Jephtha – A first for Cape Town

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews


Cape Town born, and raised in Pinelands, Colin Lee has become one of the leading international tenors in the in the bel canto repertoire.  He is finally making his Cape Town debut with a performance of Handel’s oratorio, Jephtha.  Barry Smith who has, among a string of other mouth gaping accolades, been an organist at the St Georges Cathedral for forty-two years and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cape Town for thirty-three years, will be conducting Jephta, which will celebrate Smith’s forty-seven years of conducting oratorios. 

La donna del lago

La donna del lago

Smith admits that Handel is his favourite composer and that he had to perform it as soon as possible, “You see, now that I am in my seventies I always feel time may be running out to do all the things I still want to do,” he explains “But I didn’t want it to be just another Handel performance.  I wanted to make it very special and to have as soloists some of the best young South African singers now making their mark in the international musical scene.”  Smith knew exactly which singers he wanted and managed to get most of them together. “One of the quickest performances I’ve ever put together,” he says.

Barry Smith and Colin Lee have known each other for more than 20 years and Lee refers to Smith as his mentor and friend.  After the call was made Lee shared Smith’s enthusiasm, “Barry has long been trying to get me back to Cape Town to sing since I became a professional,” says Lee, “When he came up with the suggestion of Jephtha and our diaries coincided, I jumped at the chance to be able to make my professional debut in my home city under his baton. I am fond of oratorio and don’t get that many opportunities to perform it given my opera schedule.”

Smith also speaks of his passion for Handel, “It is so atmospheric – amazing when one considers the limitations of the harmonic language of the time and the comparative size and tonal colour of a typical Baroque orchestra. Handel has a wonderful way of catching the ethos of a work and infusing life and emotions into the characters presented to him by his librettists. Being primarily an operatic composer his sense of the dramatic is unerring.  The melodies he chooses for the characters have that touch of sublime inevitability. For sheer lyrical beauty you can’t better the tenor aria, ‘Waft her angels’, nor for heart-stopping anguish of the recitative, ‘Deeper and deeper still’. And those great choruses, when Handel goes for it he can whip up choral excitement like no other composer. The chorus that ends Part I is a knock-out!”

Lee worked for 10-years as a Chartered Accountant before pursuing singing full time. “I attended the Drakensberg Boys’ choir from 1978-1981 but returned to Cape Town for my high school education at Rondebosch Boys’ High School,” Lee explains. “It was only in my early 20’s, with the advent of CD’s, that I became fascinated with listening to classical singing, tenors in particular.”  It was around this time that Lee says he met Smith who never stopped encouraging him to pursue his singing career.  “I am fortunate to have spent 10 years as a businessman, which helps keep things in perspective and helps keep one’s feet firmly on the ground, even while one’s voice is in the stratosphere!  Having said that, the reality of having singing as a profession is far removed from the dream of being a singer. It’s the dream but without the nostalgia and romance. It’s hard work.”

Lee started his private vocal studies with the Welsh tenor, Jeffrey Talbot, all the while working as an accountant. For 7 years, he concentrated solely on his vocal studies before starting his profession as a classical singer in 2000.  “Jeffrey knows my voice inside-out and it is always important to have someone like that who can tweak and fine-tune your voice and help with tackling new roles,” says Lee.   2007 saw the emergence of Lee’s international career when he sang the role of TONIO La fille du Regiment in Laurent Pelly’s new production for ROH, and LEOPOLD La Juive in Pierre Audi’s new production for Opéra national de Paris, Bastille; to great acclaim.  Since his début 10 years ago, he has worked with most of the major houses around the world and he has enjoyed a decade-long relationship with the recording label Opera Rara during which time he has participated in 10 recordings for the label.

Lee says the challenge with Handel’s Jephtha is not only in the notes but in the expression, “This oratorio is quite operatic in many aspects and I think it is important to bring the operatic drama to the performance.  Therein lies the challenge.”

According to Lee, South African singers are as talented, if not better, than anywhere in Europe, “Even if it doesn’t always have the same opportunities.  I am so thrilled that opera is still alive and well in Cape Town and delighted to see and hear the wonderful voices, with a sound unique to Africa, coming through onto the national and international stage.  It makes me proud to be a South African representative abroad.”

Barry Smith with the St Georges singers and Tinta Barocca under leadership of Quentin Cridas’ first performance in Cape Town of Handel’s last oratorio will be staged at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, corner Buitengracht and Somerset Road, on 20th and 21st August at 7.30 p.m.   The singers will be Colin Lee, Erica Eloff, Christopher Ainslie, Sophie Harmsen, Elsa Klopper and Aubrey Lodewyk.  There will be a pre-concert talk by Cambridge university Handel expert Dr Ruth Smith at 6.45pm.  Bookings at Computicket opens on 30th July.   Tickets are R200, R150 and R80.

The End

  1. Alice says:

    Thank you – such a lovely piece ……………. truly hope you will give us some inside details from the performances, for those of us still sat in UK, wishing we were in Cape Town!!


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