Erik Chisholm And The Future Of South African Opera

  • Guy Willoughby
  • Scottish Music Centre
  • 30 Nov -0001

Dark Sonnet/The Pardoner’s Tale, at the UCT Little Theatre. 5-7 February. Director: Angelo Gobbato. Composer: Erik Chisholm.

It’s been an interesting fortnight for opera in Cape Town. At the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, the Dimpho Di Kopane Company’s exciting revamp of John Gay’s eighteenth-century corruption-buster The Beggar’s Opera/Ibali Lootsotsi is in full swing, while on the V&A Waterfront, Michael Williams’s production of Cape Town Opera’s lush extravaganza Aqua Opera has braved blasting weather to bring glorious highlights to capacity crowds.

In each case, what astonishes outside visitors, beside the vigour and ardency of our designers and directors, is the sheer fecundity of our voices: truly South African opera has entered a wonderfully ripened phase in its performance history, with our choral work of a planetary standard and our young principals running away with a host of roles.

How this enviable state of affairs would have gladdened the heart of University of Cape Town Opera School founder and first Director, Dr Erik Chisholm. This Scottish-born composer, pianist and conductor transplanted to these shores in 1946, initiating a musical revival which – truly - pulled South African classical music kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.

Chisholm was the esteemed colleague and friend of contemporary European musical giants William Walton, Bela Bartok and Leos Janacek, and had already earned himself a precocious reputation – in the words of musicologist Sir Arnold Bax - as “the most progressive composer that Scotland has produced”.

A composer of audacious, Gaelic-inflected symphonies, ballets and sonatas, Chisholm’s especial love was opera: he was deeply engaged in recovering this august musical-theatre form from nineteenth-century sentimentality, and injecting it with the musical complexity and psychic darkness of the twentieth. To this end, he composed twelve operas himself, perhaps most famously Murder in Three Keys which ran in New York for six weeks in 1954.

In the midst of current operatic excitements, then, it was salutary two weeks ago to savour a revival in Cape Town of Chisholm’s two operas Dark Sonnet And The Pardoner’s Tale, performed, as originally, at Cape Town University’s Little Theatre. The revival forms part of the continuing centenary celebrations both in South Africa and the UK of Erik Chisholm’s birth, and a concerted attempt to rekindle interest in his music.

Angelo Gobbato, present incumbent of Chisholm’s post at the UCT Opera School, directed and indeed took part in this two-handed revival and is eminently placed to evaluate his predecessor’s record. Gobbato could muster the services of the cream of youthful talent of the School and the training adjunct of the Cape Town Opera company, the Cape Town Opera Studio – and what a marvellous job they did.

Most impressive was the kick-start provided by Bulgarian-born Violina Anguelov, a characterful soprano with a delightful moody timbre and an actress’s dramatic power.

This timbre and power were tested by Dark Sonnet. Derived from a grim psychological thriller by American playwright Eugene O’Neill, this one-woman study in rage, frustration and despair is an audacious musical monologue extremely testing of a performer’s range – and nerves.

Chisholm’s music is a sprightly minefield of melodic complexity and inversion, a post-atonal propulsion of the audience into a maw of swampy, dangerously rising emotion. I was quite amazed by Anguelov’s intensity: this extraordinary spasm of pain from the late twentieth century deserves revival again soon.

Chisholm’s second offering, The Pardoner’s Tale, derives from Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous fourteenth-century cycle The Canterbury Tales and gives evidence of the wide spectrum of the composer’s literary as well as musical interests.

This curious morality tale of three villainous rogues, and their desire to cheat death while gaining filthy lucre, is told in Chaucer’s version by the doleful Pardoner – a professional Catholic forgiver of sins – rendered with delightful, beetle-browed gravitas here by Gobbato himself.

Teasingly, Chisholm sets his musical version in medieval English, giving a gamey Germanic flavour to the richly textured singing of the three rogues – Bead Liebl (tenor), Marcus Desandro (baritone) and Kaiser Nkosi (bass). You could hardly hope for a more musically diverse trio than these, and they render Chisholm’s dense harmonies with colour and aplomb.

Erik Chisholm was a complex musical and cultural hybrid: a questing and original composer in the advanced musical-dramatic European school of his day (he died in 1965), he reinvigorated a comfy colonial world of genteel offerings at the Cape and breathed urgent new life into a small, self-congratulatory pool of talent.

His legacy is the richly indigenous school of singers, designers and directors that has taken shape in this country in the last decade: and, around the next corner, the composers who will, in concert with our practitioners, take South African opera forward into new and locally grounded forms, admirably fitted to complex twenty-first century African reality.

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