Dr Hilde Roos on the Eoan Group

Dr Hilde Roos on the Eoan Group

After completing her doctoral studies in 2010, Dr Hilde Roos was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Stellenbosch. Her research focused on strategies of indigenization in opera production in the Western Cape as well as music historiography. Besides lecturing musicology on a part-time basis, she is closely involved with various publications emanating from the Eoan Group, South Africa’s first amateur opera, ballet and theatre company. She is co-editor of the recently published oral history Eoan – Our Story.

You are busy with your post-doctoral studies on the Eoan Group and was co-editor of a book Eoan - Our Story, published on the group in 2013. What lead you to this topic?

HR: My PhD was on opera production in the Western Cape. Shortly after I started that, the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) at Stellenbosch University acquired the Eoan Group Archive and my natural interest in historical work lead me to investigate the content of the archive. A chronological overview of Eoan’s history was part of my PhD and for my post-doctoral studies I am now writing an extended history in the conventional chronological format. The book Eoan – Our Story is an oral history and quite a different book to what conventional histories look like.

Just refresh our memories with some statistics – when did the Eoan Group start, how big was the company, how many productions did they do per year, where did they perform, etc.?

HR: The group was started in 1933 as a cultural and social organization, and functioned as a humanitarian organization for the first 25 years of its existence. During this time they did things like physical education, drama, ballet and choral productions. It was only in 1956 that they performed their first Italian opera, Verdi’s La Traviata. In the following 20 years the group expanded their repertoire to include 10 operas (mostly Italian) which were performed to Cape Town audiences during 11 opera seasons. The group also toured the country in 1960 and 1965 and went to the UK in 1975. Since they could not access the professional opera arena (due to apartheid legislation), the group was always regarded as an amateur company.

Please give us a short overview of the important role the Eoan Group played in the cultural landscape of Cape Town from the 1930s to the 1970s.

HR: The Eoan Group was the first arts company in the country that formally combined ballet, drama and opera. The former white-only arts councils only followed this format when they were instituted in 1963. From the 1930s onwards the group played a pivotal part in the cultural activities of Cape Town, providing the city with many ballet and drama productions, prominent ballet dancers (e.g. David Poole and Johaar Mosaval) and actors (e.g. Bill Curry and in later years Jody Abrahams) and an opera repertoire that was different from what UCT’s Opera Company performed at the time. In 1962 the group performed one of South Africa’s first indigenous ballets, The Square, composed for them by Stanley Glasser.

Practically, how did the group operate – most members were employed full-time and did this in their spare time, but they seemed to produce productions on a very professional level.

HR: The group always practised and performed after working hours and on weekends. It became a vehicle for music talent due to the fact that there were no other possibilities for the coloured community to perform classical music on this level. The group however could not pay the singers, dancers or actors, so all of them trained and performed in their spare time and they had to have other day time jobs to make a living. On a personal level this was of course a high price to pay. Since opportunities for tertiary education for coloureds were very limited, many of the group’s artists were unskilled workers such as cleaners, messengers, dock workers and factory hands. There were however a number of school teachers, school principals and social workers who had some tertiary education.

What audiences did they draw?

HR: From the mid 1940s onwards the group had a large public following, specifically amongst the white opera loving public. Their performances were often sold out and opera seasons were regularly extended due to public demand. Seating plans from the Eoan Group Archive show that 90% of the seats in the City Hall, where they usually performed, were allocated to whites, but after the group started to performed to racially segregated audiences, coloured support grew even less. Other documentation from the archive supports the fact that their support base was predominantly white. This is of course also because of the higher social strata that whites occupied during apartheid and the limited amount of coloured people who could afford going to the opera in those days. Coloured support for the group dwindled significantly from the mid 1960s due the group acceptance of state funding and their submission to apartheid legislation.

Which operas were in the group’s repertoire?

HR: The group’s repertoire included ten operas: Verdi’s La Traviata, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La Boheme, Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliaci and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. La Traviata, the group’s most frequently performed opera, was staged during nine opera seasons presented by the group over the course of two decades. In the late 1960s, the group also premièred the South African productions of three Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Oklahoma, South Pacific and Carmen Jones.

None of the performers were paid for their services, but there were professional coaches involved and obviously production costs. How was the group financed?

HR: The group applied for state funding at various times of its performance history. During the years 1957-1965 they where financially independent and their performances created enough revenue for the group to be self sustained. With an ever growing opera company, financial burdens however increased and from 1965 onwards the group applied for funding from the Coloured Affairs Department. It has to be said that documentation from the archive show that these amounts were pittance compared to what for instance CAPAB received.

In 1975 the group went on tour to England. Who organized their tour and how were they received?

HR: The group went on invitation of the International Festival of Youth Orchestras and Performing Arts held in London and Aberdeen. It was jointly organized by the group itself and the Festival management. The National Youth Orchestra of South Africa, consisting of white musicians only, also took part in the Festival. The two groups were unaware of each other until they met in Aberdeen. During the festival informal sports events were organized and the Eoan singers and Youth Orchestra musicians played soccer in one team against Poland. During this tour Eoan’s mezzo-soprano soloist, Judith Bailey, was discovered by Claudio Abbado, after which she was offered a two year training bursary at La Scala in Italy.

Some of the members left South Africa to pursue careers overseas – where they were given equal opportunity. Tell us about some of them.

HR: A number of soloists left the country to pursue careers abroad, but few really managed notable careers. Success stories include the tenor Joseph Gabriels, who made his debut in the Metropolitan Opera House in 1971 and Gordon Jephtas, who had a very successful career as repetiteur, working amongst others with Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Tebaldi. Others were Charles de Long (baritone), Patricia van Graan (soprano) and in later years Sidwill Hartman (tenor). The ballet dancers that went abroad were more successful in pursuing careers, among them were David Poole, Johaar Mosaval and Vincent Hantam.

What impact did Apartheid have on the group?

HR: The impact of apartheid on the group is so pervasive, it is difficult to describe in short. In the first place, the group existed because of apartheid, at the same time the system denied them access to first class education in the arts as well as proper infrastructure to perform. It controlled the spaces within which the group lived and performed and later forced the group out of the city centre when it could not perform with in the City Hall any longer. Apartheid caused the group to operate in tremendous artistic isolation, even more than white opera production at the time. Group members were not allowed in white venues and could never see other opera productions. The result was that they had nothing to measure themselves agains, which in the long run lead to inferior musical standards. Apartheid also forced them to be dependent on state funding. This caused the group to become increasingly unpopular with political activists and caused their eventual rejection by the coloured community.

Where do you think the group would have been today, had it not been dealt the blow of having to relocate?

HR: The relocation to Athlone was not the main reason for the demise of the group, but was a symptom of an entire system that worked against them. I think that within apartheid no arts group as disempowered as the coloured community could continue to strive towards professionalism and excellence in the long run.

During your research you interviewed many of the older generation of Eoan group members. They must have had some wonderful stories to tell. Please share some.

HR: Today former members are nostalgic about their lives as opera singers, but there is also a lot of bitterness and resentment due to the lack of acknowledgement. There are many stories of how much fun they had on stage, accidents that happened, glorious moments and camaraderie, too many to mention. My favourite statement is one from mezzo soprano soloist, Sophia Andrews, in which she expresses what it meant to her to be an opera singer: ‘Every performance was a milestone. Just to get on there and sing over that orchestra. It’s something that you cannot give to [any]body and that you live with for the rest of your life’.

Published 15.07.2013
Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler

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