Kids Singing Wagner in South Africa Need That Prize: Hoelterhoff

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An old friend in South Africa is looking for $1 million (or less) to fund the music programs she brings to Mozart-singing kids in the hardscrabble outskirts of Cape Town.


In the Kraaifontein suburb, $100 buys 100 balanced meals for teenagers who stay late at school singing scenes from “The Marriage of Figaro” or religious arias by Handel. Another 100 bucks rents a bus to take them home safely.


The statistics distress: Cape Town’s homicide rate is the highest in the country, beating out Johannesburg. By the age of 16, one in three girls can expect to be raped in South Africa.


Shirley Apthorp and a small team of idealists are turning some of their stories into a new opera called “Comfort Ye.” It’s part of Umculo, the organization Apthorp founded to bring music to deprived communities. Think El Sistema on a smaller scale.


We linked up after I poked fun at the $1 million prize for excellence awarded to the Vienna Philharmonic by the silly Birgit Nilsson Foundation in Sweden. Please believe me when I say that the men (and the very few women) of the Vienna Phil are very well-fed and securely self-important. The previous two recipients, Placido Domingo and Riccardo Muti, are also not known to be meek, impoverished servants of the muse.

Hungry Kids


“My heart sank when I read that,” said Apthorp, a Berlin-based opera critic for the Financial Times who was born in Cape Town.


“I get so sick of these prizes being given to people who absolutely don’t need them. They’re awarded to big names so the organizations giving them look important. Our kids often arrive hungry. Typically, they fill up on one starchy meal a day.”


Having never been to South Africa, I asked her to describe Kraaifontein.


“It’s a sprawling landscape where many of the shanties are cobbled together with scrap metal, cardboard, and salvaged wood,” she said. “Families of six or more often live in homes the size of an average suburban living-room.


‘‘One outdoor toilet is shared by dozens of families; washing, a habit scrupulously observed by all, is done in plastic buckets filled at a communal tap. After 20 years of democracy in South Africa, the poorest of the poor are no better off than they were under apartheid.’’


Yet the kids in the photographs are impressively neat, I said, comparing them to the slobs attending private schools in my Manhattan neighborhood.



No Slobs


‘‘They come to school in crisp, clean uniforms,’’ said Apthorp. ‘‘Appearance is a matter of great pride, and parents will do whatever it takes, even if they have nothing else, to make sure that their children have a decent uniform.


‘‘The school is ambitious, and maintains strict standards of discipline; at first glance, it would be easy to assume that these well-behaved youngsters come from middle-class homes.’’


It is news — surely not only to me — that South Africa is thronging with opera-mad kids. How did that happen?


‘‘It’s the choirs! Opera is central to choral singing. Everyone learns the tunes, even if they can’t read music.


‘‘After rehearsal the other day, most young singers bounced eagerly off into the catering corner, but a teenaged boy and girl approached Catherine Milliken, our head of education, and asked if she would mind if they sang a duet from ‘‘Figaro’’ for her.



Juvenile Figaros


‘‘As Catherine picked out the notes on her portable electric keyboard, we heard an odd echo effect. There were, it transpired, four juvenile Figaros in the hall, and all of them wanted a chance to sing the role for Catherine.


‘‘Watching these tall boys, all with the self-conscious swagger of adolescence, some clutching plates of food, literally lining up for the chance to sing part of a Mozart opera with a visiting professional, I thought: If only my colleagues in international opera houses could see this!


‘‘Our little group cannot keep up with the immense hunger for opera that we find in young people. It is the reason I founded Umculo.’’


Now four years old, Umculo stages workshops for schools and communities, inviting all to the resulting staged performances.


Mozart in Xhosa?


Umculo means ‘‘art music’’ and ‘‘reconciliation’’ in Xhosa with the c pronounced as a tongue click to the teeth.


I tried to imagine Mozart in Xhosa.


‘‘Actually, the kids sing in good Italian,’’ said Apthorp. ‘‘And Wagner in German. Yes! Really.’’


Umculo’s reputation is growing, but money is scarce and Apthorp still works out of a spare bedroom in an uncle’s house.


‘‘The highest we can pay top professionals is 250 euros a week. Our visiting artists stay at reduced rates in a bed and breakfast on a traffic island.


‘‘For the children to go away on a working weekend camp, we need 1,500 euros.’’


So dream a little, I told her. What would $1 million mean for Umculo?


‘‘Keep Umculo running for three years, reaching thousands of young South Africans.


‘‘It would enable us to bring our ‘‘Comfort Ye’’ production to Europe, showing the Old World what the New World has to say about their precious art form, and giving us the chance to win sponsors.



A Better Future


‘‘And it would help keep our singers safe from violence, rape and drugs, and help them steer through their critical high school years with a healthy vision, strong motivation and the social tools they need to make a positive contribution to their communities.


‘‘Don’t get me wrong. We want to be part of a world that can afford excellence. But incompetence, bad decisions or sheer waste is also rife in the world of affluent institutions.’’


‘‘Comfort Ye’’ — the title comes from Handel’s Messiah -– uses texts and music written by the children of Bloekombos Secondary School Choir alongside music by Handel and composer/ educator Cathy Milliken. Robert Lehmeier directs, Warwick Stengards conducts. The school will present the work in progress in June. The world premiere is scheduled for Cape Town in 2015.


Umculo is supported by the Hilti Foundation and received a grant from Bloomberg in 2012.

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