“I Live to Sing”: Black Opera Students Excel at Formerly White School in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Democracy Now*

democHAVANA TIMES – As post-apartheid South Africa struggles to fulfill its promise, the new documentary “I Live to Sing” follows three gifted singers at the University of Cape Town Opera School, which was once off-limits to black students.

“For many years, opera was viewed in South Africa and elsewhere as a completely European, elitist, white art — both by whites who felt that blacks weren’t going have what it took to sing opera, but also more recently, by the black government in South Africa,” says director Julie Cohen. The film premieres tonight on PBS Thirteen in New York City, and will be available to watch online.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As people around the world mark Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, we look now at a new film that follows three gifted singers at the University of Cape Town’s Opera School, which was once closed to black students. It’s called I Live to Sing. This is a clip featuring one of the students, Thesele, a bass baritone, as he visits the Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, from 1962 to 1990.

MAKUDUPANYANE SENAOANA: It was just a revelation to see where Nelson Mandela and other prisoners stayed for such long periods of their lives.

FORMER PRISONER: I was a prisoner here at Robben Island prison from 1977 to 1982. Each prisoner was given two mats like these and five blankets. We were woken up at 5:00 in the morning. The doors would open at 7:00. After we had breakfast, we were taken out to go to work.

TOUR GUIDE: Mr. Nelson Mandela suffers from respiration problems. So the quarry would be the main reason for that, because for eleven-and-a-half years they were not given any form of protective gear. So, on windy days, so obviously the wind would pick up the lime sand, and they would breathe the lime sand in, and that damaged their lungs.

FORMER PRISONER: Mr. Mandela’s cell will be the fourth window.

MAKUDUPANYANE SENAOANA: For me, it was just interesting to see how small the cell was. That guy lived in a cell that was literally smaller than most people’s bathrooms. To have somebody who comes out of a place like that and has—and has such—such peace in his heart still, wow, it’s amazing.

THESELE KEMANE: Yeah, I learned something. I learned more than what I used to know before. Yes, I am the child of that era, but it’s just that I appreciate what Nelson Mandela and the others went through. The world would probably be a different place if it wasn’t because of their hard work. Much appreciated.

JULIE COHEN: Have your parents ever seen you perform in an opera?

THESELE KEMANE: They have never seen me perform in an opera.

THESELE’S MOTHER: I would like to see him. I would like to see him at the theater.

THESELE’S FATHER: Surely, surely, I would like to sit in front of him and listen properly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s a clip from I Live to Sing, which follows three young singers at the University of Cape Town’s Opera School, a place that was off-limits to their parents during the time of apartheid. The film premieres tonight on PBS in New York City, and you’ll be able to watch it online, as well, starting tomorrow at thirteen.org.

Well, for more we’re joined by the film’s director, Julie Cohen.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Julie.

JULIE COHEN: Thanks, Juan. Great to see you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, first of all, tell us about the singer in that first clip and his parents and what you learned about the young people of South Africa today in making this film.

JULIE COHEN: Absolutely. There were two singers in that clip, a tenor named Makudupanyane and also the bass baritone, Thesele Kemane, and his parents, who had never had the opportunity to see him perform in an opera before and were quite surprised that he chose this as a career path. As they noted, their dreams for him when he was first born didn’t really include an education at the finest universe in the country, because at that time that was not only impossible, but almost beyond imagination. The huge change that have taken place in Thesele’s 26-year lifetime has been, you know, a thrill for them, but also led in all kinds of surprising directions, because they had not been familiar with opera before their son began—became singing it. And the thought that he was now not only going to be going to the finest opera school at the finest university in the country, but also visiting Europe and the United States with his singing, really blew the whole family away, I’d say.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this whole idea, in terms of the African majority in South Africa to see opera as essentially an art form of the colonizer, of the white minority.

JULIE COHEN: Absolutely. And for many years, opera was viewed in South Africa—and elsewhere, by the way—as a completely European, elitist, white art, both by whites who felt that blacks weren’t going to have what it took to sing opera, but also, more recently, by the black government in South Africa, who is concerned that—”Is this really what black students should be doing? Isn’t this the art form of the oppressor?” Of course, these young people are extraordinarily talented, and what they care about is the art and singing and doing what they love to do and what they can do so brilliantly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what drew you to make this film?

JULIE COHEN: Well, I thought it was an extraordinarily compelling story. On the one hand, it was the talent of the students. I became aware of it, actually, because the current director of the school is an American named Kamal Khan, who I had known during childhood and knew to be a brilliant conductor and now had gone to South Africa to undertake this endeavor. But really what drew me in wasn’t so much the politics or the racial issues or apartheid and now the anti—and now the end of apartheid, but the extraordinary talent of the singers, both black and white, and the school that had—was, for most of its century-long history, whites-only, is now actually about two-thirds black and mixed-race students. And there’s just some pretty amazing art going on there, and I think you’re going to see a new breed of opera students—of opera stars all across the world who are coming from the black townships of South Africa. Some recent graduates actually have already really made names for themselves, including Pretty Yende, who is—made her debut at the Met in January. Pretty extraordinary for a 27-year-old of any background.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to play another clip from I Live to Sing. This is one of the three main characters in the film, Makudu.

MAKUDUPANYANE SENAOANA: I feel as though there’s still a lot to be said about what happened in apartheid. It’s a story that really needs to be shared.

JULIE COHEN: What year were you born?


JULIE COHEN: So, very near the end.

MAKUDUPANYANE SENAOANA: Very near the end of apartheid. Although you still have a lot of underlying—underlying things that kind of—in the story that kind of make you think of certain situations that are underlying in South Africa still.

STAGE ACTOR: Justice is when the black man digs and the white man carries a briefcase.

STAGE ACTORS: Yes, it is.

STAGE ACTOR: Justice is when a black woman cooks and the white woman has breakfast in bed.

MAKUDUPANYANE SENAOANA: If you look at the fact that apartheid basically happened in America with the blacks and the white, apartheid basically happened in Germany with the Jews and the Germans, and anybody can understand what you’re talking about, you know?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was another character in your film, Makudu. And this whole issue of the younger generation, black and white, in South Africa, their view of race and political struggle in their own country’s history?

JULIE COHEN: Well, what surprised me as an outsider coming into the country was the extent to which only 19 years, after all, after the end of apartheid and Mandela’s election as president, the extent to which it’s—apartheid and the South Africa’s history is not too frequently discussed by young people in their twenties. Makudu is quite an exception to that; he’s actually quite politically active. But the other two characters that I spoke to and many of the other young people of both races in South Africa don’t want to talk too much about apartheid or about racial politics. And I was—it was almost, I thought, devastating to hear that Thesele said that he doesn’t—he’s not interested in voting, because he feels disillusioned with the things that have happened in his country over the past decades. And this is a young man whose father was an on-the-ground activist organizing strikes at the bank where he worked as a messenger and janitor for many years, struggling to get the right for himself and his family to vote. And—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to end with a clip from I Live to Sing, when the film follows Thesele, who you just mentioned, as he arrives at the United Nations to sing before the General Assembly.

JEFF RADEBE: Celebration of President Mandela’s 94th birthday takes place in New York, where Mandela was granted the honor of the freedom of the city.

THESELE KEMANE: I felt it was an auspicious occasion. Did you see my posture when I walked there? That’s a very decent, elegant posture. [singing]

I never thought that I could ever be here before. I never thought I would stand there and sing. It was just an unbelievable moment for me. Unbelievable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A clip from I Live to Sing. He was singing from The Barber of Seville at the United Nations. And, Julie, their ability to do this and for you to make this film is actually part of the legacy of what Mandela has left behind now, and this on his 95th birthday. Your thoughts on Mandela’s impact on the country?

JULIE COHEN: Well, absolutely. I mean, as Thesele himself, who, I was just saying, isn’t too political, as he realized one year ago today walking past Mandela’s picture on the United—at the United Nations as he got ready to sing opera on the floor of the General Assembly, he said to me, “When I think about the opportunities that I wouldn’t have had a few years ago and the opportunities that I do have now, I’m incredibly moved by that experience.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it’s a wonderful film. Julie Cohen is director of I Live to Sing, which premieres tonight on PBS Thirteen. Starting tomorrow, you can watch it online, and we’ll link to the film at our website, democracynow.org. Thanks very much for being with us, Julie.

JULIE COHEN: Thank you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For those of you in the New York area, tune in tonight at 7:00 p.m. to Time Warner’s NY1 channel, where I’ll be debating Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway on the mounting problems with the city’s $2 billion modernization of its 911 system that I’ve been investigating for months.

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