Book extract: ‘A Passion for Opera’ by Angelo Gobbato
Italian immigrant brought beautiful life to SA culture
Angelo Gobbato was born in Milan in the midst of Allied bombings in 1943. Even before he knew the meaning of the word opera he felt an overwhelming passion to express his emotion by singing an aria from Puccini’s La Bohème. The book is not only a memoir but traces the operatic history of both Italy and SA, to where he and his family immigrated.
Extract from A Passion for Opera by Angelo Gobbato. Published by Staging Post, R330
I turned 60 on 5 July 2003 and Cape Town Opera (CTO) decided that this birthday should be marked by a celebratory concert, Bravo Angelo. I was most moved by all the work that went into the preparation of this concert, which I can honestly say marked the happiest moment of my time with CTO. The first half of the concert was dedicated to my career as singer/director. It began with Michael Williams introducing a photomontage of most of the roles I had performed, with a backing track of my singing Largo al factotum from a recording made of the Napac Barber of Seville in 1969. Then the curtain went up on the Auto da fè scene from my production of Don Carlo in 1990. Aviva Pelham introduced a photomontage of scenes from many of my productions, which had as backing track Gert Potgieter and myself singing the Jenik/Kecal duet from a recording of the 1965 Bartered Bride. Then the curtain went up again on a presentation of excerpts from the operettas I had produced, selected and directed by Aviva Pelham with her usual elegance and eye for detail.
After an interval, the Act I finale from the previous year’s production of the UCT/CTO Studio’s Il barbiere di Siviglia was performed to commemorate my career as teacher. Then I appeared in front of the projection screen to sing the song Mamma, accompanied on the piano accordion by Stanislav Anguelov, while a montage of photos of my parents and my early childhood years flashed past. I must confess that it took all of my experience as performer and teacher to overcome the emotional knot in my throat that threatened to prevent my singing. The evening finished with the Riddle scene from my production of Turandot, with Cathy McCalla singing the title role. Kamal Khan and Chris Dowdeswell alternated as conductors. Christine Crouse, aided by Gerrida Swart, had taken on the monumental task of selecting the photographic material from the mountain of photographs I had provided. The two performances on the 20 and 21 June were completely sold out and my complete happiness was marred only by a silly accident.
At the final (and only) stage rehearsal, I was sitting watching in the auditorium when, during the first part of the Turandot Riddle scene, I remembered that I had forgotten to warn the Studio singer who was singing the Mandarin (and had not seen the production before) that as he was to step forward to deliver his only line a trap door opened dangerously just in front of him. He should step to the side to reach his singing position safely. I ran backstage to try to get to the Mandarin in time to warn him, but in the darkness of the side stage tripped over some cables and cracked the upper bone in my left arm trying to break my fall. Emergency medical attention was at hand and my arm was soon in a sling, which could be fortunately briefly discarded for my appearance to sing Mamma. Nothing serious, then, except that in hindsight I often wonder: was someone up there trying to warn me that pride comes before a fall?
In August 2003, we presented Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at the Baxter Theatre, once again as a UCT/CTO Studio collaboration. Olivier Cuendet came from Switzerland to conduct. He was an inspiring presence, working with care and obvious understanding with all the vocalists and drawing superb playing of the demanding score from an orchestra which augmented the CPO with members of the UCT Symphony Orchestra. We were in tune with each other and I was glad to have further opportunities of working with him again in later years.
Kaiser Nkosi returned from the Munich Opera Studio, where he was registered at that time, to sing a masterly Kecal. Except for him, all the other roles were double-cast: Matthew Overmeyer/Mhloniswa Dlamini as Jenik, Pumeza Matshikiza/Michelle Saldanha as Marenka, Dimitro Moses/Nicholas Ndadane as Krusina, Teresa de Wit/Lungelwa Mdekazi as Ludmila, Phandulwesi Maseti/James Skinner as Vasek and Marion Roberts/Nosiseko Mbundu as Esmeralda. And to think that all these roles also had double understudies! The Opera School had certainly made some progress since my arrival in 1982. Significantly, the name of Pretty Yende, a talented young student, appeared for the first time in the list of choristers.
I was under some pressure from the UCT authorities to deliver the Olivier Cuendet inaugural lecture for the doctorate I had received in June 2000, so I asked for, and obtained, permission to show, rather than to tell. The lecture, which was held in the Baxter Theatre during the run of Bartered Bride, began with the opening chorus from that opera. I delivered a formal lecture in which I stated: “At present, 100 students are enrolled at the UCT Opera School, with 35 students being admitted for the current academic year. Only eight of the 100 students are white, with two of these being German nationals. By contrast, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an annual intake of 10 new students was considered normal, with an average total registration of 35–40 students. In those years, it would have been exceptional to find more than one or two non-white students enrolled in the whole school.” The rest of the lecture/talk was well received and the Opera School was duly complimented on its achievements over the past few years.