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14 March 2019

Insight: Romeo’s Passion - the making of a chamber opera

July Zuma (left) in the role of the Young Man, and Thabiso Masamene as the Son in <em>Romeo's Passion</em> Image: July Zuma (left) in the role of the Young Man, and Thabiso Masamene as the Son in Romeo's Passion  
© Suzy Bernstein

Cathy Milliken writes about her and Robert Lehmeier's opera Romeo's Passion, developed and premiered last year in South Africa together with Umculo - an organisation, inspired by Venezuela's El sistema, offering musical development opportunities to young people through international partnerships in connection with South Africa´s education structures. Cathy's record of the initial sessions in Johannesburg offers a fascinating glimpse into this work, born through engagement with young singers and local high school students.

The composer's other recent work includes Bright Ring (2019), commissioned by Ensemble Modern and premiered in Frankfurt, London and Hamburg earlier this month, conducted by Sir George Benjamin. Umculo's Artistic Director, South African-born Australian Shirley Apthorp, is currently shortlisted for a Classical:NEXT Innovation Award for her work with the organisation.

> More Insight articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists.

Romeo's Passion tells of a son falling in love with another young man and coming out to his South African family - his mother, father and also his fiancée. It is a story that juxtaposes passion and duty, violence and tolerance as well as showing the anguish of all characters as they confront the son's dilemma.

All of the characters undergo change. The mother grieves the missing passion of her relationship with her husband, slowly coming to terms with it; the father opens up to his son, relating his own experience of being gay; the fiancée faces the loss of her lover; and the two young men enter into the intricacies of forbidden love.

Though the story itself may not be new, it is South Africa's first opera on this theme. The engagement and depth of all character portrayals revealed in the libretto of director Robert Lehemeier make for a powerful story; the first run is made for the intimate setting of the Outreach Foundation's Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg, using the space of the stage as a 'black box' theatre.

Robert Lehmeier, Shirley Apthorp, Lebona Sello, Vuyisa Jack, Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi
and Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi in Johannesburg.
© Cathy Milliken

The opera's existence owes much to the inspirational work of Umculo and its artistic director Shirley Apthorp. Shirley was born in Cape Town, schooled in Brisbane, and studied violin performance - initially at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, and later the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music - and has lived in Berlin for the past two decades.

I first met Apthorp many years ago when she interviewed me about my performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Spiral at the Salzburger Festspiele. She was a young music journalist writing for the ABC's 24 Hours and The Australian newspaper - she would go on to become one of the leading European music critics, whose work is regularly published by the international Financial Times.

Apthorp founded Umculo as a response to the extraordinary vocal and operatic talent in South Africa. Now in its 10th year, Umculo has won many awards for its pioneer work in creating both large and small productions, nurturing the talent of young South African singers, offering creative interactive music education workshops, and promoting social development through music theatre. Umculo's projects have consistently pursued in-depth educational goals and an artistic vision for collaborative opera of relevance to its audience.

A prior production by Umculo and collaboration between Robert Lehmeier, myself, and young choir members of the Bloekombos secondary school in the township of Kraafontein (located between Cape Town and Stellenbosch) resulted in performances of a work created around oratorios by George Frideric Handel - including both L'Allegro, il Pensiroso ed il Moderato and Messiah. The work draws its title from the tenor aria 'Comfort Ye'. This was a pastiche of work developed by the choir itself as well as the artistic team. Featuring the choir as the main protagonists, Lehmeier's libretto was based on narratives related by the choir members about their own lives. Four soloists and two actors completed the cast. They sang arias, duets, ensembles and choruses by Handel and myself as well as music co-created by the young chorus members, and portrayed various characters within the narrative.

Apthorp, director Robert Lehmeier and our team drew from their depth of experience to ensure a production of the highest artistic excellence, providing a strong and immediate vehicle of expression for the young singers. This also ensured a collaborative and inclusive experience, as the opera evolved from the very fabric of the choir members' lives.

Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi , Thabiso Masamene and Lebona Sello, with Cathy Milliken at the piano.
© Robert Lehmeier

Our next work, Romeo's Passion, was also conceived with the intention of exploring new formats of opera relevant to the lives of both participants and audience members. Romeo's Passion was to be the story of the coming out of a young man in a black South African family, and was to be created together with five young professional opera singers. Director Robert Lehmeier's libretto was informed by his research into the tensions in South African communities towards the issue of homosexuality, particularly given the violence occurring towards gay men and women. The notion of acceptance of difference within a community is still a fraught one in many cultures - including the Western world. It seemed a timely, immediate but also universal theme about the acceptance of difference.

We felt we should create an opera that could easily be toured to other parts of South Africa and, perhaps, internationally. For this reason the cast had to be quite small. It was a pragmatic decision, then, to invite five young professional opera singers to take part in the creation workshops. They could possibly portray a mother, a father, their son, a young girl and a young man. Although bound by these initial decisions regarding characters, the rest of the workshop activity would be as a collective, sounding out and trying out ideas with and by all participants.

There was one box left unchecked on our list. We knew what we were working on, and with whom, but not where. Apthorp, who was constantly engaged in forming and maintaining creative connections in South Africa, thought of the Outreach Foundation's Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg as a possible partner. The Theatre is situated in the middle of a sprawling inner-city residential area of Johannesburg. It has a high population density as well as significant levels of immigration, unemployment, violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and poverty. The streets are alive with people during the day, selling wares on street corners, children hurrying with their mothers to schools. But the area is also infamously unsafe, and for this reason the Outreach Foundation stands in the community as a haven. It opens during the day and after school hours, giving drama, music, art and dance classes, and is a place of safety for after-school hours. The Hillbrow Theatre has its own season, showing works that tie in with the concerns of the community and its youth.

Its artistic director, Gerard Bester, welcomed the production of Romeo's Passion. Umculo was not only bringing a new opera but had planned for workshops in local schools to introduce the theme of the opera before participating students attended the performances. This fitted perfectly with the way the theatre prepared and planned its own productions. The cooperation between the Outreach Foundation's Hillbrow Theatre and Umculo became official and the opening run was planned for September 2018. The collaborative workshops were to begin in February, six months before the planned beginning of production rehearsals, to allow time in between for the actual writing of the libretto and musical composition.

Johannesburg, February 2018

Day 1

Cars draw up inside the grounds of the Hillbrow Theatre. It is 10.00am on the first day of workshops for Romeo's Passion. Apthorp, Lehmeier and I enter the scuffed hall of the Lutheran Church around which the community centre has grown, leaving the brilliant South African sunshine and blue sky outside. We shift the furniture back to the walls to make more space. Our soprano, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, arrives. She has flown in from Cape Town after postgraduate studies in Chicago. She is bright and witty; we are all happy to meet her. Happy but also nervous, as always with first collaborations and meetings. It's the white-page effect in three dimensions.

The others arrive: Sibongile Mollo - mezzo-soprano based in Johannesburg - and our three tenors for the workshops: Thabiso Masamene from Pretoria, Vuyisa Jack from Cape Town and Rheinhaldt Tshepo Moagi from the Free State. We also have a special guest: Lebona Sello, an excellent singer and pedagogue from the North West Province, who will later lead the education workshops in schools in Hillbrow. These workshops are intended as an introduction to the topics of the production as well as to the operatic format itself for the youngsters who will attend the opera performances.

Chamber opera Romeo's Passion by Cathy Milliken & Robert Lehmeier,
produced by Umculo at Johannesburg's Hillbrow Theatre in 2018.

We begin in a circle. The room is airy, and sunlight streams in through the windows. It is still summer and we are in t-shirts and training clothes. We bend, brace and stretch together. All join in - the singers, myself, Lehmeier and Apthorp. We make sounds, not sung, but short puffs of voiced air and sound which we send round the circle as we listen and appreciate and take notice of all the new faces.

Then begin the introductions. It is up to Robert Lehmeier, our librettist and theatre director, to explain the process of making opera together. He asks the singers about their experience of opera to date. For all of the singers it is a first to be collaborating on making an opera. Lehmeier explains that there will be much discussion as well as trying out, and that the opera will be strongest with the narratives we discover. The singers are intrigued by this new approach. Mkhwanazi has experience with improvisation and seems comfortable with the idea of improvising text and music. I make a mental note to include melodic improvisation in our next warm-ups.

I always plan the workshop warm-ups to include material, ideas and skills we may need later on. They are, in a sense, the nucleus of the project. I love the the warm-up times, as these are the moments of pure play and spontaneity. They clear the brain of preconceptions and judgment and they pave the way towards a collaboration based on trust.

Lehmeier is explaining now that, through the workshops, we are aiming for an opera that stands out for its personal narrative. He introduces the theme - that of coming out - and asks if anyone knows a gay person or knows of any situations with gay people in a community. As it transpires there is not much knowledge of homosexuality; none of the singers have gay close friends. But there is a lot of curiosity and desire for discussion.

The title refers to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; this infuses the workshop atmosphere with the anticipation of investigating love and passion. Everyone groups into pairs and tells each other their favourite love song. What was their perfect first date? What is love? This takes a long time. There are many stories here. Along with much hilarity and some sadness, there is also tragedy - for some members of the singers' immediate family, love brought poverty and destitution. At this point we need to move physically after so much concentration. We stand, stretch again, and do some voice exercises. Everyone contributes an exercise. This is such a wonderful moment of sharing; in later workshop days we would build a ritual of exercises contributed by all.

After a short break we spend the afternoon making possible texts about the topic 'what is love?'. We finally decide on four lines that we harmonise together.

Love feels like Life
Love is like a breath of air
Love, it tastes it tastes like honey
Love feels like a bowl of fire
Love feels like the taste of red wine.

Other descriptions we don't put to music include a splendid one: 'Love feels like eternal glow' - and also one foreshadowing the pain of love: 'Love feels like a shadow of death'.

Day 2

The second day, we feel it would be good to do some straight-out (very) physical warm-ups such as core-strength exercises and some free movement and dance improvisation in the space. The energy level is high. I realise that we need this mixture of physical movement as well as the mental rigour of creating and discussing together. We do our shared vocal warmups and some singing in fifths.

We sit in our 'thinking' circle, and Lehmeier introduces the notion of 'closet loneliness'. We search for parallels in a heterosexual context and work in pairs to collect words that best describe the feelings of loneliness. A song text and melody emerge out of the beginnings of collecting words.

You feel as if under a dark cloud
Tortured heart directs your brain to smile
Smile is pain.
Your heart is empty now.

We talk about making melodies for words. Why specific words may need a different colour, or stress, why a melodic interval may need to shift or not resolve. The singers here are the experts. They identify many examples of beautiful melodic writing from the operatic repertoire and why the melodies are so particularly supportive of the text. However today is not solely about making. We tell the singers of a plan to work with classes of school students on one of our workshop days.

School students with Tshepo Rheinaldt Moagi.
© Erica Lüttich

Apthorp and I planned to do some leadership teacher training with the singers, so that they would later be equipped to work with visiting school classes. This arose from the premise that opera singers can play a more flexible role, becoming more involved in the community. I had previously met professional South African opera singers who would go back to their townships and teach, but I was not aware of any specific collective song-making opportunities. For the fourth day, Apthorp has arranged with Gerard Bester for school classes to come to our workshop space and make songs together, mirroring the content of our own workshops to date. This plan meets with mixed reactions amongst the singers. The idea seems to lie outside their comfort zone. Sello, our resident pedagogue, is enthusiastic, and cajoles everyone. Clearly he will have a major role that day.

Day 3

The third day passes as the day before, but we have a hilarious time teaching each other steps to dances, and there is a lot of movement. Lehmeier talks about staging and how he approaches it, and gives the singers exercises to explore in the space. Some are as simple as one singer walking past another singer, registering their presence and continuing. What minuscule changes take place in thoughts and movement of each singer during this walk-past? How might this, in turn, influence the next development?

Day 4

We run through our warm-ups, then our ritual vocalisations, and then we tidy the space for our guests. We hear laughing voices and footsteps outside; soon thirty-six school students in uniform burst in through the door. Sello and I lead some initial warm-up exercises. For the creative section, the class splits up to six groups of six students, each mentored by one of the singers. There is much discussion in all groups and lots of singing and laughing as their songs are made. When people are not used to working creatively in a group, it can be difficult to have everyone listen to each other. Once you invite listening, so much more valuable and constructive work is generated.

Day 5-8

There are still more topics for us to investigate and research: tradition versus temptation; the role of cultural rituals such as Umuthi (local shamanic medicines or objects that are believed to have power to make people to fall in love with you); life bringing about changes. Our workshops also bring about change. There are only three days more and everyone is entirely comfortable with the workshop situation and each other. A little too comfortable. Somehow we have not delved far enough into the material.

Over the next days, each singer receives a topic to devise textual ideas, perhaps some melodic shapes also. The topics are scenarios which follow directly on from the stagecraft exercises Lehmeier had introduced in the previous days. Mkhwanazi is to create a dream, a dream of a life without drudgery of working for someone else, a dream that flees from the realities around her. Thabiso is to write a love song - to a man. Vuyisa deals with tradition and temptation, and Tshepo with the issues of being a parent, understanding the chasm of difference that can happen between parent and child. It is a rough and sudden entry to going it alone. But everyone seems happy with the challenge.

I go to the piano and we start improvising to the texts. Tshepo's improvisation of father and son is already touching, and Mkhwanazi's dream of a better life sudden and completely arresting. All of the improvisations move us to fearlessness and the desire to find a shape for the opera, since we have already touched on many themes. A break is always good, so we have coffee and relax outside.

We are rewarded by a surprise visitor, a director from Johannesburg theatre circles who has been carrying out interviews with gay men in the Joburg area. They told him of their coming out, which can be so dangerous there. These stories showed a surprising fact - that the danger exists across all cultural and socio-economic environments. This fires our own discussion. We feel the stakes are being raised, and we talk about possible scenarios for the opera.

Last day

One of the singers tells of a recent happening in his township. A young man just about to be married refused the marriage at the last minute in order to come out about his relationship with another young man. Following this, we have another discussion about mothers and how they must cope with life's hardships as well as something referred to as 'Thursday nights'. This is a community reference often understood as a euphemism for infidelity. Every Thursday evening the men of the family go out for 'their night', while women attend prayer meetings, or pretend to do so. And so our opera slowly unfolds: the love story of two young men and the final acceptance of this by their family. The scenario exists; it has been found.

July Zuma (Young Man, left), Thabiso Masamene (Son), Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (Mother).
© Suzy Bernstein
Production phase

Rolling forwards a few months, the libretto is finished and as the rehearsals begin, the last arias are being printed out for the singers. The libretto, written by Lehmeier, was formed by the workshops, as was my music. We relied very much on the first-hand responses in text and musical form from the workshop to form a truthful and gripping account of a family's trauma in responding to a son's coming out. I also had to score for an accompanying instrumental ensemble of oboe, violin and piano.

Lehmeier's libretto resounded strongly with the workshop findings but also catapulted them into the theatrical realm. This meant that I was draw both from the directness and immediacy of the collaborative workshop material and from the passion - and logic - of Lehmeier's textual interpretation. Some of the musical material from the workshops found its way into the opera, including Mkhwanazi's dream of a better life and Sibongile's calling aria. We had some cast changes but we are now rehearsing with Lehmeier and delving into the intimacy and subtlety of the opera - our focus is now on the staging of Romeo's Passion at the Outreach Foundation's Hillbrow Theatre.

As we rehearse the opera, Sello arrives in Johannesburg to carry out workshops and discussions in local high schools. All seven performances are attended by these students. Through the workshops the students are made to feel part of the world created in the opera; they become highly engaged in the Q and A time, after each performance, provided together with professional youth theatre facilitators from Drama For Life and the cast.

'Are you gay?' was a common question to the performers, so curious they were about the final 'kiss'. Drama for Life's mediators took the often-sceptical youngsters from a point of discomfort to one of agreement and acceptance; each afternoon was a remarkable journey. The singers themselves described the change in their perception of homosexuality whilst making the opera. As the audience was on stage and placed casually around the performers (with the stage's iron curtain down to block off the auditorium seating), it was indeed a highly intimate experience. The stage became a family's living room into which we were invited. The adult audience members also participated in the Q and A, but the real curiosity and the ultimate hope for understanding and recognition of the LGBTQI community seemed to lie with the young students who come to our opera and become immersed in the unfolding story of one young man's path to truth.

Reflecting on the making of the opera, it seems that the process of creation became the opera itself. Everyone embarked on a path of learning and understanding together. For a great collaboration, one must bring time, there must be a willingness to accept difference as well as to move outside usual practice. There must be equality of authorship, inclusion and a willingness to listen to others. Creative collaborations don't always work, but when they do, they can be magical. They can offer a narrative which clarifies our perspective; and they can take as their point of departure any aspect of the vast spectrum of human relations, and its social context.

Romeo's Passion - premiere season in 2018

A new work of music theatre by Umculo (13-21 September 2018)
Premiere: 13 September at the Hillbrow Theatre, Johannesburg.
Artistic Director, Umculo: Shirley Apthorp.
Composer: Cathy Milliken; Libretto/ Direction: Robert Lehmeier
Co-Creation: Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, Thabiso Masamene, Sibongile Mollo, Vuyisa Jack, Rheinhaldt Tshepo Moagi, Lebona Sello.
Cast: Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, Thabiso Masamene, Mlamli Lalapantsi, Sarah Suping, July Zuma;
Musicians: Paul Feirrera, Cathy Milliken, Zosukumizizwe Ntuli.

Thanks to the Hilti Foundation, Maria Marina Foundation, the Outreach Foundation, Gerard Bester and Hillbrow Theatre.

Further links

Cathy Milliken - AMC profile

Umculo (http://www.umculo.org)

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