/ 26 September 2020

Q&A Sessions: Mari Stimie and opera’s next act

September 23 2020 Mari Stymie, Artscape Theatre Cape Town. Photo By David Harrison
New normal: Cape Town Opera’s producer, Mari Stimie, will have to figure out if the company’s next performance can have a live audience. (David Harrison/M&G)

As someone who’s often the first point of contact for CTO singers, what’s your experience of how the artists have adapted to “the new normal”? 

From the very first instance when we were able to say to our singers: “We have a space. We have a repertoire. We will provide the transport for you to get here. Do you want to come and work?” the response was always overwhelmingly positive: “Tell me where to be. I’m there.” 

How did you and the team begin to tackle the transformation that was needed as the reality of lockdown set in? 

The first thing we had to do was get through all the administrative clutter of cancelling productions, cancelling contracts, getting people back to where they needed to be — the Eastern Cape, Jo’burg, Germany. Then came the government’s response, specifically the Covid Artists’ Relief Fund.

A little bit later on, the Theatre Benevolent Fund offered a relief scheme. We were determined that we would facilitate these applications for as many of our ad hoc artists as possible. 

There are so many ad hoc artists that we work with regularly, and so

we immediately set out to facilitate these applications because of our admin capacity. It was just a logical response. 

And then, it was a few weeks of: “Okay, so now what? Live performance is out.” 

We met once a week via Zoom, and for those first few Mondays — once all of this admin was in motion — we would often just talk about the artistic product, and not know where we were going to go and what we were going to do with it, because from one

Monday to another, the rules would change. 

There was always an overwhelming resolve and an absolute resilience, and a sense that: “We can do this. We have the means, or we can acquire the means. I can turn into a Covid officer.” 

When the soapies started shooting, then we said: “If they can shoot soapies, we can produce opera.” That was always a conversation in the meetings: “What are the soapies doing? They shot five episodes this week — surely we can do the same.” 

How effective have efforts to apply for relief been? 

We’ve had phenomenal support. The City of Cape Town gave us food parcels, which we then delivered to ad hoc singers — individual singers who said that if that hadn’t arrived, that day … Our relationship with those ad hoc singers put us on the front line of seeing how people were struggling.

You joined Cape Town Opera not only at this remarkable time globally but also a momentous occasion for the company: its 21st year. What does this milestone mean to you? 

As long as Cape Town Opera has been around, that’s more or less how long I’ve worked in the performing arts industry — and also, at Artscape. I would have been — and I don’t

necessarily remember that moment — in the Nico Malan marketing department when Cape Town Opera was launched 21 years ago

But as a milestone for the company — for me — it’s about the past 21 weeks. How we managed to get through the past 21 weeks is a testament to how far the company must have come in the past 21 years, and why it’s still around. 

What excites you about opera? 

Opera excites me, as theatre excites me, because of its capacity to extend the limits of our empathy. It’s tough to convince someone of that fact until you, as an audience member, experience that fact — even just in the littlest way.

Significant cultural contributions to a specific historical point in time often become the story: you go back to

the most significant cultural contribution of that time to see how artists responded to circumstances and events. 

There’s an ability of the theatre — because I’d prefer to generalise, rather than say “opera” in particular — to transcend, and translate, and speak to what’s going on, even now. One example, Porgy and Bess — set in a specific historical moment, in the slums in the American South in the pre-civil rights era — is currently being staged in Vienna in a production that we as CTO have a small part in, and will

be set in a community of migrants. That’s the ability of these cultural products to translate and transcend. 

Looking to the future, what’s on the horizon for CTO — and what do you see in the future of opera performance? 

We’re working on Così fan tutte, a collaboration with the University of Cape Town Opera School. Today is the first day of rehearsals, and rehearsing an opera is still an experiment at this point. 

We’re only allowed 25 people in the room, because of social distancing, so we’ll see how the next five weeks pan out: if there are Covid symptoms, the situation has to be addressed because there are 25 people who have been in rehearsals together. 

But this [Così fan tutte] is scheduled for a live performance at the end of October. It’s not clear, at this point, to what extent a live audience will be allowed. Of course, all the theatres need to make absolutely clear that they have all their checks and balances in place. That’s a conversation that’s starting now that we’re on day one of level one. 

But we are determined that there will be some level of live engagement because live performance is what we’re about. That was something that we were adamant about from the beginning, and there’s no getting away from that.