BORN working team member Wayne Muller has released his first monograph, Opera in Cape Town: The Critic’s Voice (Stellenbosch, 2023). We caught up with him to find out more about this exciting publication.

BORN: Wayne, congratulations on the publication of your monograph! Your book sheds light on South African operatic culture at a crucial time in the country’s political and cultural history. We’re intrigued to learn more about its aims, methods, and provenance. The publisher website states that Opera in Cape Town constructs a reception history designed to ‘initiate a conversation on the development of a distinctly South African operatic expression and aesthetic in the 21st century’. Can you say more about the main themes and critical concerns in your book?

WM: The book essentially traces how newspaper critics penned the developments in opera in Cape Town from the early 1990s into the democratic post-apartheid era. It is therefore about a public conversation documented in newspapers and is concerned with the intersection of and interplay between opera as an art form and the socio-political shifts in the country during this period. So, it is about how the socio-political transformation impacted the transformation of opera, and how opera in turn became a device that is politically employed as an exemplar of the country’s transformation. This is captured thematically in the book through what opera critics and arts journalists had written about the performance of opera in Cape Town. The main themes reflect on how Western European opera (particularly 19th-century repertoire) remained at the pinnacle of operatic expression, how this standard repertoire was adapted to make it relevant to a local audience by changing the setting, music, themes and language. This eventually culminated in what I have called a distinctly South African operatic expression and/or aesthetic that remains challenging to define. 

BORN: The historical period 1985-present is a time of great political, social, and cultural change in South Africa, as the country shifted through several states of emergency, the demise of the apartheid regime, political transition, truth and reconciliation, and recently, arguably, the collapse of the democratic ideal. The purpose and meaning of opera also changed during this time. To what extent do you think the country’s socio-political transformations played out on the operatic stage? What was the role of opera critics in this context?

WM: At the start of the democratic era, opera was seen as an elitist, Eurocentric art form with no place or relevance in the country. Judging from the reportage at the time it seems there had, at least from those in the industry, been a realisation that if opera were to survive it had to reflect the South Africa of the day and not an historical European context. Opera’s survival and relevance became reliant on not only finding a place in the new socio-political context but how it engages with and is representative of the societal transformation. While adaptations of standard Western European repertoire aided in opera becoming relevant, the composition of new South African operas had the potential to really portray the new nationhood. Since 1995, almost 20 South African operas had been staged in Cape Town, and all address in some way our grappling with this new nationhood. So, the stories that have been told through the medium of opera aimed to foreground, for example, unacknowledged Black histories and the biographies of those vilified during apartheid. I believe in this way South African opera also became a means of restitution. None of these operas were aimed at mere entertainment, rather they relate stories (and music) that address our colonial and apartheid pasts and a future nationhood. In writing about these changes on the operatic stage, critics negotiated with their (mostly white) readers an “acceptance” of the evolving operatic aesthetic in that they reviewed these works as representative of the new democracy that was being sought. Their writing, for instance, grappled with the then contemporary trend of merging Western and Indigenous (called “African”) musical styles and instruments into the performance of standard repertoire works. So, much like political journalists at the time, opera critics played a role in creating an understanding of the changing operatic aesthetics within the context of a socio-politically transforming country.

BORN: You work as a critic yourself, and you refer to your own reviews in the book. How has your experience as an opera critic influenced your work as a scholar?

WM: My curiosity about the value of journalistic art criticism was what led me to the scholarly work on opera. Over the years of writing opera reviews, I have noticed these themes that are identified in the book, and I have written much about opera and its relevance in our country. So, my scholarly work was initiated by the things I have tried to address in my newspaper reviews and reflections on what opera means in our context. But in doing the scholarly work, other themes emerged and have since informed the way in which I now look at opera on the stage as a critic.

BORN: The South African context is fraught, not only because of its political history, but also because of the range of cultural identities and historical backgrounds activated both on stage and in the (listening and reading) audience. As a result, things may land quite differently for different publics. Occasionally, things may seem illegible to certain publics, while deeply meaningful to others. How do critics adjust for this? How do you, as a scholar, accommodate the indeterminacy of aesthetic and cultural meanings in your work?

WM: The media is segmented in that certain media speak to certain reader markets. It is the critic’s job to understand their readers’ world in order to write for their readers. So, yes, there are different publics, but most critics engage through a particular product with a particular public, one which they should know intimately, and which is distinct from another. For the critic, it depends therefore on who they are talking to in their writing. In the book one sees this in the differences in content and interpretation in reviews written about, for instance, the first local performance of Porgy and Bess in 1996 or South African composer Roelof Temmingh’s Enoch, Prophet of God in 1995 for the perceived liberal English press and, on the other hand, the perceived conservative Afrikaans press. As a scholar, and specifically for this study, I was guided by the writings of these critics from diverse backgrounds and focused on interpreting what those writings conveyed as best I could – it was in the use of words and phrases and cultural references. I think one accommodates this by acknowledging that these remain merely singular perspectives on aesthetic and cultural meanings in a particular cultural context.

BORN: Your cover image is from South African composer Hans Huyssen’s opera, Masque (2005). Is Huyssen’s opera a central case study in your book? Do you view this work as representative of a larger South African opera aesthetic?

WM: Huyssen’s Masque is a work that critics, to quote from the book, “viewed as a productive starting point for the development of a new, unique South African operatic direction that was not merely a combination and continuation of the traditions of Western art music and indigenous African music”. For critics at the time, this work therefore represented this emergent, distinctly South African operatic expression. I think this work represents that aesthetic of a particular time and contains many of the elements (stereotypically) considered to be “African”.

BORN: Given current sensitivities regarding Indigenous representation and the sexualisation of the Black female body, the photo from Masque may appear a controversial choice for a book cover. What motivated your selection of this image? Does it reflect something of current sensibilities towards opera (or performance more generally) in South Africa?

WM: My reason for selecting this image relates to the previous question, in that the photograph represents what critics opined is the new South African operatic aesthetic at a particular time. In 2005, that was the image that was sought in opera, but today we might consider it a stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous representation. The book addresses the portrayal of Blackness and Black women (in reviews of local operas but also in a work such as Verdi’s Aida) in the context of what critics and audiences believed an “African” opera would be, both in its narrative and mise-en-scène. Yes, it could certainly be viewed as a controversial choice (possibly provocative), but in considering it, I believed that the image captures an aesthetics that was sought at that time, and that is what this book is about. Despite our sensitivities today, images such as these (or rather, what this image represents) are still seen on the South African stage, not only in opera but often in theatre.

BORN: In the preface, you mention that you’re interested in using your work to think about the future of opera in post-apartheid South Africa. What do you think this future holds?

WM: The book paints a picture of opera during an era in which South Africans grappled with how the arts landscape should take shape in the future. There had been a discomfort with Western European art forms amidst a restorative aim of giving Indigenous art forms a rightful place within that landscape. In opera, I believe that during the first 20 years of democracy we have tried to find our operatic voice through experimenting and searching for a South African operatic aesthetic and how it should represent our nationhood. Now, after 30 years of democracy, we have overcome our discomfort. When one looks at the repertoire performed in Cape Town over the past five years, you will notice a move (back) towards the standard Western European repertoire, but I think we are comfortable with that now. I believe we have entered a future in which opera is just opera, and it is what we as South Africans do.