Askonas Holt’s relationship with Cape Town Opera (CTO) goes back over a decade, and has involved presenting the company’s productions of Porgy and Bess and Mandela Trilogy on two major UK tours, as well as a series of concerts in Australia. Taking CTO to Argentina – the company’s first ever tour to South America – was a particular milestone for all concerned, however, and one that would never have happened without a strong existing partnership between Askonas Holt and Buenos Aires’ main opera house, Teatro Colón.
“The idea for the tour came out of a conversation with colleagues at Teatro Colón about our roster and the projects we were involved with in other territories” explains the tour manager, Jonathan Fleming. “Teatro Colón is a house which aspires to present the full range of important operatic repertoire, and we established in conversation that they’d welcome the chance to bring back Porgy and Bess, which had not been seen in Buenos Aires for many years. This particular opera is unique in that it can only be presented on stage by a company of black singers, and because this would be impossible to achieve using local artists, bringing a touring company – and partnering it with the house orchestra – was the only viable option for the theatre”.
“Cape Town Opera, meantime, have established themselves as the pre-eminent international company in terms of producing Porgy and Bess; a work to which they bring not only huge vocal talent, but also a close, personal affinity. Many of the singers were raised, and continue to live, in the townships of South Africa – where poverty, crime and racism remain facts of life – and this brings a special understanding and vibrancy to the stage, making every performance truly come alive”.
The result of this initial discussion was an invitation to Cape Town Opera from Teatro Colón, which the company received with excitement. “It was definitely a huge thrill for CTO to have been invited”, says Fleming. “To be able to perform in such an incredible space, and indeed a theatre widely regarded to be one of the most beautiful and legendary opera houses of the world”.
Still, desire and excitement alone are not enough to successfully transport a South African operatic production to a South American theatre. So, the decision made, Askonas Holt’s touring department got to work on a planning process that would draw upon all the department’s years of experience in touring complicated productions to complicated places.
“With any tour there are multiple processes”, begins Fleming. “There’s always an awful lot of detail required in terms of contracting, securing all the visas, and sorting out the flights and logistics. However, with touring to Argentina there are additional considerations, not least because Teatro Colón is a government institution, with very specific timelines and procedures”. In fact, so as to accomplish all of the necessary work, the tour preparations began nearly two years in advance, throughout which time Askonas Holt acted as the essential administrative link between Cape Town and Buenos Aires. “With a project such as this we’re sitting in the middle, contracting both the performers and the theatre”, explains Fleming. “So we were conducting extensive liaisons between the Argentine and South African sides, all the while working to ensure that vital deadlines were met”.
Administrative preparations aside, opera tours often present interesting challenges in terms of the differences between venues from a technical perspective, and Porgy and Bess certainly had its fair share of such challenges.
“One issue was that the stage at Teatro Colón has a significant rake” explains Fleming, “whereas Cape Town Opera had never performed Porgy on a raked stage, and their large set hadn’t been designed with one in mind. There followed a long discussion about keeping the stage safe – essentially ensuring that pieces of the set did not slide into the orchestra pit – yet without resorting to using a traditional anti-rake, which can impede the view from the stalls seats. In the end, the technicians on both sides concluded that the braking systems built into the sets would likely be sufficient, with contingency plans made in addition to ensure that all was well.
Thankfully the set worked perfectly in the end, although Askonas Holt’s team of Jonathan Fleming and Elinor Camlin ensured that they remained on hand throughout the period of stage set-up and rehearsal to resolve minor problems and help negotiate the differences in working culture that can exist between performing organisations from very different parts of the world. Even helping the performers to navigate the labyrinthine corridors of Teatro Colón was an essential if time-consuming task!
“It’s interesting to watch how, in all areas of the production from lighting to costumes, a relationship quickly grows even when there is an obvious language barrier,” comments Fleming. “Things sometimes begin bumpily on day one of the engagement, because people are unfamiliar with each other’s way of working. However, a bond and an understanding grows, as everyone strives to make the production look and sound great”.
“One person who worked extra hard was the conductor, Tim Murray, since he was working with the house orchestra and therefore needed not only to overcome a language barrier and help the orchestra get this new repertoire under their fingers, but also to put over a stylistic approach that the musicians were less familiar with. It’s not music that wants to be played in a safe, comfortable manner, and Tim needed to help the players let rip… Finally meeting the singers at the stage rehearsals made a difference too: the quality of the Cape Town voices is so big and vibrant, not to mention the exuberant choreography, that I think the orchestra members were quite taken aback!”.
In fact, such was the excitement around Teatro Colón that it was readily agreed that the dress rehearsal would be an open one. “It was very memorable”, he says. “There were members of the house ensembles and their families, and people from all the other departments of the theatre who had heard about what was happening on stage, and I believe that what they saw and heard will have left some lasting memories”. Judging by the fantastic reviews that followed on opening night, the impression made by Cape Town Opera on the opera-going public of Buenos Aires was equally powerful.
As for the future, with Askonas Holt helping to nurture creative links, there is the promise of more to come. “During our stay in Argentina, a friendship grew between Cape Town Opera and Teatro Colón, says Fleming. “Conversations turned to what CTO could present if they come back, as well as to the idea of an exchange visit, where musicians from Teatro Colón could potentially travel to South Africa in the future with a taste of their homeland”.
Beyond cultural exchange, the initial conversation from two years prior had resulted in another feather in the cap for Cape Town Opera because, as Fleming points out, “the fact that they have now performed at Teatro Colón, generating this tremendous feedback, will help to attract the interest of other major presenters. Good news travels in our business, and this production of Porgy and Bess will surely be enjoyed wherever it travels.”
Later this year Askonas Holt will take Cape Town Opera on tour to Hong Kong with Mandela Trilogy.