They sing for presidents. They are friends with ministers. They dine with ambassadors. And they collect appointments to boards of publicly funded institutions faster than a seven-year-old collects Yu-Gi-Oh cards. But our self-appointed opera royalty do suffer a bad review now and then. Even if they have to go all the way to London to get it.
Writing in the London Times, John Allison, a music critic and editor of Opera magazine, reviewed the recent concert to celebrate 10 years of democracy at the Barbican, where the London Symphony Orchestra joined with the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, apparently to thank the British public for their support for the anti-apartheid struggle.
Allison praises the excellent choral singing of the Durban Serenade Choral Society and the Imilonji KaNtu Choral Society, but then says: “If only everything had been so positive. The two main soloists, the tenor Bongani Tembe and soprano Linda Bukhosini, are feeble singers, lacking tonal depth and power. They may not be unique in this respect, but it is worrying that Tembe is the chief executive and artistic director of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic, and Bukhosini is his wife, and both tend to promote themselves over the superb talent we should have been hearing.”
Whether or not the British public should have been hearing the acclaimed Princess Magogo opera at the Barbican or not, is moot, since according to the producers of this South African opera, negotiations with the Barbican that had been reasonably advanced simply stopped without explanation. Whether it was because the Tembe/Bukhosinis had promoted themselves over Princess Magogo or not, is not known.
What is known is that Tembe and Bukhosini had had some conflict with the producers of Princess Magogo, in which they had played lead roles in its premiere.
To resolve the dispute, they demanded that they be given the right of first refusal to their roles wherever the opera was performed anywhere in the world, for the next five years. These demands were made mere hours before the premiere performance, and to ensure that it went ahead, the producers agreed. However, they subsequently staged the opera without Tembe and Bukhosini who then took the producers to court, unsuccessfully.
To ensure that the opera, which was based on the life of the mother of Chief Mangosuhtu Buthelezi, would not take place without them, Tembe allegedly threatened the Humanities Festival in Chicago, which had invited the opera to be staged there, that the production would be picketed if it went ahead without them.
As an exco member of the previous National Arts Council (NAC), Tembe allegedly played a role in freezing the funds allocated to Opera Africa, the producers of the opera.
He also copied damaging correspondence to Opera Africa’s donors so that a major oil company withdrew its sponsorship.
The previous minister appointed a commission to investigate the affair, and after months of meetings a report was produced. However, the report was never made public, and no action was taken. But then again, Tembe was the adviser to the minister, Ben Ngubane.
Subsequently, Ngubane appointed Bukhosini to the board of the new NAC, perhaps to ensure dynastic continuity. And now Tembe, despite original allegations of conflicts of interest against him from the union, has been appointed again to the board of the Playhouse Company, from which the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra rents space, and where his wife serves as the artistic director.
Before the April elections, an African National Congress representative told a public gathering of artists that the party believed that there was a major conflict of interests at the Playhouse and, should the party come to power, it would deal with it. But nothing has happened.
Well, maybe not nothing. Four senior staff (including the CEO) were suspended and charged in similar fashion to the NAC senior management. They had been known to be unsympathetic to the appointment of Bukhosini. Apparently, their disciplinary hearings have also found them not guilty of any dismissable offences. But, I need not tell you that they are languishing at home anyway, their futures uncertain, while the politically connected, publicly funded royalty travels the world, collecting bad reviews.