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The Sound of Success

In a first for South Africa, Operalia – the ‘World Cup of Opera’ – was recently hosted in Cape Town. This leading international competition for young opera stars had launched our own Pretty Yende and Levy Sekgapane, as well as many other prominent names in the opera world. MARGUERITE VAN WYK attended the glittering event at Artscape.

Iconic tenor Maestro Domingo was enchanted with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO), which he conducted at the grand finale of Operalia.

WHEN THE TWELVE young opera stars competing in Operalia dazzled the audience on 5 November 2023 at Artscape, it marked an evening of firsts, not only for Cape Town, but for all of South Africa. It was also a first for the streaming platform Medici.tv, with a record 120000 people from all five continents sharing in the event.

I had the privilege of being present at the thrilling event, listening to Operalia founder, Maestro Plácido Domingo, the world‐renowned Spanish tenor‐baritone, sing the praises of the stellar line‐up of competitors as well as of Cape Town.

To crown the event, Domingo, who also chaired the panel of adjudicators, conducted the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO). His performance testified to the talent and remarkable stamina of this silver‐haired 82‐year‐old.

Thirty years ago, Domingo initiated the competition to bring attention to upcoming opera singers and secure invitations for stars of the future on the world’s most famous opera stages. The competition has been presented in cities like London, Paris, Madrid, Hamburg, Tokyo, and Milan.

“Operalia only chooses cities with a good international orchestra, and we are the only city in Africa that could guarantee, within two days of announcing the finalists, that we would have been able to rehearse the music for the final gala concert,” recounts Louis Heyneman, artistic director and chief executive of the CPO. “When the organisers asked us a year ago to present the competition, I did not think twice.”

The grand affair featured 34 singers from 15 countries out of more than 800 applicants. Only 22 reached the semi‐finals, and eventually, 12 finalists advanced to the last round.

Choosing Cape Town was synchronistic. “Only a few days after South Africa was crowned as the World Cup champion on the rugby field, the mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill‐Lewis, in jest referred to Operalia as the ‘World Cup of Opera’,” Louis says with a chuckle.

Two of South Africa’s foremost singers, Pretty Yende, from eMkhondo (Piet Retief) in Mpumalanga, and the tenor from the Free State, Levy Sekgapane from Maokeng (Kroonstad), won in 2011 and 2017 respectively. Today, they conquer hearts worldwide – from La Scala to the Met.

What an impressive line-up! From left are Taehan Kim, baritone, South Korea, winner of the Audience Award; Nombulelo Yende, soprano, South Africa, winner of the Cultur Arte Prize; Luke Sutliff, baritone, United States of America (USA), second prize, male category; Elena Villalón, soprano of the USA, Audience Award; Navasard Hakobyan, baritone of Armenia, The Don Plácido Domingo Ferrer Prize for Zarzuela; Eugénie Joneau, mezzo- soprano, France, second prize, female category, and Birgit Nillson Prize; Stephano Park, bass, South Korea, overall male winner; and Julie Roset, soprano, France, overall female winner.

Some of the world’s most famous present opera singers like curly‐top heartthrob, tenor Rolando Villazón, American mezzo‐soprano Joyce DiDonato, and the fiery Russian soprano Aida Garifullina, to name just a few, are Operalia’s ‘discoveries’. Last year’s South African finalists, Nombulelo Yende (32) and mezzo‐soprano Siphokazi Molteno (31), enchanted the audience.

Everyone had hoped that Yende would follow in her big sister’s footsteps. And shine she did, also in her silver creation.

With an aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, she won the special Cultur Arte Award. Molteno smouldered in a black dress and drew loud applause. She received an encouragement award as a finalist in the zarzuela category for a song by Ruperto Chapi. Domingo’s parents, by the way, were well‐known zarzuela singers. This Spanish opera style is also a category in the Operalia competition.

The 26‐year‐old French soprano Julie Roset was the overall winner of the competition among female singers, and the South Korean bass Stephano Park (26) won the male section. Roset and Park each won $30 000 (about R570 000). Eugénie Joneau (28), also from France, was the female singer winner in the zarzuela category with her rendition of the Chapi song. The Armenian baritone Navard Hakobyan (25), winner of the male section of this category, enchanted the audience with his Amor, vida de mi vida.

Magdalene Minnaar, artistic director of Cape Town Opera, was the only judge from Africa on the Operalia panel. According to her, Domingo couldn’t stop talking about the quality of South African talent.

“I realised again that, although South Africa is so far from Europe and America, the hub of opera, we don’t have to stand back or play second fiddle.Just think of the 35th Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition for young opera singers, which took place in Cape Town in 2016. “To present two acclaimed opera competitions proves that South Africa is of world class and can compete with opera houses in Paris, New York, Berlin, Sydney, Tokyo – just name it,” Minnaar says.

Last year Minnaar was one of four women and five men on Operalia’s panel of judges, the ‘blue blood’ of the international opera world. The other adjudicators were Peter Mario Katona, director of casting at the Royal Opera House in London; Samuel Gelber, creative director at the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Centre; Jonathan Friend, artistic adviser of the Metropolitan Opera House and the Irish National Opera; David Lomeli, chief artistic officer at the Santa Fe Opera, tenor and alumnus of several renowned training programmes for opera stars; Robert Körner, casting director at Wiener Staatsoper; Carolin Wielpütz, director of artistic administration at MusikTheater an der Wien; Annette Weber, director of opera at Opernhaus Zürich; and Evamaria Wieser, director of the Young Singers Project at the Salzburg Festival and European casting consultant for the Opera of Chicago.

Handpicked singers from across the globe concluded this joyous event with the Operalia Anthem.

“Surrealistic,” is how Minnaar describes the experience “to breathe the same air as one of the greatest tenors of all time, to ask him questions. He is so approachable,” she says about Domingo. “To see how people handle opera companies in the rest of the world and to network, stand us as South Africans in good stead.”

Heyneman says CPO and Cape Town Opera broadcasted short promotional videos on Medici.tv during the competition, boosting Cape Town and South Africa’s international image.

How can one ever forget the Maestro’s sexy Spanish accent in which he referred to “your beautiful Mother City” in his speech?

Operalia certainly did wonders for South African tourism. “Participants as well as adjudicators are begeistert by South Africa’s beauty and want to visit our country again and work here,” says Minnaar.

So does Domingo. One of his well‐known quotes is: “I hope I have given back half the joy music has given me.” More than half, Maestro, much, much more! V

* Operalia is part of the Rolex Perpetual Arts Initiative in which the latter supports leading artists and invests in the long term in the cultural and artistic heritage of the arts.