‘Sara Baartman’ opera brings ‘complex, multifaceted’ character to life

16 September 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 10 min.
The world première of the opera Sara Baartman on 7 September was the first of three performances in the Pam Golding Theatre at UCT’s Baxter Theatre Centre. The opera was written by Prof Hendrik Hofmeyr and the orchestra conducted by Jeremy Silver.
The world première of the opera Sara Baartman on 7 September was the first of three performances in the Pam Golding Theatre at UCT’s Baxter Theatre Centre. The opera was written by Prof Hendrik Hofmeyr and the orchestra conducted by Jeremy Silver.

Sara Baartman, an opera written by Professor Hendrik Hofmeyr, premièred at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Baxter Theatre Centre on 7 September. Bringing the elusive reality and contested history of Sarah Baartman to the stage presented some casting and musical challenges, the production team said in a pre-performance talk.

Language, casting, history, music traditions and authenticity were all carefully considered in transforming Sarah Baartman’s story into an opera, said Professor Hofmeyr of UCT’s South African College of Music (SACM). Jeremy Silver, the director of the UCT Opera School, conducted the opera. The directors were Janice Honeyman, and Zenobia Kloppers, an opera singer of Khoi descent. It was performed in collaboration with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra from 7 to 10 September.

The opera traces Baartman’s tragic history, bound up in the country’s history of racial and gender oppression and degradation. The opera begins in the Cape where she was employed by a family of freed slaves. It moves to show her being paraded as an exotic specimen in 19th-century Europe and investigated by the racist scientist Georges Cuvier in Paris. It ends with her untimely death there in 1815.

That Baartman was an exploited and objectified woman is not in doubt, said Hofmeyr. But after lengthy research, he wanted the opera to portray a more multi-faceted individual who achieved remarkable things considering her disadvantaged background.

Contested history

Baartman was born in the late 18th century in the Gamtoos, Eastern Cape, to a Khoekhoe family before coming to The Tavern of the Seas (Cape Town). Records of her life indicate that it was here that her body began to attract attention, particularly from visiting European sailors.

That Baartman was a canny businesswoman is later revealed during her ‘exhibitions’ in London. She reportedly turned down the opportunity to return to her homeland, choosing to remain in England. She later moved to France, where she was exploited by a French impresario.

 

“Hers was an extraordinary life, not only in terms of all that she suffered, but also in terms of her achievements, which I think deserve to be celebrated.”

This had tragic consequences. Alcohol became a refuge, and some researchers suggest that she may have turned to prostitution when her fame waned. She died of tuberculosis, alone and destitute in Paris in 1815. Two hundred years after her birth, her remains were finally returned to her homeland. These were buried in 2002 on Vergaderingskop, a hill in the town of Hankey.

“Hers was an extraordinary life, not only in terms of all that she suffered, but also in terms of her achievements, which I think deserve to be celebrated,” said Hofmeyr. “For example … she was the first South African to publish in London. She owned the copyright to her famous posters and, according to her contract, she received 50% of her exhibition fees – a princely sum, even by today’s standards.

“At the time of her death, she was the most famous South African who had ever lived, the subject of countless songs, poems and cartoons, “he added. “Most were insultingly salacious, but at least one cartoon shows us a different perspective: a very dignified Sara in her traditional tribal wear, surrounded by a grotesque crowd of leering Londoners.”

Hofmeyr said that an indication of her strength of character is the fact that she always wore a full-length body stocking under her Khoi apron and refused to strip, even for the scientists in Paris.

Earlier genesis

The opera’s genesis lies in the 20-minute opera created for the SACM’s centenary in 2010. Saartjie, composed by Hofmeyr and Fiona Zerbst and directed by Geoffrey Hyland, was one of five mini-South African operas created for the celebration. It imagines Baartman’s last night in Paris on New Year’s Eve in 1815.

Language, casting, history, music traditions and authenticity were all carefully considered in transforming Sarah Baartman’s story into an opera.

Hofmeyr said he’d always wanted to extend this into a full-length opera.

Transforming Baartman’s nuanced and debated story into an opera had been challenging. Given these dichotomies, Honeyman said her aim was to find the human in the story.

“That gives you shape and texture. We also analysed the libretto over again, until all the performers had a clear idea of what [story] they were singing. Above all, the show had to be both aurally and visually appealing ... For me that’s very important.”

The story is paramount, said Silver.

“In any opera we do, be it by Handel by Mozart, Verdi – or by Hofmeyr – we look at the text and at meaning incredibly careful, whether it be in English or Italian … That is always the primary starting point.”  

Turning Baartman’s story into an operatic form that is both vibrant and retains meaning demanded careful casting, said Silver.

“If you’re casting a play, you know who your characters are, and you choose actors best suited to portray that character. With opera, we have a very different issue ... The composers write for certain types of voices. So, we’re not only casting according to the character in the opera, but vocally we had to ask, ‘Who is going to fit that role?’”

This had led to “colour-blind” casting for the leads, he said.

Nuances and challenges

Kloppers, who is of Khoi descent, recalls her perplexed reaction when she first stepped into the rehearsal room.

“Because I was trained as an opera singer, one of the first things that came to mind was, okay, what are people going to say? Because it’s all about the voice. It’s not about the colour of your skin, which culture you come from … The question is: Can you sing the role? Can you play the part?”

 

“I didn’t want people to think anyone had been disrespected by not casting someone of Khoi descent.”

She added, “I didn't want people to think anyone had been disrespected by not casting someone of Khoi descent. I think it’s very important to understand that – that opera is all about the voice. We’re here to tell a story and it’s an emotional story. And opera is the perfect vehicle for very, very big emotions. It’s big music, it’s big singing, and we train for so long to be able to get that sound out and flow through to engulf everyone.”

Hofmeyr added, “For me, opera is about the inner reality which is portrayed through the voice. The important thing is that the voice should be the right voice.”

Silver said the role of Baartman had been double cast.

“We had two things in mind. One had to be the vocal ability and in the role of Sara [the lead singer] is on stage most of the evening. It requires enormous stamina and a wealth of experience to do that.”

Hofmeyr also chose to musically reference all the cultures and languages Baartman would have encountered during her life: the Khoekhoe, Nguni, Dutch, English and French.

“For me, every language we speak and every type of music we make represents a different way of engaging with the world,” said Hofmeyr. “I have tried therefore to incorporate elements of all of these into this portrait of Sara’s complex interaction with her diverse circumstances.”

Choosing the name

That the opera has been named Sara Baartman and not Sarah Baartman (as appears on the Memorial Hall on upper campus) took some deliberation, said Hofmeyr.

 

“So much has been invested in her as an icon that I didn’t want to tread on any toes.”

“I probably grappled with that issue the most because the original opera was named Saartjie. And this opera was initially called Saartjie Baartman. But it was brought to my attention by Zenobia that although many people, even in the Khoi-San community, are happy with the name Saartjie, others are not, as they consider it derogatory.”

Hofmeyr chose “Sara” rather than “Sarah” as the latter spelling seems only to be associated with her fairly brief sojourn in England, where her name was recorded as “Sarah Bartmann”.

“The misspelling of her surname makes it unlikely that the traditional English spelling of her first name can be taken as a true expression of her preference in this regard,” he said.

“Throughout her life, she was known as Saartjie … So, although we’ve changed it to ‘Sara’ in the title as a sign of respect, I think that in the historical context of the operatic dialogue, the former is more appropriate. Her full name is used only once, when the abolitionist Macaulay, representing the voice of officialdom, asks ‘Are you Sara Baartman?’”


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