Sunday, October 30, 2016

A world-class voice

For much of my life, I battled to understand grand opera.  Finally I took the trouble to follow the libretto of Boheme, and it all became much clearer.  The marriage of drama and music could enrich both. It took another twenty years and the skills of the New York Met Opera to convince me that Wagner was not just extended noise. The arcane level of the drama did not help - but I got there in the end. So now opera is one of the loves of my life.

Unfortunately one can also have too much.  The diet is rich, and if not served just right it can pall. For instance, I have seen numerous productions of Carmen, and one of the most memorable was a balletic version with a statuesque blonds as Carmen and a little man called Juan as Don Jose. In the closing act, he fought too vigorously with her, she gave him a really good klap that sent him reeling. He finally produced his knife and seemed to use it with real intent!

So when Cape Town Opera announced that they would repeat a production of Carmen first done several years ago, I was somewhat hesitant - but, what the hell, Bizet's music is so gorgeous that even if the rest was boring, I could just revel in the sound.

It started with an "interesting" execution which, we slowly worked out, was Don Jose getting his comeuppance. The first act wasn't bad, although the action seemed to pause from time to time, and Don Jose should have been executed - he looked more like a corporal from the First World War trenches. 

But then things got exciting.  DJ's girlfriend, Michaela, turned up, wowed the guard, and managed to put real meaning into "scampering off." The girl was good looking and could act.  But she also had a voice, and she had hardly opened her mouth when I turned to my partner and asked "Who on earth is that?" A soprano with a glorious range, high musicality, perfect phrasing and a vibrant sound that could fill the Artscape auditorium effortlessly.

Her great aria in the third act,"Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" ended on a pianissimo that faded to nothing - except the audience leapt to its feet and everywhere there were cries of "Brava!" It was a truly electrifying moment.

This was Noluvayiso Mpofu, who is still learning stagecraft at the Opera School, so she has a career of years ahead of her. She came second in the recent international Belvedere Competition, involving some 600 young singers from all over the world. What a privilege it was to hear such talent, and to be certain that in a few years you will be able to treasure the moment when you first heard that voice. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Philosopher's stone as pictured in Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 21 Image: Wikipedia

Philosopher’s stone as pictured in Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 21 Image: Wikipedia

For thousands of years, some of the most intelligent men alive sought such things as the Philosopher’s Stone, which could turn dross into precious metal; the elixir of immortality; and the alkahest or universal solvent. The searches were in vain. The world needed more than a magic wand.

There is nothing inherently wrong in belief. Belief is only a hypothesis in search of a demonstration. The history of science is replete with the beliefs of great, wise men who struggled to understand Nature. Aristotle’s four elements, fire, earth, water and air, ruled chemistry and medicine for thousands of years. Eventually, careful measurements showed that fire had no mass, that earth was composed of elements, that life did not spring from water, and that air was a mixture, not a substance in its own right.

Alchemy was universal. Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jew all pursued it. A mere 350 years ago, there were still hopes that the philosopher’s stone, the origin of all matter, might be found. Today, there remain several societies of alchemists. Belief in belief dies hard.

In November 2015, a cabal of latter-day necromancists, sorcerers, soothsayers, wizards, witches, mavins and shamans gathered in Paris. They claimed to have discovered a wondrous formula, which would allow adjustment of the average temperature of the earth. It mattered not that every test of the formula to date had proved a failure. All that was required was a twitch here, a stirring there, and the bubbling cauldron that Earth had become would revert to the quiet simmering that characterised the perfection of life.

What was most important was that every nation on earth should commit to the belief. This they would do by making Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. If the total of these Contributions was large enough, then global warming would become global cooling, and we would all live happily ever after.

This latter-day cabal has even set up a system of selling indulgencies. If you sinned by failing to meet your Intended Contribution, you could wish away your excess with Carbon Credits. The present generation of omniscients seems to have missed the fact that indulgence-selling led directly to the Reformation. For the rest of us, reformation is long overdue.