In the summer of 1977 (I think) I had a contract to sing Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia for PACT, The Performing Arts Council of Transvaal. (This picture is one of the designs for my costume.) The rehearsals were to take place in Pretoria, followed by six performances and then on to Johannesburg for a further six. I would be away from home for three months.The director of the show, Peter Ebert, was English and was a neighbour of mine in Chailey, Sussex. He was the son of Carl Ebert, one of the founders (together with John Christie and Fritz Busch) of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. A close friend of mine, the bass Paul Hudson, was also on the team in the role of Basilio.
My travel agent, Patrick Mylon, who arranged all my flights, suggested we flew Lufthansa via Frankfurt, as he knew the departure and gate supervisors from his time at Pan Am. We all met at Heathrow, checked in and on to the departure gate where we made contact with the supervisor. He was able to upgrade us to First Class on the leg to Frankfurt, and suggested we contact his counterpart there for the onward flight to Johannesburg, which of course we did.
In Frankfurt, economy class passengers were being boarded, and we stood towards the back of the line, hoping there would be a chance of an involuntary upgrade. Well, we did board and went to our allocated seats in Economy. However when the doors were closed — and prior to taxiing — a stewardess approached us and asked for our boarding passes. She apologised for the mistake and asked us to follow her down to the front of the plane where we were seated in the plush comfort of First Class, and given glasses of Champagne. This was going to be a good trip!
On arrival at Jan Smuts International Airport, after an eleven-hour flight, we were met by a theatre representative and driven the thirty-six or so miles to Pretoria and our allocated apart-hotel. We had a whole free day to acclimatise before rehearsals were due to start.
Day one: We three English descended on the theatre to find that we were the only ones there. That day was cancelled while the management tried to find out where the other members of the cast were.
Day two: Still the three English but with the addition of an Afrikaans bass named Davi (something), who was going to sing Bartolo. We still couldn’t rehearse, so we decided to sing through our roles as much as we could to fill some of the time. The rehearsal pianist was summoned, and, to our surprise and delight, in walked a dear friend from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: Alistaire Dawes who was now living in Pretoria and was head of music for the theatre.
It didn’t take long before we discovered that Davi (Bartolo) didn’t know his role at all, and had only ever sung bits of it in English. We still had no Fiorello, Rosina or Figaro so something drastic had to be done. I was elected spokesman, and off we went to the management to make a complaint. Once there we discovered that the Rosina was coming in five days, and that the Figaro — the Italian baritone, Piero Cappuccilli — would not be there until two days before the dress rehearsal. After a private discussion between us Brits, we confronted the management with an ultimatum: supply us with a mini bus and reservations in the Kruger National Park for a period of five days. I assured them that if they were not forthcoming with this compromise, there were two flights a day back to Europe.
It worked, and the next day we were off in a VW camper van driving to the east for about 360 miles. The park was closed when we arrived, so we stayed in a small hotel just outside for one night. We had accommodation for the next four nights in one of the many lodges in the park, and slowly made our way there enjoying the spectacular scenery and wildlife in its natural environment. The lodges were all fenced in and the gates were closed at 6.00 pm. We were allocated a traditional round hut, which was, of course, thatched. There were communal showers and washing facilities, bars and a restaurant specialising in game that had been culled within the park.
We were really lucky, for on our second day we actually sighted a pride of Lions resting in the shade of some trees not far from the track we were on. We saw an abundance of zebra, giraffes, impala, Thompson’s gazelle and so on, but no elephants.
At 7.00 the following morning, we set off again from the lodge in a different direction to continue our wildlife safari, shooting what we saw with our cameras. The rules of the park stated that visitors should not leave the mapped routes, as it was very dangerous to do so, and on no account should they get out of their vehicles. About lunch time, we pulled off the track slightly for a sandwich and a drink, where we noticed some steaming mounds of elephant droppings. This meant only one thing: the elephants were close by.
We had deviated off our track into the bush only about a hundred yards, when we saw ahead of us a herd of elephants at a watering hole. This was too good an opportunity to miss. The only way to get good photographs was to get out of the van, which is exactly what we did, thereby breaking rule two as well as one. It was wonderful. There were numerous calves with their mothers and one enormous bull. We must have made a noise because his head came up and he started thumping the ground with a foot and then started to move toward us. We all jumped in the van in a flat panic to make a hasty retreat. I was driving but I think the engine must have flooded, as I couldn’t get it started. The bull was now less than two hundred yards away gathering speed, and we were stationary. I tried the ignition again and, thank God, it started. I turned the van in the smallest circle possible and made the fastest retreat I could, heading back to the designated track with a constant view in my rear mirror of the charging killing machine. That was enough for one day, so we headed back to the lodge to give thanks for our lives, while consuming that nerve calmer called alcohol and slowly beginning to laugh about our stupidity. The next days were uneventful but still full of the wonder of nature, and we headed back to civilisation with some unforgettable memories.
Rehearsals began at last, Davi having learned some of his rol. Fiorello and Rosina were present but, of course, still no Piero Cappuccilli in the title role of Figaro. We got on with it without him. He would have to work around us in the dress rehearsal and performances.
During one of the performances in Pretoria, Cappuccilli grabbed my stomach and shouted in Italian “Tu sei troppo grasso per Almaviva” (“You’re too fat for Almaviva”), which was probably true. Nevertheless, I was contracted for the role all over the globe. I retaliated, with a change of words in one of the ensembles. My text in Italian was ‘Mio caro Figaro’, which I changed to ‘Mio cafone Figaro’ (I did give him a rather heavy handed pat on the shoulder as I sang it). That musical phrase was repeated several times in the ensemble. He stopped singing, and just stared at me for what seemed an age. Perhaps he was amazed at my knowledge of Italian, or just upset at being called a bumpkin/yokel/oaf/imbecile in public.
As far as I know, there are no recordings of any of the performances from South Africa, so here is some Rossini from a performance of La donna del Lago at Covent Garden in 1985. In this extract from Act 2 scene 2, conducted by Lawrence Foster, I (as Rodrigo) am joined by Frederica von Stade (Elena) and Chris Merritt (Uberto). Elena is betrothed to Rodrigo: Uberto(King James in disguise) declares his love for Elena who in turn declares her love for Malcolm. During this exchange, Rodrigo appears and overhears their talk of love. We listen to this extract from when the duet becomes a trio (the battle of the High C’s) and Overwhelmed with rage and jealousy, Rodrigo orders his men to reveal themselves and kill this stranger. Elena pleads with Rodrigo’s men, and Rodrigo decides to duel with Uberto himself. The two exit; Elena, trying in vain to calm them, follows, but Rodrigo is slain in the duel.
La donna del Lago, Act 2 scene 2
At our apartment hotel, the staff were all black. They had special passes to stay in the city to work, and those without passes had to return to their settlements at the end of every day. One of the bar and restaurant staff in particular was really helpful to us. I noticed that his shoes were falling apart, so — having discovered that he took the same size as me — I gave him a pair of mine. The next day I was approached by a rather surly Afrikaans hotel manager, who ordered me neither to treat the ‘Caffers’ with any respect nor give them anything, or my health would be in danger. WOW! My life had been threatened first by a bull elephant and now by a fat Afrikaans pig. How long would it take for Apartheid to come to an end? I have to point out that, at that time, it was only just over a year after the Soweto uprising, when the children of the township just outside Johannesburg, mounted a demonstration march because they were being forced to do all their school studies in Afrikaans and not in English. Many young lives were lost as they were gunned down in cold blood by the Afrikaans authorities.
I became quite friendly with some of the guys in the chorus, and when they found out that I liked hunting game in England, I was invited to go shooting on a private game reserve in the North Bushfeld just south of the Botswana border. The owner of the game reserve was the uncle of one of the chaps from the chorus, An Afrikaans gentleman who had a hatred of the English inherited from his forefathers, who were in the Boer Wars. How long can one hold a grudge?
The next day we went out into the bush armed with .303 rifles. Each of us had a non-white guide and we set off in different directions. My guide had partial sight, and I wondered if I would get anything. However, what he was lacking in sight the ears made up for. He stopped dead in his tracks and indicated that I should crouch down. He pointed and said ‘Wild boar, don’t shoot’. I was told that if I did shoot I would frighten all the other, much tastier game away, and in any case the Boar wasn’t as tasty or tender as antelope or gazelle. I restored my rifle to ‘safe-mode’ and we continued walking. After about three hours, we all met up at the Landrover and went onto another part of the reserve. We stopped a short while later and the owner pointed to an animal about 1,000 yards away. He said it was a Kudu, and he offered me first shot at it. It was almost a speck on the horizon but through the sights I could see the animal’s form clearly. I positioned myself with the barrel of the rifle resting on a sandbag placed on the bonnet of the vehicle. I was advised to aim for a headshot so as not to ruin the flesh of the animal should I be lucky enough to hit it. I squeezed the trigger gently but the recoil nearly knocked me over. The master, watching through very powerful binoculars, said that I had hit it in the shoulder, and that we had to get to it quickly to finish it off. We eventually found it and the owner administered the coup de grâce. The guides loaded it into the back of the Landrover, where they were also sitting, and we headed off back to the ranch, where the preparation of the beast would take place. The stomach and intestines had already been removed at the site of the kill and buried. All that was left was to skin it and take the remaining organs out. I asked if I could have some of the liver, which I was given to take back to Pretoria. We would have to wait a couple of weeks to have some of the meat as it needed to be hung. It was the best tasting liver I have ever had, and I eagerly awaited the delivery of a part of the rear leg. The chorus boys brought my ‘feast to be’ to my apartment in Johannesburg, where we were now staying for the six performances there. They also brought Biltong (spiced, air dried meat) made from other parts of the Kudu.
All in all I had a very exciting three months in South Africa, which had included building a brick wall around Alistaire Dawes’s swimming pool and gambling in Sun City, where I won 3,000 Rand on a slot machine. I had limited myself to spending no more that 100 Rand. On the way back to the car, I put my last coin into a slot, pulled the handle and started walking away. I quickly returned when I heard the cash gushing from the machine. My winnings easily covered the cost of my accommodation and the hire car, and brought what had been an eventful trip to a very happy conclusion!
I’ll finish with a little more Rossini. This time from a peformance of his Stabat Mater, recorded in Tewkesbury Abbey in 1988. Here is the tenor solo, ‘Cujus animam’. The orchestra is the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes.