The second week of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) season has just finished. Unusually the concert feature an opera gala evening, making use of Big Wig Opera. Big Wig Opera is a new South African company formed by Stefan Louw (tenor). Big Wig Opera will be presenting its first staged work, Puccini’s La Boheme, at the Roodepoort Theatre on 22 and 24 May 2015 (two nights only, I suggest you book well in advance).
The use of local artists has several benefits to the JPO in its current situation. The first is that it keeps the costs down and this is a good thing. The extra money can be used to pay an enlarged size orchestra for the opera session. Verdi in particular did some very ,ambitious scoring. Secondly, it pays local artists to work in their home country. This is another huge benefit. At the moment most opera singers are obliged to live and work out of South Africa because there is just not enough opera work to keep them busy here. Thirdly, the opera audiences are drawn into the Linder Auditorium and to the symphony concerts. Hopefully they will return for other symphony concerts.
The concert took the form of an opera gala. The original programming was put together by an opera fundi. The first half overture was to be the Aida overture followed by Celeste Aida and Gia i Sacerdoi adumansi, both arias from Verdi’s African opera. The orchestra substituted Wagner’s Prelude to the third act of Lohengrin instead. One of the problems of this switch is that doesn’t give the artists the introduction they need. Opera is a contextual discipline. The programme notes tried to provide the context briefly. But all round this fails in any gala programme. And then to make matters worse, there are no surtitles. Only really devoted opera lovers can usually supply all the context and an approximation of what the song is about from their memories. After interval the second orchestral overture, La Traviata, was replaced with Johann Strauss’ Der Fledermaus Overture. Again it was a disservice to the artists, and this time particularly to the audience. Der Fledermaus Overture is what the esteemed conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, scathingly referred to “a musical lollipop” to satisfy the masses of people who should be treated as children.
On the podium was Daniel Boico, no stranger to the JPO and a young conductor who is rapidly developing a following of his own. I thoroughly enjoy watching him conduct. He does so with passion and energy and a great deal of personality.
The Big Wig Opera has three in house soloists, Stefan Louw (tenor), who has been described as a “national treasure”. together with Elizabeth Lombard (mezzo soprano) who has a rich, textured voice, and then the young Natalie Dickson (soprano), a voice with a future. She is easy on the eye and has a grace on stage which is positively charming. They were joined by Christopher Vale (baritone). The twenty strong opera chorus is also doing well for a new chorus.
All round the evening was fun. It is of some concern that so many of the symphony regulars choose to stay away when there are choral works on the programme, but I suppose there is no disputing the musical tastes of others.
I promised to keep you updated about the restaurant developments. Not good news yet. The service of meals is still disappointing and the menu is student stodge. However, the service of the tea was apparently much better for the second concert than for the first (I didn’t go and get tea). One of the regulars at the concerts organised a picnic for his birthday the next day, and at this time of year when the weather is fine, this is probably the way to go. It will throw the schedule out for those of us who used to go and have a leisurely supper and chat before the concert. Hopefully the new restaurant will get to the point where this once again becomes a possibility.