Cape Town Opera: inspiring opera lovers, nurturing SA’s hidden talent

Described as magnificent and inspiring by esteemed voices across the world, the Cape Town Opera is an institution Capetonians and South Africans alike can be proud of. The winners of the 2013 International Opera Awards’ ‘Chorus of the Year’, it is the continent’s premier opera company and one of SA’s largest permanent non-profit performing arts organisations. Joining me to discuss the business side of the organisation is Alex Gabriel, Managing Director. – Jarryd Neves

Alex Gabriel on Cape Town Opera’s history and his involvement:

Cape Town Opera was founded in 1999. It grew out of the performing arts organisations that existed at the time and is one of the largest performing arts organisations in South Africa. We don’t only do opera, operettas and musicals, we also do choral concerts and art song concerts. [In addition, we’ve] commissioned South African operas, which we’ve toured internationally. That’s the sort of stuff we do. We also have a youth development and education department that has skills training all over the country and we provide permanent employment to a lot of people in the arts industry; opera.

Opera practitioners, singers and ad hoc contracts. It’s not just the permanent employment that we do. I studied as a pianist at UCT and in my time there, I worked mainly with singers because it’s what I enjoyed the most. A couple of years ago, I moved into financial services and worked there for 14 years. But this combination of music and finances led me here.

On how Covid-19 has affected the performance arts industry and revenue:

[Covid-19 has] decimated the performing arts industry. I’m mindful that we are still standing. By the end of the year, we will probably have lost about two million [in box office revenue]. We used to bolster our income with international tours but, of course, we haven’t been able to do that. A positive is that a lot of our most amazing singers [who were] working in Europe and in America, had their contracts [pulled] and they came back home. We have been able to offer them work, which has been great for our audiences and great for them. That has been a huge positive. In fact, if any of your listeners are looking for Puccini operas that we do in November, [we will] have a lot of amazingly talented voices.

On how the Cape Town Opera creates an income:

Ticket sales are quite a small portion of our income. Putting on a production is enormously expensive. You’ve got sets, costumes and all of that sort of stuff. We have a full-time, salaried core and a young artist programme. We’ve got a youth development and education department, plus all our permanent employees who keep the company going. Ticket sales don’t cover all of that. As I mentioned earlier, we haven’t been able to do much touring [and] that used to provide a huge additional income for us. This is true for opera companies across the world (the proportions just differ); our main source is funding.

Currently, 60% [is] from trusts, foundations and organisations that support us; 25% comes from the local government and the City of Cape Town and 5% from the national government. The rest is box office, patrons and individuals. Because we are so reliant on funding, [we need] to make sure we offer value to funders and to the society we live in. This is a drum we bang quite a lot. We work very hard to get that message out and say, “This is why we are here and why we should be here.”

Apart from the standard of our productions (that we are incredibly proud of) and providing this platform for our amazing singers, the economic impact we have had in the 21 years of Cape Town Opera’s existence is not to be overlooked. We’ve put about R400 million back into the economy. Bear in mind, opera is the art form that combines all the art forms. It’s not only musicians and singers. We’ve got costume designers, set builders, costume makers, carpenters, and hair and makeup; the works. It’s all involved in making an opera. 

There are quite a few jobs that we support. I call it the artistic ecosystem. We underpin that in Cape Town and South Africa, to a large degree. This is incredibly important. I think we all know the value of music in our lives. It’’s very difficult to put your finger on it. I think we all instinctively know it, but it’’s very difficult and the indirect benefits are huge. You can’’t forget, that cities –, if you want to attract these critical skills –, they’’ll come to a city that hasthat’s got a very good culture. 

A cultural city probably has better restaurants; — the whole lifestyle just changes. Remember also that artists teach your kids and work in related industries like advertising. I think it’s important to bring across that if you were to lose an arts organisation, the skills that go missing [as a result] would be devastating. This is the bigger picture that we’re trying to bring across to audiences.

On what sets the Cape Town Opera apart from other companies:

I would say the quality of the voices in South Africa. I cannot overstate this enough. It is a national asset. I don’t know [what it is]; there is something in the air or the water. We just produce the most incredible voices. That, I think, is the biggest thing for us. Secondly because of South Africa’s history and the make up of its population, we have such a wealth of stories we want to tell and people across the world want to hear. 

I think that’s massive [and] it’s quite an easy sell for us. It’s immensely popular and people want to hear all these things. People care about South Africa and it makes us unique. If you walk through our doors, there’s just an energy and optimism about this company and what we do. No problem is too big [for us]. I think that makes us quite special. 

On the skills development and training to young artists:

It’s such an important part of what we do. We have a youth development and education department. In the 21 years we’ve been going, we have reached over 750,000 kids with our music development and education programme. They go out and bring opera and music to disadvantaged communities. It’s an easy thing to say, but it impacts people’s lives. If any of the listeners were to go to our YouTube channel, there is a clip by Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. She has just won the song prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World. There’s a short five-minute clip on our YouTube channel, where she explains what it meant to her when she saw Cape Town Opera for the first time in her hometown and how it led [her on] a path to where she is now, which is an international superstar. And she’s not the only one. The talent is all there. It’s important that we go out there, find it and [become] a home for that. 

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