In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, much has been made of the significance of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. By donning the Springboks jersey, Mandela took a critical step to unifying his riven country, and proved that a sport once seen as the exclusive preserve of white people could also be embraced by the black population.

In a similar way, the drastic shift in South African perceptions of classical music – particularly opera – also represents the shattering of a previously unassailable barrier. In 2002, when the Cape Town Opera company mounted a production of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, the principal roles all had to be sung by Americans because there were no South Africans with the classical training to take on such demanding vocal parts. A decade later in 2012, the company dazzled both local and international audiences with a new production of the same work – and every single major role was sung by a black South African artist, many of whom were born, raised and still live in the townships.

Such progress would be a notable achievement for any country. For one that enjoys no direct government subsidy for an artform that, after apartheid, has invariably been viewed as a symbol of white, European culture, it is remarkable. When the company triumphantly toured London last year, I interviewed Cape Town Opera’s managing director, Michael Williams, who described the advances made in South African opera as “nothing short of a renaissance”.

So what was it that finally busted the stereotype of opera as something for rich white folks? No less than the evidence that it patently wasn’t. “It was certainly a challenge to develop the singers who could eventually sing the leading roles, but people started to realise that the voices coming from the townships were magnificently suited to singing not only Gershwin but Verdi and Wagner and, with a little training, Mozart and Puccini too,” Williams told me.

The people’s opera

Listening to the likes of Xolela Sixaba (Porgy), Bongi Ngoma (Bess) and Tshepo Moagi (Sportin’ Life) sing was a profound experience. Not just because these South African men and women were singing so powerfully, but because of what they were singing about. The director had relocated the action from Catfish Row in the 1920s to Soweto in the 1970s – a critical juncture in apartheid-era South Africa –and it packed a serious punch.

‘We looked at our company and we thought, where do they come from? Where do they live?’ said Williams. “‘What is the story of their lives? Once that was the catchphrase, the ideas just poured forth. So many things just fell into place: issues around drug peddling, which is a real, hard issue in the townships; male-on-female violence, which we as a country unfortunately have very bad statistics on; or how a community takes revenge on a murder.’” And yet, he notes, despite “those grisly issues, there is also the strength of family and community, the sheer sense of unbound joy that is a key mark of singers who come from the townships.”

Song is inextricably woven through the tapestry of South African life, and that “sense of unbound joy” has been a key ingredient in the unexpected flourishing of classical opera in post-apartheid South Africa. “There’s a song for when you’re born, when you first walk, your first date, when your car breaks down, when you get married and when you die,” Williams said. “Always, there’s a song! It’s almost as if the rituals of the passing of life are accompanied by a chorus, and, when you want to start singing stories, opera is simply the next step.”

Classical is the new pop

To prove to young black South Africans that opera really is a step they too can take, Cape Town Opera have developed an impressive outreach programme. “It’s important to go in to the schools, to show the kids aged 12, 13, 14, the sorts of role models they can aspire to,” Williams told me. “So every year we take some of our singers on a national 2,500m odyssey. We go all over the country, doing workshops and performances, and kids seem to instinctively recognise the music and want to sing like that too. Sometimes we find young people singing opera because two years ago we happened to go past there. Young teenage girls singing the Queen of the Night aria, like it’s some kind of pop song....”

The role models are coming thick and fast. The phenomenal young soprano Pretty Yende made her debut at La Scala last autumn and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York earlier this year. In 2010, Njabulo Madlala won the Kathleen Ferrier award, one of the industry’s most glittering honours. He hails from the Inanda township outside Durban and was first inspired by his grandmother, a domestic worker who used to sing Zulu folksongs and lullabies at home. He says that as a boy he dreamed his voice would be his “passport to the world”.

Unlike in the West, where opera might conceivably be seen as mere entertainment, the stakes in Africa are far higher. “Opera opens up a door to a whole new world,” Williams observed, echoing Madlala’s youthful dream. “If you can sing the music in opera, you can sing in Melbourne, Buenos Aires, New York. It’s a passport which makes you part of an international fraternity of people. And it is also an education. When you sing Puccini, Wagner, Massanet, you have to handle such big ideas: history, politics, literature. South Africans don’t necessarily study all that stuff in school or even university, so it is an amazing opportunity for them to learn.”

Indeed, he believes the metaphorical benefits of more South Africans coming to opera are considerable. “The emotional depth one needs to explore with opera – it’s a maturing process,” he said. “With our history, in South Africa, there is a sort of woundedness. Opera draws on such heightened emotion. I really believe it can help free us from the brutality of our past.”

On Friday morning, just hours after the news of Mandela’s death hit, I played music from Njabulo Madlala’s new album on my BBC Radio 3 Breakfast Show. He sang Shosholoza, a traditional Southern African folksong, historically sung by workers in the goldmines but also taken up by the prison population in apartheid-era South Africa as a kind of anthem. Nelson Mandela himself used to sing Shosholoza whilst imprisoned on Robben Island. After his release, Mandela described it as "a song that compares the apartheid struggle to the motion of an oncoming train" and revealed, “the singing made the work lighter.”

If singing stories can in any way mitigate against brutality, we should take this moment to rejoice that, even as a light has just gone out in the world, the future of classical music and opera in South Africa has never looked brighter.

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