murder, she flings herself off the parapet of the Castello Saint Angelo. In the theatre one hopes that she lands on the matress placed below. In some productions – and even more urban legends – the diva occasionally misses the bulls-eye. Or even bounces back into full view of the audience.The Japanese Madama Butterfly commits Hari Kiri with the same knife with which her father killed himself  to restore honour to the family after an incident of shame. That is a lot of self-inflicted bleeding.

Yet these murders, suicides and “unhappy endings” go right the hearts of audiences. Even in a rehearsal of La Boheme, I have seen cast and bystanders in tears at the pathos and unbearable beauty of Mimi’s last desperate love for the poet Rodolfo, and even the flighty character of Musetta responds with a depth of emotion that touches the heart. As Liu grabs her torturer’s knife and plunges it into her heart and the chorus yells “Parla! Parla!” (Speak! Speak!) the audience reacts with the same – but silent – scream.

Soprano Yunah Lee

When the American soldier Pinkerton comes rushing onstage, yelling “Butterfly! Butterfly!” as the blood and life seeps out of her self-inflicted stab-wound, the audience is also yelling a silent “Butterfly! Butterfly!” and gasping at the tragedy.

Of course, the key to all this screaming and bleeding is the exquisite music. Somehow one looks past the incongruities. A healthy, robust, Top-C-Singing soprano playing the role of a young girl, wasted away by terminal TB? A 50 year old Italian dramatic soprano who plays a 16 year old Japanese teenage mother? A massive Tosca the object of lust and desire? All is presented in multiple layers of aural meaning.

Puccini was a master at orchestration and melody, and he had an unerring sense of drama. The so-called “arias” and duets” in his operas are rarely stand-alone items, but they are built into the fabric of the drama at appropriate moments. Some even consider the lack of “applause breaks” to be a weakness in Puccini’s operas. In certain cases, conventions have developed whereby the written music is altered to create “applause moments”. It can create chaos when the audience roars its approval while the conductor and the stage-party attempt to continue. Tosca’s Visi d’arte provides a moment’s respite from all the histrionics that preceded it and the murder and attempted rape that races the act to its climax. Musetta’s waltz Quando m’en vo’ – basically a “concert-number” (an excuse for an aria) – is a break in the hustle and bustle of the Café-scene and acts as the dramatic foil for the deeper and more serious elements of the love-story of the Bohemians. And this is often the main complaint against Puccini’s arias: that they tend to hold up the drama rather than move it forward.

Some of us don’t really mind. They make some of the most glorious moments in all of opera.

Beautiful cherry blossoms

One such moment is the Duet Tutti i fior, from Madame Butterfly. Cio-cio San, the beautiful but fragile and shortlived heroine of the title, has been waiting anxiously for news of the return of her American soldier husband whom she married earlier in the opera. In her naïve youth and the flush of first love, she believed his promised to send for her on his return to America. She rejected her ancestral religion and converted to Christianity for Pinkerton’s sake and even insisted that she was no longer to be called Madama Butterfly, but Madama Pinkerton instead. Pinkerton meanwhile viewed the whole experience as the colonial prerogative of a young navy officer at sea, intending to find a Butterfly in every port. He found himself a proper American bride and had no intention of ever seeing Butterfly again.

At last – after three years of waiting – Butterfly’s prayers are answered. Her faithfulness is rewarded with a canon-shot from the harbor, announcing the arrival of the Abraham Lincoln, Lieutenant Pinkerton’s ship. What follows is one of the most exquisite scenes in the opera. An ecstatic Butterfly and her faithful maid Suzuki shake the cherry-trees in her garden, picking up the soft rain of petals. They decorate the house with flowers from her garden, strewing them everywhere, even twining them around a chair especially placed for the return of the conquering hero. “Everywhere must be full of flowers”, Butterfly sings. “As full of flowers as the night is full of stars”. As their aroma fills the house, Butterfly, in anticipation of her second wedding night with her returning husband, puts on her most exquisite make-up and even dons her wedding dress.

I gave tears to the soil. It gives its flowers to me.

The bittersweetness of this moment is presented in exquisitely lyric poetry and music. Butterfly’s love and naivety are clearly audible. Her excitement at the thought of shortly seeing Pinkerton is illustrated by the nervous key-changes and scurrying passages. Her sadness is underlined by darker harmonies. When she sings in anticipation of the happiness of reunion, the music soars in timeless suspended ecstacy. Suzuki, perhaps the older and wiser of the two women, keeps reminding Butterfly that stripping all the flowers from the garden would leave it bare, as winter. Butterfly is almost foolhardy in her insistence that they “bring spring inside”. Her obsessive recreation of the spring of their marriage is also a desperate attempt to console herself for the agony of the past three years. Pinkerton also uses nature imagery early inthe opera when he admits that he will “play with the butterfly even if doing so will damage its wings”.

Amidst the glory and beauty of the music, and the intoxication of the scent, there is already a foreshadowing of the trgic death. In much the same way, the canon-shot which announces the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship, is symbolic of the “shot to the heart” Butterfly will receive when she can no longer deceive herself and grasps the truth. The beauty of the duet is even more poignant, as by now, the audience knows the end of the story. Butterfly kills herself so that her child by Pinkerton can start a new life in America. The harmonic tensions in the passage where she send her child from the room to go and play while she kills herself, is unbearably emotional. Butterfly arouses endless pity and sympathy.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳) (1797 – 1861) – “Onodera Junai’s Seppuku”

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳) (1797–1861) – “Onodera Junai’s Seppuku”

The reality of Hari Kiri (also known as Seppuku) was far more cruel than encountered in the the orientalist romance of the opera stage. This painting depicts Onodera Junai (wife of a samurai) preparing for jigai (female version of seppuku) to follow her husband in death. Her legs are bound as to maintain a decent posture in agony. Death is given by a tanto cut at the jugular vein. This woodcut by Utagawa Kuniyoshi is from a series called Seichu gishin den, (“Story of truthful hearts”), 1848. This series is based on a true story of 47 Ronen or Samurai who had to commit Hari Kiri for having commited murder to revenge the death of their master. The story was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that all good people should preserve in their daily lives. To me this example of the force of loyalty and devotion, identifies Butterfly’s suicide as the ultimate gesture of fidelity to Pinkerton and, by implication, their son.

Butterfly as Geisha

For two brief but insightful and fascinating views on the life and work-expectations of the Geisha – the work Butterfly did before her marriage – I refer you to the following excellent sites:

Geisha Study Guide (Pacific Opera, Victoria, Canada)

The Geisha (Okinawa Soba)

Japonisms in the “Flower Duet” – Puccini’s use of Japanese Folksongs in Madama Butterfly

Puccini deffinitely used some Japanese folk melodies in the score of Madama Butterfly. Tom Potter’s excellent 2006 article Japanese Songs in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly contains sheet music and audio files of songs and where they happen in the score. None of these appear to have been used in the Flower Duet. As with large chunks of Turandot – Puccini’s other orientalist opera set in Peking – here it is clear that we are listening to a full-blooded romantic Italian composer at work. The freedom of the harmonies, the expressive fluctuations in tempo, and above all the exquisiteness of the vocal line, are all original Puccini at his best.

Viva Italia!

Beverley Chiat and Violina Angeulov will be performing the Flower Duet in various upcoming performances. You can read more about the performers and other works on the programme by clicking on the following links:

Beverley the Beautiful Butterfly

Violina Angeulov performing Durante’s “Danza, danza fanciulla”

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Sunday, February 7th, 2010, will find Opera in a Convent Garden once more in the beautiful gardens of Springfield Convent in Wynberg, Cape Town. Our formidable cast this year features soprano Shirley Sutherland and the Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nation Ensemble. Chorus Master of Cape Town Opera Albert Horne and pianist Albert Combrink will create the very essential ‘orchestra’ to match the voices.

Gems from the soprano coloratura repertoire will be woven between extracts from Porgy and Bess, Die Fledermaus, My Fair Lady, The Student Prince, King Kong and Traditional Gospel Spirituals.

The Gate in the Junior School campus, opens at 15hoo, parking will be on the grounds accessed via Convent Road.   The show begins at 17.30 and pre-concert attractions will include the Cape Town Caledonian Pipe Band and a Marimba orchestra).

Bring your picnics, blankets and low chairs.  Pizza and pancakes will be available at the Opera Cafe as well as other refreshments.

Book during school hours on 021 797 9637 (ext 200) or on 021 689 8345 and 076 696 4630. Contact us on


SWEETER copy weblarge 

  “Sweeter than Roses”

 – English and Italian songs of the joys of love by
Purcell, Britten, Mozart, Sondheim incl. “My Fair Lady”
This delightful programme of mostly English songs explores the joys and dreams of young lovers through the songs of Purcell (“If music be the food of love”), Britten’s famous Folksong settings (“The Foggy, foggy dew”) and operatic extracts by Mozart, that master of comic characterisation. The three singers are all noted for their variety and can perform in different styles. Shirley Sutherland will lead the second half of the programme with extracts from “My Fair Lady”, the show in which she had a major triumph at the Artscape Theatre in 2008. Louise Howlett, a veteran stage performer, will include extracts from her soon-to-be released second CD from the musicals “Cats” and “A Little Night Music”. Baritone John Hardie – winner of various awards such as the Leonard Hall Memorial Prize – is the perfect foil for the two ladies. He will be the Figaro to their Suzanna and Cherubino and the Don Giovanni to their Zerlinas. The programme will reflect the more playful aspect of young love, from the charm and beauty of setting of Shakespeare to more contemporary and popular music. The fact that most of the songs are in English makes this a programme with instant appeal for audiences of all ages. The keyword is variety, and versatility is what this set of performers are known for.

Lindbergh Arts Foundations – 18 Beach Road, Muizenberg

R105 Including Snacks

Booking 021 788 2795
Louise Howlett (Soprano)
Louise Howlett, originally from England, studied at the Royal College of Music in London, with Margaret Cable where she featured in a number of competitions and masterclasses.  As a member of the National Youth Music Theatre, Louise toured to the Bergen Festival and Edinburgh Main and Fringe Festivals, aswell as performing in the award winning production of The Ragged Child at the Sadlers Wells Theatre, London. She performed in television productions of both The Ragged Child and the opera of The Tailor of Gloucester.
Louise came to South Africa in 1993 to work as Organiser for the National Chamber Orchestra in the North West Province, and soon decided to make South Africa her home.  She sang on many occasions with the NCO including a number of corporate functions in Sun City and Johannesburg. She also performed in a number of Oratoria including Nelson Mass, The Messiah and Vivaldi’s Gloria, and was involved in choral training workshops and master classes. In March 1999 she moved to Cape Town where she is now based.  Her Cape Town debut took place with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra at their Kirstenbosch Millennium Concert; but her love of jazz and the musicals led her to create her own unique combination of classical, broadway and jazz “Across the Styles” projects out of which her “Serenade” series was born.  These productions can vary from classical versions, to jazz standard evenings to the full range of genres blended into one programme. She has performed with great success at various venues and festivals including the Kirstenbosch Winter Chamber Music Series, the Greyton Rose Festival, and most recently at the Baxter Theatre.

Louise is a regular presenter on Fine Music Radio.  Her programme “For the Love of Opera” features all the latest news and reviews of opera around the world today.

John  Hardie (Baritone)
John studied singing at UCT and Stellenbosch University and his teachers include Sarita Stern, Nellie du Toit and Marita Napier. He sang with Capab Opera for 3 years taking part in productions of “Albert Herring” and “Cosi fan Tutte”. He won the College of Music Opera prize in 1988 and 1989, the Friends of the Nico Malan Opera Prize in 1990, the Leonard Hall memorial Prize in 1991. He has performed professionally with accompanists such s ALbie van Schalkwyk, Tommy Rajna and Neil Solomon.


SHIRLEY SUTHERLAND  – Coloratura Soprano

Shirley Sutherland graduated from UCT with an Honours degree in Music  under Sarita Stern and Angelo Gobbato.  She has also completed a  National Higher Diploma in Opera (Cum Laude) at the Pretoria Technikon  Opera School under the tutelage of Eric Muller.

Her ability to sing such a varied repertoire of music being Opera,  Operetta, Broadway, Classical contemporary, light classical has found  her performing to diverse audiences locally and abroad.

Her many operatic roles include that of Tytania in Britten’s A  Midsummer Night’s Dream, Adele in Die Fledermaus, Hanna in Lehar’s  The Merry Widow, Pamina in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Micaela and  Frasquita in Bizet’s Carmen, Lucy in Menotti’s The Telephone  Madame Mademoiselle Warblewell in Mozart’s The Impresario and as  well as Dvorak’s Rusalka which she performed in Sweden.  Her many  musical roles include that of Eliza from My Fair Lady, Magnolia from  Showboat which was performed in Germany, Julie in The Carousel,  Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, Meg in Brigadoon and Roxie in  Chicago for which she received the Cape Times Award for the best  leading lady in a musical. She has sung Gabriel in Haydn’s Oratorio  The Creation and performed in Mozart’s Coronation Mass with the  Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra.

She has been part of the Pretoria based Black Tie-Ensemble with Mimi  Coertse and part of Cape Town’s Opera Studio.

Shirley is in great demand as a soloist and also teaches part-time at  schools in the Cape area.
Albert Combrink (Piano)
Albert, currently a freelance pianist, completed his MMUS in Piano Performance from Natal University under Isabella Stengel, as well as three UNISA Licentiates: Piano Performance, Piano Accompaniment and Teaching (Cum Laude). He made his concerto debut with the NPO at 18. Since then he has performed regularly at major centres throughout the country, as soloist and accompanist, in both classical and popular music fields. He was finalist in the ATKV Music Competition and winner of the Young Natal Chamber Competition and UND Performer’s and Composer’s competitions after which he was commissioned to write to the first Afrikaans Catholic Mass. He has extensive recording experience, including Hindemith’s Piano Concerto “Four Temperaments” with the NPO and David Tidboald, through radio and television broadcasts (including BBC World) to the recent CPO recordings of works by Hofmeyr and Schnittke. He was repetiteur for the UCT Opera School as well as Cape Town Opera, performing also as orchestral pianist and harpsichordist in operatic productions. His operatic experience with CPO included “Showboat” and “Porgy and Bess” which toured Sweden and Germany. He has acted and recorded for the eTv show “Backstage” and “Stokvel” and been involved in various film projects. As member of the Cape Town Tango Ensemble he has performed at all the major festivals in the country, with performers such as Mark Hoeben and Ina Wichterich. His Tango CD featured in the film “Tango Club”. He has worked with directors such as Janice Honeyman, Jaco Bouwer and Marthinus Basson. He is vocal coach for Portabello, whose production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” won a London Critics’ “Olivier Award” in 2008, and has toured Ireland, Japan and Singapore. He has also been Music Director and Assistant MD for various productions including the New Space Theatre’s production of Sondheim’s “Assassins” which won two Fleur du Cap Awards. He is co-author of 3 Arts & Culture Textbooks which have sold over 150 000 copies.

Louise Howlett and Albert Combrink

Louise Howlett and Albert Combrink

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On 19 July 2009 Louise Howlett and I will be performing in the Kirstenbosch Chamber Music Breakfast Concert Series. Our programme reflects Louise’s trademark milti-genre approach to songs inspired by Moonlight. The programme includes songs by Arnold Schoenberg, Faure, Mozart, Bizet, Dvorak, Michel Legrand, and Stephen Sondheim.

The idea of one singer encompassing styles from Mozart to Bernstein strikes some as unusual, but when one respects song for what they are, instead of evaluating them on a system of classification, one  arrives at some interesting insights. My work in the field of Tango, and the music of Piazzolla in particular, as well as recent excursions into Villa-Lobos, has taught me that the distinctions between the terms “Classical”, “Folk”, “Popular”, “World Music” and even “Jazz” are becoming increasingly blurred. Audiences are no longer judging a piece of music on whether it is a “good” classical or popular interpretaion. The demands of the media has made it possible for music-lovers to search out their own favourites. The record companies – just like the movie-moguls – can no longer predict the hits. A certain snobbery from the classical fraternity towards other music forms such as musical theathre, has also left many musicians high-and-dry. And out of work. Especially in South Africa the opera-world is fighting for survival and young musicians simply have to diversify to make a living.

I found some Youtube clips of Stephen Sondheim in masterclasses on his song “Send in the Clowns”  from “A Little Night Music” which reveals him to be as much a perfectionist as many an opera conductor. Louise and I have recorded this song and have worked hard to create an interpreation as honest and pure as a Brahms or Schubert song, but without some of the over-threatrical musical gestures that can so easily ruin this song.

Here is an interview with Sondheim discussing the song “Send in the clowns”. He comments on the emotional impact of the  shortbreathed phrases in this song of anger and regret. He stresses the need to approach performing the song from the text, from a a point of “No Singing” which arrives at the point of singing only when the emotion dictates it.

Sondheim was also a generous instructor in the performance of his material. Here he is teaching a singing student from the Guildhall School in London. And here he is teaching an acting student, also from Guildhall. His attention to expressive diction is clear. He strikes me as a wonderful man, insistent, persitent but kind.

Links to recorded clips of “Send in the Clowns”

Below I list links to some of the classic interpretations of this song – and the less successful. I hope to show that reaching an opinion of “authenticity” is a futile excercise.

“Send in the clowns” – Barbara Streissand: Streissand has owned this song for many, and she even convinced Sondheim to write her an extra verse. Her insistence truly enhanced the structure of the song, but also made it more successful as a “stand-alone” song outside of the show for which it was originally written.

“Send in the clowns” – Angela Lansbury: There is no longer a voice worth speaking of, but what a heart-felt performance.

“Send in the clowns” – Cleo Laine in which the accompaniment is focussed around sustained strings, and the arpeggiated figures are totally underplayed.

“Send in the clowns” – Elizabeth Taylor – I personally find this version unbearable, but others have commented that it is “theatrically and dramatically appropriate”. Perhaps. But not for my iPod, thanks.

Other songs from “Moonlight Serenade”

Arnold Schoenberg’s “Erwartung”, beautifully sung by a miss Gracova. Its atmospheric piano writing and haunting melodies conjure up the world of Sondheim’s “Night Music”. Schoenberg at one time made a living orchstrating operettas. Since  his Twelve-Tone Technique dominates writings on his work one tends to forget how important melody is to this composer, whether it uses all 12 tones of the scale or not. An interesting documentary on Schoenberg’s life in Vienna before 1900, is most informative.

The film “Yentl” yielded some excellent material, and this song by Michel Legrande is very much in the Sondheim genre.

“Papa can you hear me” Barbara Streissand

“Papa can you hear me” in the actual scene from the movie “Yentl” – Barbra Streissand

“Papa can you hear me” in an operatic misjudgement by Ewa Lewandowska. This lady has a good voice. However, she sings this song terribly.

“Memory” from Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Cats” – Barbara Streissand: Again, along with Elaine Paige’s, this version sold millions of 45rpm vinyl discs long before CD’s were even invented.

“Memory” – Susan Boyle. A talented lady with a dream who deserves her shot at fame. This recording shows perhaps why she did not win.

All in all an eclectic programme then. Let the audience be the judge.

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Samuel Barber was a fine Baritone, nephew of a famous contralto Louise Homer and long-term partner of opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti. By all accounts he was an avid opera-goer and –lover. Therefore it seems odd that, his first opera, “Vanessa” was written when he was 48. It seems he took his preparations very seriously indeed. Commissioned by the Metropolitan in New York, its first performance was so successful it commissioned a second opera “Antony and Cleopatra”. After it’s first triumphant season at the Met, “Vanessa” was however unable to secure a regular foothold in the repertoire of the Met or elsewhere. “Antony and Cleopatra” suffered the same fate, despite a sumptuous first production by Franco Zefirelli. Barber and Rudolf Bing conceived the role of Vanessa for Maria Callas, and negotiations advanced well, but it is one of those historic might-have-beens that this never materialised.

Barber revised “Vanessa” in an attempt to make it more “user-friendly” and removed colloratura passages such as the “Skating Aria”, settling the “fach” of the leading lady as a lirico spinto.

Video Clips of Vanessa

San Diego Opera Talk with Nick Reveles: Vanessa – Inspired by a novel by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen: “Out of Africa”), Samuel Barber’s Vanessa was snubbed by “modern” composers. But its love story and lush, romantic music made it an instant hit with audiences and won Barber the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Nicolas Reveles hosts an intimate portrait of the opera and its creator. Series: “San Diego OperaTalk! with Nick Reveles” [11/2004] [Humanities] [Arts and Music] [Show ID: 8669]

“Do not utter a word” – Eleanor Steber – The creator of the role of Vanessa learnt the opera in 6 weeks after Sena Jurinac pulled out of the first production. She included the original colloratura aria which was later cut. She sang the role in the first recording of the opera, oposite Swedish tneor Nicolai Gedda. Steber also commissioned “Knoxville: Summer of 1915″ from Barber, and recorded it twice, both in its version for orchestra and piano. Here you can hear a live version with piano from Carnegie Hall.  The accompanist is her longtime accompanist Edwin Bittcliffe:  Knoxville: Summer of 1915” Part 1, Part 2

“Do not utter a word” – Leontyne Price – One of the great interpretations

ACT 1 excerpt: Kiri te Kanawa (Monte-Carlo) – Perhaps a surprising choice of casting, yet Kiri reveals the lyric side of the writing.

ACT 2 excerpt: Kiri te Kanawa (Monte Carlo)

ACT 3 Excerpt: Kiri Te Kanawa (Monte Carlo)

ACT 4 Exceprt: Kiri te Kanawa (Monte Carlo)

“Must the winter come so soon” Erika’s first aria here sung by Mary Gayle Greene, who was a Met Audition winner, now teaching in North Carolina. Sung with Piano Accompaniment

Lauren Flanigan: New York City Opera – an assumption of the role that surely needs to be recorded on CD

Video Clips of Antony and Cleopatra

Barber’s attempts at extending the shelf-life of this opera included making a chamber-reduction of the score, as well as a translation into Italian.

“Give me my robe” Leontyne Price

“Give me my robe” Catherine Malfitano

“Give me some music”: Catherine Malfitano

“Death of Enobarbus”: Eric Halfvarson

“I am sick and sullen” Catherine Malfitano and R.Cowan Chicago 1991

“O take those lips away: Catherine Malfitano and R.Cowan Chicago 1991

Barber also wrote a One-Act Opera “A hand of Bridge”

I hope to see more recordings and live performances of these powerful works.

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I have been a repetiteur for many productions, from Operas to Musicals to Cabarets. But I have enjoyed few of them as much as this production conducted by Alex Fokkens and directed by Lara Bye.  The story is delightfully funny and charming. A young couple are in love and already secretly married, and this becomes the engine that drives the farce. I think it is a real “Closet-Opera”: there is always at least one closet on the stage, with always at least one person hiding in it, about to hide in it, or who has just come out from hiding in it. It is a lovely excuse for some comic bussiness and delightful Bel Canto music with exhilirating runs, high notes, cadenzas and furious finales. The work itself is a pleasure, Rossini’s 5th opera, the work of a twenty year old. Musch of the mature Rossinian genius is already to be found. Team leaders Alexander Fokkens and Lara Bye created a production bubbling with life, humour and energy.

Conductor Alexander Fokkens

Conductor Alexander Fokkens

Alex Fokkens uses a light touch on the score. The orchestration had to be reduced for this production and the Cape Town Camerata certainly has their work cut out for them. Alex understands voices well and it is evident that he has studied singing himself. The skill he brings to conducting Rossini is the ability to keep things “light and frothy” but not “frothy and frivolous”. He has a way of insisitng on what he wants, musically, while keeping the mood positive and creative. His experience as an opera conducor certainly pays off in the devellish ensembles as much as in the slow arias, where a misjudgment of tempo could be fatal. I appreciated all his discussions with the cast about expressive detail. The atmosphere of exploration and discovery was one to treasure.

Director Lara Bye

Director Lara Bye

Lara Bye is so refreshing to work with. Willing to think “outside the box”, she rethinks operatic conventions and came up with a classic comedy that has a very contemporary feel to it. Her eye for comic timing is excellent and she has the ability to keep everybody focussed on what she is trying to communcate to an audience, while keeping the mood light enough for all the cast members to feel relaxed enough to make their own contributions. I felt asif I was watching a growth process in which the joy and fun of Rossini’s opera revealed itself in stages, a series of discoveries. Multimedia elements, animations and projections by Jon Keevy adds to the comedy and freshness of the production. The off-beat production had audiences of all ages laughing and giggling at its first public outing in February. Packed houses enjoying an afternoon of Opera? How delightful!

I very much enjoyed working with the cast. The two Baritones Aubrey Lodewyk and Conroy Scott both have very striking stage-personalities and the voices to match.

Baritone Aubrey Lodewyk

Baritone Aubrey Lodewyk

Aubrey plays the likeable servant Germont, who’s only real charachter-flaws are his fondness for the lovely “lady of the manor”, Giulia, and the bottle. He creates much confusion by falling asleep at the wrong time in the wrong place and getting messages mixed up.  In particular, Aubrey’s aria is one of the trickiest obstacle-courses a Baritone could tackle. While no-one ever doubted that he would master the role, I remember the first run-through at the piano. Page upon page upon page of tremendously taxing music lay before us. My eyes popped open. His eyes popped open. The rest of the cast’s eyes popped open. So many notes! Such a long aria! And such leaps from high to low. As we turned the page for the second verse of the fast cabaletta Aubrey took a deep breath and said – mid-cadenza – “Coffee Break!”

Conroy Scott – who also plays the Double Bass professionally – is given the role of Blanzac, whose overconfidence and fall from grace, is plotted and portrayed with excellent comic timing. I enjoyed his awareness of what the basses would be playing at any given moment in the opera. Even in this early Rossini opera, the trademark harmonic drive is evident, and Conroy’s orchestral experience creates a sense of being very aware of and in tune with whatever is happening in the orchestra pit. There’s a sense of youth, energy and enjoyment about being in rehearsal with Conroy that I enjoyed.

Conroy Scott and Zanne Stapelberg: Die Burger Gala Concert Feb. 2009

Conroy Scott and Zanne Stapelberg: Die Burger Gala Concert Feb. 2009

Magdalene Minnaar "La Scala di Seta" 2009

Magdalene Minnaar "La Scala di Seta" 2009

Magdalene Minnaar has a wonderfully expressive colloratura. Working with her on runs and cadenzas is truly fun. She has an excellent ear and faultless intonation – from many years of music lessons and performing also as a violinist, no doubt. And if one suggests just one more high note, or one more tricky little hairpin bend on some ridiculously high note, she is not only willing to try it, but can actually pull it off! I really enjoy her willingness to find a dramtic reason for a cadenza, and to let the music guide the movements to go with the notes. She will be fitting in this production on her way to New York for Masterclasses.

Elizabeth Frandsen

Elizabeth Frandsen

Elizabeth Frandzen sings the role of Lucilla with the perfect mixture of comedy, irony, and a touch of the “Adams Family”. Her popping in and out of the closet is one of the highlights of the evening, and her seduction of Blanzac is delightfully funny. Her powerful mezzo can be brandished like a sword to subdue a cocky baritone, or like a ticklish little feather to seduce the man of her dreams. Her aria is one of the highlights of the show and it is very hard to leave the reharsal room without whistling her perky little tune.

For the present revival only one cast-change was made: Sunnyboy Dladla will now be singing the role of Dorvill, the romantic hero. His comic flair is remarkable and his lyric tenor is ideal for the florid writing. Dorvil is a sweet mixture of the desperately tragic hero and the sweet innocence of the young lover.
Sunnyboy Dladla in Verona, Italy 2009

Sunnyboy Dladla in Verona, Italy 2009

Jacques Louw

Jacques Louw

Jacques Louw sings the tutor Dormont. A character role, he tends to pop up at inconvenient times and in even more inconvenient places.

The project is presented under the auspices of the South African Wagner Society and coordinated by Music Maestro’s

January 2009: Artscape Theatre

January 2009: Artscape Theatre

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Catch  “La Scala di Seta” 12 and 13 June 2009 at Atrscape Theatre

LaScala FB sized poster


Dormont is the teacher and guardian of the beautiful Giulia, and he is determined that she will marry Blansac despite her continual rejection of his advances. The fact is that Giulia is already married to Blansac’s friend Dorvil, who every night is able to exercise his conjugal rights because Giulia lowers a ladder made of silk down to him from her bedroom window.

The opera opens in the morning. Owing to the attentions of Giulia’s cousin Lucilla, and the family servant, Germano, Dorvil has great difficulty making his escape by his usual method. Blansac is due to arrive at any minute in his quest for win Giulia’s love, but she has devised a scheme to divert his amorous attentions towards her cousin, who would make an excellent wife for him.

Giulia intends to bring Lucilla and Blansac together, and persuades Germano to spy on them from a secret hiding place to see how the relationship develops. Blansac arrives with his good friend Dorvil, who desperately tries to persuade him that Giulia is not looking for a husband. Unfortunately this only has the effect of making Blansac more determined, and more confident of success. He suggests that Dorvil might care to hide and see how successfully he is able to woo Giulia. Consequently, when Giulia enters, her meeting with Blansac is being overhead by both Germano and by her husband.

Giulia decides to probe Blansac to see if he would make a good and faithful husband for her cousin. Her questioning deceives all of the men listening into thinking that she is genuinely interested in Blansac. Dorvil emerges from hiding and storms off in fury, much to Germano’s surprise, who also shows himself. In the midst of all the confusion and noise Lucilla enters and Blansac suddenly notices what a fine looking young woman she is. Decidedly prettier than her cousin Giulia.

It is now late evening. Giulia is desperate for Dorvil to arrive so that she can explain the reason why she was questioning Blansac so closely about marriage. Once again the servant Germano is on hand and realizes that his mistress has an assignation. He can only assume that it is with Blansac, and decides to hide once more and see what happens. Unfortunately he is unable to keep his secret to himself and he lets Lucilla in on it. She is distressed to learn that Blansac, who she now loves dearly, is meeting Giulia and she also determines to find a hiding place in Giulia’s bedroom to observe proceedings.

There is general surprise and joyful amazement when it is Dorvil who climbs into the bedroom, followed closely by his friend who is intent on using the silken ladder to further his wooing, not of Giulia, but Lucilla. Everyone scatters when Dormont, who has been woken by all the noise, enters in his nightshirt. Seeing the way that everything has turned out for the best, he quickly forgives the couples for their underhand behavior and all ends in general rejoicing.

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As a freelance pianist working with a variety of singers, I am often looking for “programme-fillers”. I make some suggestions here of duets for Soprano and Mezzo and would appreciate others to leave suggestions as comments. I have to include the warhorses. This is just a list off the top of my head, so I would appreciate other input. So far I have not included song repertoire per se. A few Handel duets are included but probably require a post on their own.


J.S. Bach: Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten – Kantata BWV78

Pergolesi: “Stabat Mater –

Vivaldi: “Gloria” – Laudamus te”

Rossini: “Stabat Mater” – Quis est Homo

Verdi: “Requiem” – Recordare


Gluck: “Iphigenie en Aulide” – C’est Mon Pere, Seigneur

Monteverdi: “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” – Signor, hoggi rinasco

Purcell: “King Arthur” –  Shepherd, Shepherd, leave decoying

Handel: “Giulio Cesare” – Son nata a lagrimar + Caro Bella

Mozart: “Cosi fan tutte” – Prendero + Ah Guarda Sorella

Mozart: “Nozze di Figaro” – Conzonetta sull’aria (2 Sopranos but can work with one mezzo) +Aprite presto aprite

Mozart: “La Clemenza di Tito” – Non ci pentiam…Ah perdona al primo affetto

Mozart: “La Clemenza di Tito” – Come ti piace imponi

Bellini: “Norma” – Mira o Norma

Donizetti: “Anna Bolena” – Dio, che mi vedi in core…Al par del mio…Va, infelice, e teco reca

Strauss: “Der Rosenkavalier” – Presentation of the Rose  (Mir ist die Ehre) + The Final Duet (Spür nur dich allein)

Dvořák: “Rusalka” – Act 1: Tvoje Moudrost Všechno Tuší

Weber: “Der Freischütz” – Schelm, Halt Fest! Ich Will Dich’s Lehren

Humperdinck: “Hansel und Gretel” – Evening Prayer (Abends will ich schlafen gehn ) + “Brother come and dance with me)

Offenbach: “Tales of Hoffman” – Barcarolle (Belle Nuit)

Ponchieli: “La Gioconda” – L’amo come il fulgor + E un anetema

Puccini: “Madama Butterfly”  – Flower Duet (Tutti i fior)

Delibes: “Lakme” – Flower Duet (Viens Mallika)

Menotti: “The Old Maid and the Thief” – opening scene

Donizetti: “Maria Stuarda” – Morto al mondo

Rossini: “Bianca e Falliero” – Ciel! Qual destin terribile!

Rossini: “Tancredi” – Fiero incontro…Lasciami: non t’ascolto

Rossini: “Semiramide” – Giorno d’orror!… e di contento

Mozart: “Mitradate” – Se viver non degg’io

Bellini: “I Cappuletti i Montecchi”

Tchaikovsky: “Pikova Dama” – ACT I Sc.2: Duet: ‘Uzh vecher’ AND Duetto – Moi milenki druzhok


Bernstein “West Side Story” – A boy like that

“Calamity Jane” – A Woman’s Touch

“Pal Joey” – Take Him”

“Guys and Dolls” – Marry the Man Today”

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The tenor who was almost a nurse

Sunnyboy Dladla at 20 Tenors

Sunnyboy Dladla at 20 Tenors

DANGEROUS LIAISONS: Bel Canto Arias and Duets of Love & Intrigue

Beau Soleil Music School
12 Salisbury Rd, Kenilworth
Adults R50, Children R20

I love listening to Sunnyboy’s voice. It is a clear and bright sound that goes up and down the scale without sounding tight, tense or pinched. He can reach those stratospheric high notes that are so thrilling in operatic music. Sunnyboy sounds young and fresh, no wobble in sight, without any of the suicidal gasps and chest-beating one expects from the stereotypical straining tenor. Our upcoming programme “Dangerous Liaisons” features music written for tenor and soprano (sung by Magdalene Minnaar), with the bulk of it featuring Italian opera in a style known as Bel Canto. This music is florid, with abundant runs and much ornamentation. In order to sing these, one needs a lighter voice capable of executing dazzling displays of virtuosity, flexibility and easy high notes.

Ask what a tenor is and many people may answer Pavarotti or Domingo. Yes indeed, tenors they are. But that’s only one type of tenor, the kind who sings more dramatic music. Domingo always had a very powerful voice, and started his career not as a tenor at all but the more dark sounding Baritone. Pavarotti was a lyric tenor in his youth, but eventually made the transition to more dramatic roles, superstardom and wealth. Many serious musicians and opera-lovers regret the fact that he did not stay in that lyric repertoire for longer.

Sunnyboy Dladla is such a lyric tenor. He has had notable successes in Mozart operas (Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro) in Cape Town. He was winner of the Schock Singing Competition in 2008 and he has performed in Youth Concerto Festivals with orchestras around the country. In 2009 he has made a name for himself in Oratorio with performances of Handel’s Messiah around the country. I wanted to work with Sunnyboy because I like him as a person, I respect his work-ethic and he simply sings up a storm!

Sunnyboy Dladla, a lyric tenor , very nearly didn’t become an opera singer. He studied to be a nurse, but struggled financially, and couldn’t afford to complete his studies. While working as a volunteer nurse he was brought to Cape Town by his former Mpumalanga classmates Pretty Yende and Given Nkosi. Pretty and Given had been admitted to  UCT partly because of their repeated wins in the opera category of the Tirisano Schools Music Competition. Sunnyboy had been a provincial winner in this very same competition, and so his hopes were high.

Unbelievably, given his subsequent successes, Sonnyboy’s first audition for the UCT College of Music was unsuccessful. The audition panel felt he lacked musical and operatic experience and that he would not cope with the demands of the Opera Diploma. They referred him to the now defunct Choral Training Programme, a Development Programme run by Cape Town Opera: a very worthwhile apprenticeship and bridging programme. Yet that wasn’t why he had made the long trip to Cape Town.  It seemed to Sunnyboy that his best option was to take the train back to Mpumalanga. Thankfully, Pretty Yende’s persistence ensured that Sunnyboy was able to sing another audition for Prof. Angelo Gobbato, then head of UCT Opera School.  Angelo saw potential and arranged financial assistance and went to extraordinary lengths to give Sunnyboy the chance to study. Angelo often moved heaven and earth for singers when he saw the spark of potential.

A few years later, and Sunnyboy has already sung in Verona, Italy, one of the greatest opera centres in the world. His career has taken off and he is in demand as one of the most promising South African lyric tenors in recent years. Most recently he has been chosen as one of the Twenty Tenors. Sunnyboy’s humility is striking, as are his openheartedness and his capacity for hard work. He works as a waiter and a librarian to earn money to pay for extra coaching when he is preparing for a performance – something that immediately makes him stand out from the crowd. I first encountered Sunnyboy in the roles of Basilio and Curzio in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Wedding of Figaro), where his comic gifts were recognised and encouraged by American director Chuck Hudson and critics called him “a real comedic talent… responsible for a whirlpool of comedic goings on.”

Sunnyboy is the antithesis of the temperamental tenor, and very quick to acknowledge the guidance he has received from teachers and mentors in his profession, no matter their social standing, and he attributes his success to the fact that he  has been able to put his trust in their guidance.  He still humbly acknowledges what he gained from messrs Mbamba and S’thole from Ndlela High School who encouraged him (he admits a little against his will) to take part in choir competitions.  Likewise, he  recognises the other teachers who have shaped his career. Currently his teacher is Associate Prof. Sidwell Hartman of the South African College of Music, and he has also learnt from one of the greatest Turandots in the world – Hungarian Dramatic Soprano Eva Marton.

Sunnyboy speaks candidly but fondly about the difficulties he had early in his studies. He received a lot of negative feedback, his teacher was a hard and persistent taskmaster and Sunnyboy battled with the adjustment to being a full-time opera student far from home. It didn’t help that his family was anything but supportive. How a young black man from Mpumalanga without the resources to finish a Nursing Diploma thought he could become an opera singer, was something many of his peers could not understand. Yet Sidwell encouraged him to learn from others and most of all, to be careful about his choice of repertoire. Having started his studies as a lower voiced baritone, by his third year his technique started settling and he had made the transition to tenor, where his voice felt more natural, well-placed and he produced his best quality sound.

Vocal chords are tiny little muscles, that can be trained and developed much like any other muscle in the body. But they are easy to damage. Therefore a teacher has enormous responsibility. The teacher has to identify exactly what a student’s voice will be able to do – before they can actually do it – and then has to take that voice on the road to that potential. And they often get it wrong. Singers themselves misunderstand their voices. Often there is great impatience with a young voice. The danger is that some want to push voices to sing louder, bigger, faster. Voices can be “used up” that way. Even great conductors like Karajan have marred legacies, having chosen lighter voices for heavier roles, which then left those voices permanently scarred. (Katia Ricciarelli’s Aida and Turandot come to mind, or Gundula Janowitz’s Empress in “Die Frau ohne Schatten” ).

Wobbles develop, high notes become hard and shrill under pressure, or certain notes just stop ringing properly as the vibrations of the chords are forced out of their natural synch. So far Sunnyboy has avoided these pitfalls. Prof Hartman steered him away from any heavy repertoire and big roles. He was not allowed to sing with any force or pressure, designed to camouflage the real size of the voice. While he always had an agile voice, his teacher taught him how to sing runs without force, and by lightening up the voice he can sing some impressive florid passages. His voice revealed itself to be a true lyric tenor.

From smaller roles in Massenet’s “Manon” and Puccini’s “La Rondine”, he developed steadily until his biggest role to date, as the leading tenor in Mozart’s “Don  Giovanni” , directed by Marcus Desando,  himself a tenor of note in performances of operatic roles and musicals.

Singing in the Teatro Filarmonico in Verona, Italy, is one of the highlights of his career so far.  He was invited to take part in an international competition for young artists, with finance provided by MIAGI. Nothing less than a “Turandot Idols”, singers from around the globe compete in a gruelling set of elimination rounds to win three performances in a staging of Puccini’s “Turandot” in Verona – the Lion’s Den of Italian opera, where tickets cost up to 200 EUROS, (just to keep things in perspective).  Along with fellow UCT students Musa Ngqungwana and Mlamli Lalapantsi, Sunnyboy outsang formidable international competition to win. And no, none of them sang Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” – the World Cup 2007 theme song. They took the roles of Ping, Pong and Pang, three Imperial functionaries whose “cynical, comical and nostalgical” stage business suited the three South Africans to a tee.

Sunnyboy Dladla in Turandot in Teatro Filarmonica, Verona

When I ask Sunnyboy what advice he has for young singers, he is quite clear about his answer “Know your voice, know your “Fach” (the type of music you should be singing to show your voice to its best advantage). Don’t try to sing everything. Say no to things that do not suit your voice. Go for every opportunity you can. And learn Italian! You will be performing in countries where everyone speaks it, and your language has to be perfect if you are going to be singing in Italian”.

And sing in Italian he will. Our programme “Dangerous Liaisons” will feature arias by Bel Canto composers. Sunnyboy will sing arias from Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (Barber of Seville), and “La Scala di Seta” (The Silken Ladder). Sunnyboy will also be seen at Artscape on 12 and 13 June in a revival of La Scala Di Seta, a comic farce, in a production conducted by popular South African Alex Fokkens and directed by Lara Bye, with funding from the South African Wagner Society.

Future productions for Sunnyboy include the delightful Donizetti opera “L’elisir d’amore” where he will sing the romantic young lover Nemorino’s arias in “Dangerous Liaisons”.

Some Lyric Tenors

May 25, 2009

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Here are some lyric tenors from the past singing repertoire which Sunnyboy Dladla and I will be presenting on 31 May in our concert,  “Dangerous Liaisons”.

Fritz Wunderlich – Il mio Tesoro from Don Giovanni (M0zart)

More Wunderlich – Ecco Ridente from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)

Luigi Alva – Una furtiva Lagrima from L’Elisir d’amore (Donizetti)

Luigi Alva – Quanto e bella from L’Elisir d’amore (Donizetti)

Luigi Alva – Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)

Juan Diego Florez – Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)

Juan Diego Florez — Ecco Ridente Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)

William Matteuzzi – La Scala di Seta

Ramon Vargas’s Scala

Bartoli’s Scala