Standing sparsely in the midst of audience members and between the tall, reverent columns that point skyward in St George’s Cathedral, twelve apostle-like figures fill the stony, cold void in every corner of the space. Their melodic utterances are like a gospel for a new era – one that both breaks with tradition and, simultaneously, unabashedly upholds it.
The Cape Town Opera Chorus, winners of the 2013 International Opera Awards ‘Chorus of the Year’ are described as one of the most compelling and varied vocal ensembles on the planet. True to form, their graceful entrance, mingling with the audience members, takes us by surprise as we are cocooned in an almost 360° serenade of sound, from east and west, north and south - a meta-narrative for the coming together of two (or more) worlds.
From the onset the performance stands in stark contrast to what one might traditionally expect from an opera chorus - not only with the ever-moving performers who float through the audience, but because Grace Notes amalgamates sacred European choral music with the rich, culturally textured push of its African equivalent. Religious music is drawn from Xhosa, Venda, Zulu and Swahili traditions and mixed with sacred compositions by European composers.
At the altar’s scarlet platform with all its western underpinnings, the performers converge and begin to espouse an instinctively African predisposition for movement as they groove to the rhythm of the one, four and five harmonies of Mahlo A Bona. We are invited to an evening of art that draws in everyone and excludes no-one, not even those who are averse to choral or classical music.
Thuthuka Sibisi, musical director and conductor - describes it a sadness that South African choral traditions have not yet been allowed their own space in the canon of the world’s art-music: “I am of Zulu descent, and for me it is important that African traditional culture is reflected on the same stages as the work belonging to European antiquity.”
Profiled by the Mail & Guardian as one of 200 young South Africans to watch, Sibisi exudes a calm and confident composure as he gracefully orchestrates the ensemble through African pieces that alternate freely with the European compositions. At moments, the pieces blend together with little indication of them being separate entities. The singers mirror this idea - their slick, simple choreography lets them flow in and around each other while keeping the listener visually engaged to the very end.
The result of this hybrid is a beautifully refreshing and welcome contribution to what could possibly become a new discipline all its own, one that could ignite an interest from audiences who otherwise would not attend ‘high art’ events – events that many might say have become too bogged down in static tradition.
Sibisi achieves this aim by ending the performance with Ukuthula, sung from behind the audience at the entrance to the cathedral. Audience members leave their seats to stand in the aisles and some congregate on the altar platform to get a good vantage point, resulting in a complete reversal of the typical performer/audience norm. Within the high, imposing and unbending walls and columns of the cathedral, this tableau makes a punchy statement, indicative of the multi-dimensional future of South African opera.
Overcome with emotion, the woman next to me exclaims, “I didn’t want it to end, I could sit here and listen to that all night!”
Grace Notes can be seen again on 20 July at St George’s Cathedral and 27 July at St John’s Church, Wynberg. Tickets are R130. Book now through: firstname.lastname@example.org