Pauline Malefane performing Summertime from Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin
Concert St Sylvestre 2008,
Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle
Anyone hearing this magnificently poised and peaceful performance might not think of the pressured rehearsal and preparation period for such a high profile performance with arguably the top orchestra and top conductor in the world. I had the pleasure of being Pauline Malefane’s vocal coach throughout her preparation for Mozart’s Magic Flute, for the Isango Portabello Company.
I met Pauline when she was still a student under Prof. Virginia Davids at the UCT Opera School, where I was the repetiteur. Her performances included duets from La Traviata and other coloratura and high soprano work, but she was – in those days – a lyric soprano. She had the trademark warm low notes for which African singers are famous in this country. Those low notes came in handy: Miss Malefane shot to international fame in a filmed version of the Mezzo-Soprano role of Carmen in the Golden Bear Award winning uCarmen eKhayelitsha.Yet in this production of Impempe Yomlingo/Magic Flute, she shot to the other vocal extreme: that of the role of the Queen of the night. The tremendous demands of that role required daily work on runs, scales, arpeggios and all the tricky twists and turns Mozart devised for this mad mother. Nolufefe Ntshabe, the company’s voice teacher, was there to push, press, demonstrate, support and crack the whip. But her knowledge of the vocal processes and her instinct about what she was hearing and how she could improve it, was crucial. But we did not have the luxury of time. Turning a Carmen into a Queen was a dicey undertaking, and would be, even in the most perfect opera house in the world.
It was in between these intense rehearsals for the Queen of the Night – with all the pressure of getting her from the low notes of Carmen to the other vocal extreme which is the murderous Queen – that we prepared her programme for Sir Simon Rattle. Loud Marimbas and drums right next door in an echoing church hall. Dancers and drummers just on the other side of the door. A half-dead piano fit not even for firewood, placed in the entrance to the communal kitchen shared with the church office where ladies of the community came to do crafts projects. No sound proofing or air-conditioning in the sweltering summer and noisy, smelly and ultimately inadequate gas heaters and broken windows in the icy winter. Most divas would faint at the thought of having to prepare such a high-profile event in such circumstances. Imagine Kathleen Battle or Jessye Norman preparing for their debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in a hot little prefab with no windows.
Yet Pauline is always graceful under pressure, and her wonderful sense of humour and hard work, made it so much easier. The preparation process, instead of being influenced by the apparent chaotic processes going on around us, remained focused and to the point. We even had the opportunity to present the Mozart to Sir Simon Rattle himself on his visit to Cape Town. He attended our rehearsal, and was so encouraging and complimentary of the efforts that he saw. He was a true example of how encouraging and supportive a great conductor can (and should?) be. Yet one wonders if even he had any inkling as to the circumstances we managed to produce the work we did.
The proof of the pudding lies in the eating. When you listen to this clip, please do not just listen to the voice – exquisite as it is. Please, do not just look at the calm face – exquisite as it is. Listen to the township noises, the women of the chorus making tea, the marimba-players frantically polishing up their Mozart overture in pidgin tonic-solfa, young dancers negotiating a loan for the taxi-fare home into the poverty stricken landscape that is the seemingly endless townships of the Cape flats. Listen to the freezing wind coming off the Atlanic ocean through the cracks in the windows and the gaps between the roof and the ceiling. Only if you hear all of that in the background, can you really hear this Summertime.
Later I had the pleasure of being repetiteur for Angelo Gobbato’s production of Porgy and Bess for Cape Town Opera, which was performed in South Africa and and Sweden. Pauline’s dedication to the drama and music was always noticed. Her pianissimo took one’s breath away. It is always a pleasure for me to work with this wonderful singer.