Opera is not boring. And when you listen to Cape Town-based soprano Brittany Smith speak about it, it is easy to fall in love with the drama, the intrigue and the whimsy that classical theatre offers. And that, without hearing a note yet.
Smith is part of a new generation of performers that are reawakening the spirit of the classic arts in South Africans.
Before she chose the stage though, Smith almost took the stand instead. Singing for her supper was the furthest thing from her mind while growing up. She wanted to be a lawyer with a huge interest in corporate law, particularly in fraud and white-collar crime.
It was only when Smith joined a choir at school that her talent came to the fore and her love affair with the arts blossomed.
She said: “Discovering music changed my life forever, and I cannot imagine ever doing anything else.”
Smith headed to Gauteng in July. She played Susana, the female lead in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. It opened on 6 July at the Roodepoort Theatre for six performances, ending 15 July. The show’s Cape Town run in June landed rave reviews for Smith.
Le Nozze de Figaro was directed by Cape Town Opera’s Magdalene Minnaar. Smith said Minnaar allowed performers to develop the characters themselves, and make the roles their own.
Smith said: “We use a lot of life events and memories to latch onto and to build our characters onto. And, the fact that she (Minnaar) gave us so much freedom to do that in the rehearsal room really made it a joyful process.”
A few months before rehearsals started, Smith didn’t have much of a joyful time. She said: “I was diagnosed with endotracheal tuberculosis, meaning that the TB was not pulmonary, so it wasn’t in my lungs. It was four centimetres underneath my vocal cords making its way up there.”
From there, it was six months of rigorous antibiotic regimes. She said: “It was a really challenging time. I remember I still was coming off my bout of fever because what happened was the TB was in a little encasing and when they did the biopsy, the mycobacterium was loose in my bloodstream.
“And then, I started getting all the TB symptoms. The night sweats especially were quite bad. I remember waking up one evening and I was like, ‘why is everything so wet?’ And I could take off my pyjama t-shirt and literally wring it out.”
It was not a great time for Smith. “I remember there were two weeks where everything was a blur. I would just remember taking my medicine, eating a lot of pawpaw, because that was the only thing that I could stomach, because the antibiotics made me nauseous.”
Had she not sought early treatment, Smith’s gorgeous voice could have been lost forever.
Le Nozze De Figaro’s Susanna, said Smith, is a resilient woman, a tough cookie whose gentle side is revealed to few.
And in a sense, it resonates with who she is: “I wanted some of my Spitfire personality to come through in my character. And, that is the very first thing that I told the director. I said that she’s not going to be a wimp, because Susanna is not just a woman.
“She is, I think, the most intelligent of all the characters in this opera, because her way of thinking is quick on her feet. You know, there’s nothing that she’s sugar-coating, anywhere. There’s nothing that gets hidden behind double meanings. And so, she’s straightforward to the point and yet sensitive.”
Smith believes that opera’s is evergreen. She said that period dramas like Bridgeton have done it favours by highlighting period drama and the romance of it all.
Smith also said that she has started seeing younger audiences attend opera.
Mozart was barely thirty when he wrote the opera.
She said: “The more operas we stage, people from my generation and even younger will come out to watch, because they are fascinated by it. They are fascinated by how everything works and about how there are different costume changes and scene changes, and stuff. And I think it’s a very small start.”
Opera, she said, is here to stay in Mzansi.