Citizenship under construction: Aida and Rigoletto at the South African Republic Festival, 1971

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During the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Republic of South Africa in May 1971, two operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Aida and Rigoletto, were offered to Cape Town audiences as part of the festival programme. However, these productions were not only staged at different venues, but they were intended for different audiences – Aida, produced in the brand-new Nico Malan Theatre (today called Artscape) in the city centre was for the white public, and Rigoletto, performed in the Joseph Stone Auditorium in Athlone was for the coloured public.

This article investigates how the 1971 Republic Festival was utilized to promote citizenship among the young South African nation and how these two festival productions undergirded the ideological foundations of apartheid. Mona Ozouf’s theoretical perspective on public festivals is employed to demonstrate how the Republic Festival aimed at creating a social pact between the state and its people and how the festivities were used to illustrate the power of the South African state. Participation in such an occasion renamed the individual as a citizen of the nation and enabled her/him to take up her/his rightful place as a legitimate member of the nation. The article also draws on the historical perspectives developed by Pieter Kapp in his work on white Afrikaner Festivals. Kapp states that the Republic Festival was not only a festival for the white Afrikaner, but also for the nation of South Africa. This was evidenced by the inclusion of some English-language and other European cultural productions in the festival programme, as well as the inclusion of the coloured community at some festival productions, despite the fact that their participation was separate from white festivities.

Apart from the theoretical considerations of Ozouf and Kapp, this article relies heavily on archival resources of the Artscape Archives, the Eoan Group Archive and the National Library of South Africa. These archives include production photographs, programme booklets, newspaper articles as well as letters, scrap books and minutes. Secondary literature was also consulted. The authors of this article have both researched and published on the Eoan Group and therefore relied on some of our previous work, but we have naturally consulted further academic literature on opera, festivals, race and ethnicity.

In the Cape Peninsula two separate festivals were held, one for the coloured community, called The Republic Festival (Western Cape), and one for the white community, called The RSA10 Programme. The former was dominated by sports events, but also included cultural events such as a choir festival, exhibitions and the Eoan Group’s opera production. All events took place in and around Athlone and Wynberg. The RSA10 Programme was on a much larger scale and included military parades, an extended Western art music festival, religious ceremonies, exhibitions, youth choir festivals and theatre productions. Newspaper articles accentuated the devotional character of both programmes. The power of the state and the citizenship of the country was meant to be taken seriously, and no light-hearted entertainment was to be found. The only shared activity of the two festivals was a military march and air show that was held at Gunner’s Circle in Bellville, which concluded the festivities on 31 May.

Eoan’s participation in the Republic Festival confirmed the complex position the group held in apartheid politics. They fully embraced the socio-political status they aspired to through their love of opera, yet their uncritical engagement with the art form caught them in a political system that controlled their movement, ensnared them into a compromised citizenship, and restricted the spaces in which they were allowed to operate.

The article discusses how Verdi’s Aida fitted the bill of celebrating the dominance of Western art music at the southern tip of Africa a century after it was composed to do just that in Cairo in Egypt. In 1871 the opera was performed to celebrate the opening of the Cairo Opera House, built by the Khedive Ismail Pasha who imported European cultural values to a modernized Egypt. It is also no coincidence that the story of Aida is one of racial politics, an impossible love between the dark-skinned Aida and the light-skinned Radames, a love across the colour line that ends in death. Rigoletto on the other hand is one of a hunchbacked father who sacrifices his daughter through a bizarre misunderstanding and a curse.

Special focus is given in the article to the inauguration of the Nico Malan Theatre that started the nationwide festivities of the Republic Festival. The opening was preceded by months of protest action against the policy of racial segregation at the venue. Protest letters from writers such as Uys Krige and Adam Small illustrate how the Eoan Group generated contrasting public sentiments such as sympathy and rejection. Eoan’s years of opera production weighed heavily on the conscience of Cape Town’s (white) opera loving public who knew that this semi-professional group would not only be barred from performing in the new state-of-the-art building, but would also not be able to attend any opera productions there. A few months before the opening of the Nico Malan Theatre, Eoan’s star tenor, Joseph Gabriels, made his debut as the first South African ever to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Newspaper editorials were similarly drawn into what seemed to be a line of defence against apartheid policies, yet Adam Small’s reply ultimately exposed underlying racial biases of white liberalism.

The difference between the Nico Malan Theatre and the Joseph Stone Auditorium was nothing short of startling and government spending was typically disproportionate of amenities afforded to the white and coloured communities at the time. No costs were spared on the building of the Nico Malan Theatre where opulence abounded, while the government’s contribution to the cost of the Joseph Stone Auditorium was literally 1% of what they paid for the Nico Malan Theatre. In closing, the performances of the two operas in the two venues illustrate how these productions embodied diverging South African cultural aspirations. CAPAB’s Aida was an example of Afrikaner exceptionalism whilst Eoan’s Rigoletto aimed at cultural excellence.

 Keywords: Aida; Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB); citizenship; Eoan Group; Joseph Stone Auditorium; Nico Malan Theatre; Republic Festival of 1971; Rigoletto


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Burgerskap onder konstruksie: Aida en Rigoletto by die Suid-Afrikaanse Republiekfeesvieringe, 1971

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