Aviva Pelham’s beautiful career

Aviva Pelham’s beautiful career

Aviva Pelham is one of our country’s best loved sopranos. She has enjoyed a highly successful career as opera singer, but has also dared to work in other genres. She shares her memories and philisophies with us, as she embarks on another exciting journey with the staging of a childrens opera for Cape Town Opera.

You were born in Zimbabwe. Tell us more about your formative musical years.

I was born into a very musical family. Like the Von Trapps - everyone sang! There was always lots of singing at mealtimes, in the car, picnics etc. We all learnt musical instruments and took part in Eisteddfods and concerts. I focussed on piano and clarinet, but dabbled in guitar and piano accordion as well. Of course singing was and always will be my first love.

Which teachers/mentors that had the biggest influence on your illustrious career?

After I was turned down for 2nd subject singing at UCT, I was despondent and demoralised. (That I performed almost every operatic role for my voice type over the next 40 years professionally, both in South Africa and overseas, does not reflect too well on the audition panel!)  Although I continued studying piano and clarinet for my Teacher’s Licentiate, it was only when Gregorio Fiasconaro accepted me for the Opera course that I felt my passion being reignited, challenged and fulfilled.  Désirée Talbot gave me a wonderful grounding, a huge repertoire and was an excellent role model for professionalism, integrity and bringing a role to life dramatically. I will always be grateful for her influence on my career.

Later, when I had already performed many operatic roles, I studied voice with Nellie Du Toit, who took me back to basics and gave me another lease on performing life. Her indepth knowledge of the singing voice is remarkable and I gained enormously from her. I was also hugely blesssed to have Angelo Gobbato direct me from my debut as Norina in “Don Pasquale” and through countless productions. My journey as an artist would have been impoverished without his brilliant talent and influence. I also feel enriched by the countless conductors, directors and colleagues who shaped my growth and shared my incredible journey.

You still have a strong connection with your alma mater, the University of Cape Town. Tell us about your student days?

Once I was on track studying for my Performers Diploma in Opera, I was totally driven. I took every opportunity to learn and perform. Singing with an orchestra is an indescribable thrill - one I was instantly addicted to. I hardly ever felt worthy of this glorious happening and never stopped trying to improve on every level.  I stayed connected with UCT’s College of Music, completed a Masters Degree and lectured for many years in the Opera Department. I still lecture part-time in Diction and Presentation for the Opera School.

Do you think much has changed for students since your studying years?

There has been huge and most welcome transformation. As choir singing is an important aspect of communal life, there are many young previously disadvantaged learners interested in studying voice. They come with extraordinary vocal gifts. With the excellent training through the UCT Singing and Opera departments and the help of bursaries, several students have developed and bloomed into internationally acclaimed opera singers. The standard of teaching and performance is extremely high. There are also several post-graduate courses on offer now.

Over the years you have performed in an unusually wide range of styles, including opera, operetta, musicals, concerts and cabaret. What does it take to be this versatile?

I always found it easy to switch from one style to another - it was more a question of whether the public and the media would ‘allow’ me to. The prevailing thought was if you sing Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti and Rossini, how can you perform “My Fair Lady” or “Sound of Music” too? The naysayers would insist I would never sing Mozart again after “Man of La Mancha” and “King and I”. However 92 performances of Susanna in “Marriage of Figaro”, many Papagenas in “Magic Flute”, 3 seasons of Zerlina in “Don Giovanni”, one opposite Herman Prey, as well as several incarnations of delicious Despina in “Cosi fan Tutte” later .... they were wrong about me and Mozart!

I believe that if the underlying correct vocal technique is secure, it’s more a matter of understanding, respecting and celebrating the different demands. Care of one’s instrument is vital. Good speech is essential for operetta and musicals; I had years of excellent speech and drama training in Zimbabwe. The acting side to me is as important in bringing a character to life and making it authentic and credible, and I’ve always felt completely at home on stage. The bigger the orchestra, chorus and cast, the better. When the resident opera company in Cape Town was disbanded I knew I still had so much to give so I reinvented myself for corporates and cabaret.

Professionalism, excellence and integrity have been the hallmarks of my work ethic. I have never compromised on any of them or wasted a single opportunity. What a privilege to have been exposed to and performed such a wide range of superb music in every genre and to have worked with top directors, conductors, singers and actors in each field.

You must have had countless highlights during your career. If you had to highlight one or more, which would it be?

It’s so difficult to choose! Of course, singing for and meeting Madiba on 3 occasions was a highlight. I found performing “DIVINE DIVAS” at the Festival Hall, in London, as part of the Celebrate South Africa festival extremely moving. Performing ‘Fidelio’ on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release was a watershed moment too. Unforgettable, too, was having the entire orchestra, cast and audience singing “Happy Birthday” to me on a few occasions. The gala tribute concert ‘Viva Aviva’ was mounted at Artscape to commemorate 25 years onstage - what a happening that was! And ‘Diamond Diva’ was another unique and unforgettable experience. There were 130 people on stage, all artists and organisations with whom I work and am inextricably involved. The love, understanding and magnificent music making made this one of the best moments in my life.

You sang in front of and have met many dignitaries and icons of today. Share with us your most special moment(s).

Through music I have met mayors, ministers, royalty, state presidents and many other interesting people. Madiba first: on every occasion I’ve had the honour of singing for him, he has engaged in converstion and shown great interest. I sang a specially composed song ‘He Walked to Freedom’ when he recieved an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Be’er Sheva. Many people in the audience were moved to tears. I met the Queen of England after singing “Where are the Children Now” with Abigail Kubeka in a specially mounted concert, ‘A Night to Remember’. I felt inspired when I sang for Martin Luther King Jnr., who was highly impressed with the SA talent. I felt honoured to perform Golde in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ for its lyricist, Sheldon Harnock and I consider singing ‘The Prayer’ at ‘Table of Unity’ with leaders of several different religions present, a highlight. Singing with the children from the Domenican School for the Deaf while they signed simultaneously was a wonderful experience, which I hope will be repeated soon. I have been challenged and inspired by several outstanding conductors and winning the Fred Dalberg Bursary for advanced study at the La Scala Conservatoire in Italy proved life-changing.

You have been very involved in integrating local cultures through the medium of music, outreach work and upliftment. Please elaborate on this and tell us what it means to you.

I have always used music as a healing tool. It is the greatest communicator and bridges every divide - culture, religion, race, sex, age, language and creed. Using crossover from classics to light, integrating song, dance and musicians, abled and disabled, there are no boundaries. I am constantly inspired by the love, voices and talent here in SA and I try endlessly to create opportunities. From workshops in the townships, training AIDS choirs, working at Pollsmoore Prison, to working regularly with the Amy Biehl Foundation music outreach programme, my mission is to help each project grow to its highest level. Other projects include the Hout Bay Music Project, featuring gifted students from the Izamo Yethu settlement, Ikamva LaBantu, the Homeless and Platinum, a brass band in Mannenburg. Mentoring young talent from grass roots is one of my passions, and providing opportunities, sharing my platforms with young singers, musicians, dancers and disabled and seeing them develop and blossom is an indescribable feeling.

Besides all of the above, you also wear a director’s cap. How does this differ for you from being a performer?

As director, you have to take overall responsibility. Although I have directed countless concerts and fundraisers, I still often find myself on a steep learning curve. There are so many areas of expertise necessary. But I find it extremely exciting being able to spark ideas, create and organise from concept to performance. My experience over the last 40 years as a performer has certainly given me enormous insight.

What advice do you have for young performers aspiring to make a career out of singing?

Never stop learning - vocal technique, repertoire, languages, speech, dance - anything which might be useful. I went en pointe for my role as Clorinda in “La Cenerentola”! Our job is to become the best we possibly can be. Always be disciplined and have total integrity, professionally and personally. Never compromise on standards and always aim for excellence. Believe in yourself and seek out positive mentors and teachers.

Tell us more about your upcoming production of Brundibár for Cape Town Opera.

Brundibár is an opera composed by Hans Krása, which was performed 55 times by the inmates of Terezin (Theresienstadt), a Nazi concentration camp.  It is a parable of hope and justice.
There are 40 children in the cast between the ages of 8 and 18 years old from schools all around Cape Town. They will be accompanied by an orchestral ensemble of 15 musicians. Brundibár is being presented by the Cape Town Holocaust Centre with Cape Town Opera, Artscape and the Frank Joubert Art Centre, alongside a play workshopped by Magnet Theatre. We hope that learners will flock to this exciting theatrical experience. There are many resonances from this tragic chapter in history with South Africa, many lessons for us to share, and much meaning to be gleaned so that we can continue building this wonderful country of ours.

For full details on Brundibár performances, please consult our What’s On calendar.

Published 4 July 2011

What's On

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