Opera in South Africa

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The history of opera in South Africa may be loosely divided into four periods - The period of colonisation before the founding of the Union of South Africa in 1910, From Union till the coming of the South African Republic in 1961, the 30 years from the establishment of the four Performing Arts Councils by Act of Parliament in 1963 up until the end of the Apartheid era in 1993, and the period of the new South African Republic after 1994.

Below follow a few highlights from each of these periods, notable events which in a sense had an impact on theatre in general. For more detailed information see **

Before 1910

Opera was already an active, art form at the Cape in the days of the British occupation, when visiting artists and small touring groups presented operatic productions, often under the rnost primitive conditions in makeshift venues, largely for the entertainment of the officers and their wives The earliest operas perfomied in Cape I'own included works by Storace and Dibin, the first important work being “Der Freischütz” in 1831. Very little documentation of the activities of this period has survived until the present day with the exception of occasional references to performances in journals and letters of the period. Certainly there was little or no formal strucure to opera until the arrival in Cape Town in 1887 of Luscombe Searelle* and his Australian Opera Company. The company had a record season a 162 consecutive performances over a period of six months. After touring the Eastern Cape, Kimberley, Durban and Pietermaritzburg, Searelle and his company arrived in Johannesburg and erected their own theatre, the "Theatre Royal"* at the corner of Eloff and Commissioner Streets. A series of successful seasons followed in quick succession and the new taste for opera which Searelle brought led to the formation of a number of revival opera companies. His final South African season was held in Durban in 1899 after which, financially embarrassed as a result of competition and failed productions he returned to England. Yet, his pioneering spirit had firmly established opera in South Affica. *


A further landmark in South African operatic history occurred in 1932 when John Connell, the Johannesburg City organist and director of music, conducted a performance of “Tannhaüser” The arrival of the Carl Rosa Opera Company in Johannesburg in 1937 for a season at the Empire Theatre gave convincing proof of the substantial public following for opera in the city and led to Connell signing a contract with the SABC to direct opera on regular basis for broadcast. Connell had launched his Musical Fortnights in 1926, and from this, a Johannesburg opera season was to grow. In 1938 Connell's Music Festivals began with ten operas and two ballets being performed by 1946. Connell went on to form a National Opera Company which toured the country when the Johannesburg season had been concluded. From 1945 Connell had begun to travel to Europe and was able to persuade famous conductors to come to South Africa, such as Malcolm Sargent and Thomas Beecham. * Mention must be made of the EOAN Group*, South Africa's most important cultural group for the Cape Coloured community, established in 1933 by Helen Southern-Holt*. It, 1943, the EOAN's music section increased in importance when Joseph Manca took charge of the groups small choir. It was Manca who promoted the idea of an arts festival, the first of which took place in 1956, and it was at this festival that “La Traviata” was sung in Italian. *


Although the performing arts councils were established in 1963, four opera societies existed in the Transvaal before the establishment of PACT: The National Opera Association of South Africa, The Opera Society of South Africa, the South African Opera Federation and the Pretoria Opera Group. * From 1963 till the beginning of the 1990s the bulk of the operas in South Africa were produced by the four state funded Performing Arts Councils (PACs).

After 1994

Spier ****, Opera Africa,

See: ***, 19** ; Hermien Dommisse, 2001; ******)

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