Have we forgotten what we’re here for?

FOR the superficial love of just being in the audience.

WHEN A MAN comes on stage just before a heavily touted show starts, to announce his great respect for all the people performing here because no one is earning money for doing so, is this a thing you’re meant to clap about? There is a huge problem in the arts industry when expensive tickets get sold on the backs of performers giving of their time with no serious acknowledgement of their skills. When amateurs take to the stage and real money changes hands for the questionable privilege of watching them do their shtick, who suffers? The industry itself, which includes the performers who leap at the chance to work, even if it is under people who know not what they do; and the audiences, who get royally conned of their time and their money and more seriously, perhaps, the idea of what good art actually is.

It seems reasonable to expect, when a production is professionally marketed, on radio stations and social media, when it is staged at a mainstream auditorium and when it comes with a price tag of between R200 and R475 a seat, that what you will pay for will be something of quality. You might not be condemned for wanting to understand it to be about a sense of event, not in terms of the bling in the audience or the food served at interval, but because of the bottom line technical expertise injected into the work itself. You might expect this, but contemporary Johannesburg, it seems, is flooded with something of a different stripe.

Call it unabashed mediocrity. Call it kowtowing to the idea of the money generated by promoting something and pretending it were professional. Call it blatant disregard for the real structures, effort and challenges that make performed theatre, opera or dance so difficult. Call it what you will, but the danger in this type of show that’s flourished and touted as a great wonderwork and collapses in a rush of angry people leaving at interval does more to damage the industry than it does to build it.

And yes, the corollary is blatant and feels extreme: would it be better to have dark theatres and nothing on stage than to fox would-be audience members with way under par productions, where the orchestra is too thin, the performances devastatingly bland and the ensemble laughably weak? Maybe it would. What would this mean? People with talent would lose their dreams or leave the country to chase them. Or perhaps they would go the extra mile in finding whatever it takes to make, mount and stage a work of unequivocal quality.

Perhaps this industry needs to take a step back and consider how easy it is to stage a show at a major theatre in this country. How easy is it to publish fiction? How easy might it be to show work at a major art gallery? Is it about the flash of some money at the right people? Is it about a spot of nepotism or curtseying in the direction of SEO talk? The wheel does turn and quality has a tendency of always, eventually rising to the surface; but when big budget productions are mounted, marketed and received with no regard for skill, or for acknowledging skill and paying professionals properly, we all suffer.

Beautiful opera for the common folk

LET me hold your tiny frozen hand. Rodolfo (Phenye Modiane) in a tender embrace with Mimi (Khaykazi Madlala). Photograph courtesy Gauteng Opera.

SHE ERUPTS ON stage like a splendid volcano of fierceness and vocality, beauty and attitude as she grabs your attention by its proverbial lapels and doesn’t let go, even when she’s not singing. This is Litho Nqai in the role of Musetta, in this production of Gauteng Opera’s La Bohème. And balanced with the more subdued and more classically genteel yet utterly tragic Mimi (Khayakazi Madlala), magic is made. But it’s magic that doesn’t permeate the whole production.

Indeed while you’re watching, you may be tempted to close your eyes and let yourself sink into the glory of beautiful music making that has been celebrated as such since the end of the 19th century. And you may be correct in that decision, as it would preclude your having to see the crude typos in the surtitles and get confused in crowd scenes while the surtitles trip over themselves and throw meaning to the wind. Closed eyed, you’d also not see the staging and the set, which, replete with what emerges as ornamental electric pink step ladders and a misspelled indication of the tavern’s existence, offers a ham-handed attempt at switching the ethos and geography of early Modernist Paris to that of Johannesburg in 2017. But if you did experience the work shut-eyed, you would miss out on the sheer physical beauty of this cast, and their characterisation, which would be a pity.

Overall, this production of this popular tale of poverty and consumption, creativity and prostitution that describes the texture of Europe of the late 1800s, is the kind of work that may tempt you to go on a foray into the history of opera and to think of the context in which there were seats for the ‘common folk’ of the era – the people who for a couple of shillings could be exposed to the magnificence of the medium, but who had the manners and the proclivity to throw rotten fruit at performances they deemed under par. When the company’s CEO stood on stage just before the opening performance and granted the audience permission blanketly to take photographs with their cell phones and tweet and post during the production, effectively, he opened up the work to the same kind of rabble-based behaviour that detracts from a genuine appreciation of the work itself. And unfortunately, ours is not a city theatre which has designated cell-phone-using seats in a context away from the rest, as the fruit-throwing masses of Europe had.

Sadly, it is when the niceties of a production get compromised – when this type of attention to detail is overlooked – something irreplaceable in the magic of the work is lost. While the competence of the Gauteng Opera cast and the orchestra supporting it, cannot be condemned, the effect of the work on as noble and beautifully designed a stage as that of the Mandela, falls into the realm of community production, which just doesn’t do justice to the history and tradition of Puccini – nor to the history and potency of opera in South Africa.

  • La Bohème is composed by Giacomo Puccini with libretto by Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed by Marcus Desando, it features creative input by Lungile Cindi (set), Simon King (lighting), and is performed by Kagiso Boroko, Kanyiso Kula, Khayakazi Madlala, Tshepo Masuku, Vuyani Mlinde, Phenye Modiane, Solly Motaung, Thabiso Nkabane, Litho Nqai and Chuma Sijeqa in the principle roles and Noluthando Biyana, Thandiwe Dlamini, Amie Hood, Mpho Kgame, Letago Komape, Delisile Kubheka, Leana Leuvennink, Phiwe Makaula, Nomvuyo Manomza, Mbulelo Manzini, Lindokuhle Maso, Kgaugelo Mfene, Siphiwe Mkhatshwa, Carmen Micic, Thabang Modise, Mathews Motsoeneng, Sibongile Mtuyane, Zolila Ngudle, Zita Pretorius, Sifiso Radebe, Andries Sebati, Siyabulela Tofile and Simphiwe Yende, from the Gauteng Opera chorus. Performed by the Gauteng Opera Orchestra, led by Camelia Onea and conducted by Eddie Clayton, it is on at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until July 23. Visit http://www.joburgtheatre.com/la-boheme-info/ or gautengopera.org