Cape Town Opera Accused of Financial, Racial Abuse


Vanessa Obioha

Twelve black chorus members of South Africa’s leading opera house, Cape Town Opera, have accused it of financially exploiting them due to their colour.

The controversial dispute started when the afflicted members discovered that their company had ripped them off in an international production of the critically acclaimed production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte – a musical set in colonial North Africa and portraying racial abuse and rape by fascist Italian troops.

According to The Guardian UK, the black chorus members were put on standard South African monthly pay rates of between 6,000 and 11,000 rand (£316-£580) for seven weeks of rehearsals and a heavy programme of performances in Aix-en-Provence, France, before Così Fan Tutte aired in Edinburgh.

However, the singers discovered that they had been contracted by the Aix festival, which runs for three weeks, to appear for €3,640 (£3,000) each, thus leading to a strike action on stage which was fortunately interrupted by Edinburgh festival organisers.

The organisers paid them a £500 appearance fee plus £30 a day and flights, visas and accommodation for three performances which ended last week.

But on return to South Africa, the managing director of the Cape Town Opera, Michael Williams, accused them of theft for accepting the French fees. They were further dismissed by the opera house.

Arline Jaftha, the assistant chorus mistress for CTO, insisted that the maltreatment was fuelled by their colour.

“Williams knows he has a company of talented black singers, so by paying them peanuts and knowing that living expenses in South Africa are so high and for us to know that we put much work into these productions when we travel abroad and we don’t even get a bonus, it’s very upsetting. The freedom and respect we experienced in Aix gave everyone a different vision of how everyone should be treated.”

Williams however denied the allegations, though he acknowledged that he paid his staff less.

“Before we went to France we informed the 12 singers, there’s this rule in France that requires you have independent contracts. Obviously you work for Cape Town Opera; we can’t have you signing two contracts. You are going to have to sign a document that you are members of CTO and I have the right to negotiate a deal with the festival. CTO will receive the money and you will be paid your normal salaries.”

He also said his whole working life had been about getting singers of all races on to the stage. “I returned to South Africa when Mandela was released after having left the country to avoid military conscription. I went to go and write operas for all South Africans and to work to get opera into the townships.”

While Jaftha claims that the opera house is trying to get back the monies paid to them by the French, Williams feels robbed by the accusation, bad press and reputational damage.