Richard Edmonds recently travelled to Cape Town to preview the Gershwin opera Porgy & Bess, which is now at Birmingham Hippodrome. Here are his personal reflections on the visit.
At 37,000 feet the African coastline looked like a fragile white ribbon holding back the bulk of the Atlantic.
We were hurrying down to Cape Town, where I was working with the cast of Porgy and Bess in the Cape Town Opera production of the Gershwin folk-opera, which began its national tour at Birmingham Hippodrome yesterday.
The flight time (we left Heathrow at 9pm) included the Southern night sky – it was a bonus, and I had a window seat.
Just before night faded into dawn and the reading lights were switched off, I had a last glimpse of the stars which were totally mesmerising.
These stars were huge, almost near enough to touch, and they glowed in the darkness, like enormous stage spotlights on a vast dark stage that stretched away to eternity.
Finally, we saw Table Mountain and Cape Town appeared through an early African winter morning drizzle, then the plane bumped down.
After passport control I realised I was running late. I had lost my colleagues from two London papers ages ago.
So it was the voice of the hall porter saying: “Let me take your bags Sir”, at the luxurious Taj Hotel, (Cape Town’s best owned by TaTa steel, who also own British Jaguar) that restored the balance.
Everything boiled down to a quick hot coffee and suddenly, I find myself in a strange place, initiating provocative but polite dialogue with Cape Town Opera’s singers in the warren of offices that flank the company’s rehearsal space, dialogue which has to produce a feature article within days.
There seems little hope of that happening. However, one soldiers on. And suddenly the singers took off, they talked about their lives, what brought them into opera, and all the things that make an interview tick. And suddenly I find myself singing with one of this years’s several Carmens, the habanera from Bizet’s opera of the same name.
“I have loved Bizet’s Carmen all my life” I say, she feels the same, learning it at her father’s knee. The interview ends in laughter, with this beautiful woman shaking hands, and saying: “See you in Birmingham.”
How quickly Dr. Theatre takes over and how suddenly you forget personal trials and tribulations when the magic of great theatre kicks in. Did I have a headache? I can’t remember, since by now Bess had switched from Bizet and was singing Gershwin’s sublime Summertime.
The company was ranged around the rehearsal room like badly-wrapped parcels, which is the way of companies in rehearsal. But when they sang and moved into the songs Gershwin wrote for black singers only (white opera companies cannot perform Porgy and Bess) everything changed and the roof came off.
This is why I’m here, I thought, this is why I’m on earth, and at that moment, with magnificent singing soaring higher and higher, there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be.
The Mandela Trilogy is also coming to Britain, but it will be presented only at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff later this month.
It is a stirring, stimulating opera created by three composers, and if the singers seemed almost more enthusiastic when rehearsing it than they did with the Gershwin piece, this is entirely to be expected, since Mandela has now become canonised and is a hero, and for the singers this was their recent history taking in the hideousness of the grim apartheid years.