“The Arts Form the Backbone of Nations … Make Us into Better Human Beings”
Opera singers are South Africa’s prized export. With only one opera company in the country, and no support from the government, many singers are compelled to carve a path for themselves overseas rather than building careers on home turf. However, an opera recital by the sensational soprano, Zandile Mzazi in Johannesburg last month, which was sponsored by a young black management consultancy, the Ntiyiso Consulting Group, gives a glimmer of hope that more up and coming corporates may invest in opera and in the arts at large.
The musical event was held in the in the concert hall of the prestigious South African cultural heritage site, Northwards, once the home of the flamboyant Randlord, Colonel John Dale Lace and his wife Josephine Dale Lace. It’s not that many years ago, that it would be unheard of for an all-black South African audience to be found in a colonial mansion, owned by a white millionaire, who built his fortune on gold and diamond mining.
The audience included some of the best-dressed women in Johannesburg and it was evident that at least in some echelons of black society, opera is growing in popularity. World class South African wines and exotic canapés were served to the Gucci and Prada set.
Accompanied by Ahsan Peiris on piano, Zandile Mzazi sang pieces by a variety of famous composers, with each rendition being met with enthusiastic applause. Members of the audience rose to their feet when Mzazi’s singing companion popped a bottle of champagne for the final piece, The Drinking Song from Verdi’s’ La Traviata.
The recital, referred to as ‘a melodious occasion’ in the promotional material, was an obvious success. It cost the Ntiyiso Consulting Group ZAR100,000 and according to the sponsor and the singer, it was worth every cent.
Ntiyiso CEO, Alex Mabunda said, “Something that other businesses can learn from us is that we see the arts as lending credence to us.”
The company’s primary focus is supporting local level public service systems to work effectively. Why would a management consulting firm, whose business is primarily with local government want to involve itself with arts and culture?
“We don’t see a contradiction,” he said. “The work we do to empower institutions is complemented by the development of the arts,” he added.
“The arts form the backbone of nations…When all is said and done, the arts make us into better human beings,” said Mabunda.
“Partly what we are doing is developing a brand,” Mabunda explained. The firm aspires to develop trusting relationships with potential clients. “To create trust, we need to invest in the right people who make decisions in the right places,” he went on, describing the profile of the audience at the opera recital: captains of industry, CEOs of institutions, board chairpersons and influencers.
Judging from the feedback, the influencers were impressed. A comment shared on social media stated: “Zandile managed the intimate delivery with such prowess and subtleness, mindful of the less is more principle in recitals. Such a sophisticated art form and she was just absolutely incredible, elegant and gorgeous…Thanks for investing in this prestigious craft.”
From Mzazi’s perspective, it’s a two-way stream. “I benefit financially, and I don’t have to stress about putting together a concert from a costing point of view…. And for them, they are leveraging on my audience, because I bring people to them.”
Commenting on the audience at the recital, Mzazi said, “Some of the people who were there travel around the world for opera and jazz festivals, and so on. “So, it’s a good PR strategy for the company.” It was a question of joining forces to create something meaningful, she explained. The sponsor had to identify what they wanted to get out of the collaboration and as an artist; Mzazi had to identify what she expected.
It’s been a long, hard road for Mzazi to be in a position to forge this kind of partnership, but without doubt she has developed a recipe that other opera singers can learn from, and if the corporate world follows Ntiyiso’s pioneering lead, a win-win scenario may be possible for South African opera in the future.
Meanwhile, Mzazi continues to juggle balls to support her singing career. “I currently work for the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture as a production manager, so I have to strike a balance with being a full-time government official, a performer, a mom, and somebody’s partner…. It takes its toll,” she said.
The insecurity of freelance gigs rather than the fulltime income that opera singers enjoy in other parts of the world is a daily battle for South African singers.
Founder of the Mzanzi Tenors, Sipho Fubesi’s dream is to have just ZAR100, 000 per month to pay his ten tenors (he is the 11th) R10, 000 per month each.
Fubesi studied at the University of Cape Town and was with Cape Town Opera before joining the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in 2008. Later he worked for the prestigious Royal Opera House in London and the private opera house, Glyndebourne in the UK. His travels as an opera singer took him to Wales, Russia, Germany, and Portugal, until finally, homesick and exhausted he returned to South Africa, determined to give up singing and go into the transport business Two years later, he was singing again.
With support from the Rand Merchant Bank and well-known conductor, Richard Cock, Fubesi has managed to get good and regular gigs, but financial insecurity remains a thorn in the flesh.
For Monica Mhangwana, who is currently learning how to speak German before embarking on a scholarship at the Lubeckhofschule in Germany, the prospect of launching a singing career in Europe is exciting.
Mhangwana was one of seven participants in a master class offered annually to select students through collaboration between the Lubeck University of Music and Richard Cock’s annual Mozart Festival. Two scholarships are guaranteed from Germany for the next two years.
Already aware of the challenges of making it as a singer in South Africa, Mhangwana says: “When it comes to being an artist or a singer you have to run yourself as a business. You have to be your own negotiator when you are getting gigs, your own agent, and sometimes you end up teaching as well… I organize concerts as well…so I consider myself an entrepreneur.”
With two years of free tuition and all expenses paid at a prestigious institution ahead of her, Mhangwana hopes her dream of making it overseas will come to fruition.
Maybe, if and when she returns, more corporates, like the Ntiyiso Consulting Group, will appreciate the benefits of sponsoring opera.