When South Africa did opera

David Bullard recalls the glory days of the State Theatre in Pretoria


Back in the 1980’s I was a regular visitor to the then recently opened State Theatre in Pretoria where I saw some of the most sublimely staged operas it has ever been my privilege to attend. Opera is notoriously expensive to perform involving, as it does, a full orchestra, soloists, often a chorus not to mention expensive sets and scene changes. However, thanks to generous corporate sponsors the Opera house at the State Theatre never disappointed and the pool of available talent was world class with many of our best soloists leaving South Africa and seeking their fortunes in European opera houses.

In those days it was possible to leave Johannesburg at around 17:30 and drive north on an almost traffic free and toll free M1 to arrive at the underground parking at the State Theatre at around 18:15. There was a restaurant within the State Theatre complex so one could eat an early dinner before curtain up at around 20:00. I did this a couple of times until they served me a badly mixed dry martini in a beer glass which abruptly ended our relationship. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

However, a night at the opera needs to be accompanied by some sort of pomp and ceremony and so I borrowed an idea from Glyndebourne and decided on a pre-opera picnic. The only problem was where to hold the picnic. The underground parking at the State Theatre was on several levels so obviously there were ramps leading down to the lower levels. We reversed the car into one of the spacious parking bays below a ramp, unrolled some astroturf in the adjoining parking bay, set up a table with a cloth and got the chairs out of the car boot along with the picnic, the pre mixed martinis and the wine.

Every so often the driver of another car looking for a parking bay (there were always plenty available) would glower at us and carry on looking. In those days we dressed to go to the opera and nobody in their right mind wants to pick a fight with a guy in a perfect fitting white tuxedo holding a martini glass. Back then you could even smoke in the underground car park without some interfering health freak objecting.

When the opera was over at around 22:30 we would go back to the car and have a restorative brandy while we waited for the parking to clear (normally around 20 minutes) before the duty driver (a.k.a. MrsB) hit an empty M1 south and got us back home just after midnight. This slightly eccentric arrangement proved very popular with our more discerning company clients with the added advantage that the whole evening could be billed as ‘client entertainment’ back in the days when the taxman still had a sense of common decency.

One particularly stunning opera performed at the Pretoria State Theatre was Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’, sponsored by BMW South Africa. For years I collected the programmes from all the operas but eventually they had to be cleared out ahead of the move south so I have no idea who the soloists were. But every aspect of the performance was perfect, particularly the stage setting for the 80 minute second act which contains the most beautiful love duet in the history of all opera. It featured a hologram of a tree which appeared to overhang the first six rows of the auditorium thereby drawing the audience into the action of the opera.

My opera experiences in Pretoria persuaded me to arrange my annual holidays around opera festivals whenever possible. I saw Pavarotti in Tosca in New York and Bryn Terfel’s NY Met debut in The Marriage of Figaro and I was in Bayreuth for Placido Domingo’s debut in Die Walkure. Then there was a spectacular Parsifal at Opera Bastille in Paris. My only regret was that I never made it to La Scala, Milan which is the Mecca of the opera world.

In 1992 I attended an opera at the State Theatre and in the programme was a flyer from a tour company promising tickets to that year’s Wagner festival in Bayreuth. These tickets are highly sought after and most German residents have to spend a decade on a waiting list in the hopes of getting a ticket to one of the operas.

But here was an offer of the entire season which consisted of Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin (I think) and a new production of the four operas that make up the Ring Cycle. The ticket prices at the time were DM185 for he best seats which was affordable for a South African back then. I checked this year’s prices just in case and it worked out to around R6 500 per performance thanks to the ANC’s thievery over the years.

So I booked a solo visit and spent ten days in Bayreuth watching Wagner operas, drinking beer early in the morning (a proud German tradition), exploring the surroundings, visiting Prague and eating well. I enjoyed the experience so much that I went again for a fresh Ring performance in 1995 with Mrs B (now a converted Wagnerite) and then twice more, the last time in 2007.

One of the great things about Bayreuth is that it is unashamedly elitist. The lefty wokists would hate it. Everyone dresses up, the men in black tie or a variation thereof and the women in glamorous gowns. The late finance minister and chairman of Gencor, Derek Keys, was a regular at Bayreuth. Keys had employed me back in 1984 at National Discount House (of which he was chairman) and the last person he probably expected to see at the Bayreuth festival was me joining the hour long interval queue for bratwurst and beer.

It’s high summer in Bavaria at that time of year so the evenings are light but since so many of the operas are long the programme starts at 16:00 and often ends close to 23:00 after which it’s usual to repair to a local hostelry to discuss the production and drink and eat before strolling back through the old town in the moonlight to your lodgings. Altogether a very agreeable way to spend ten days with like minded people from all over the world.

Which is why it is so sad that South Africa no longer offers high culture such as opera on a regular basis. The Pretoria State Theatre was closed back in 2000 due to ‘financial mismanagement’ (no surprise there I guess) although it was reopened the following year but heaven knows why. Cape Town does attempt to stage the odd opera but is obviously struggling financially with a current Donizetti production being performed at the Theatre on the Bay to a piano accompaniment rather than an orchestra. Other than that we are living in a cultural wasteland from an opera lover’s point of view.

The problem is that opera is seen by the philistines as white and elitist which is odd seeing that many of our best operatic voices are to be found in black bodies. This myth deters potential sponsors who seem keen to remain close to the ruling party’s rear end.

Maestro Richard Cock regularly features some wonderful voices in his Starlight Classic performances. As for the charge of being elitist, this is just a feeble excuse from those who are either tone deaf or can’t be bothered to attempt to understand what opera is all about.

For example, I’ve genuinely attempted to understand rap music and have come to the considered opinion that it’s utter crap and just a good excuse to refer to women as ‘ho’s and bitches’. But if you aren’t moved to tears in the final moments of Madama Butterfly or Manon Lescaut and if Verdi’s Otello doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck then you clearly belong somewhere on the now fashionable autism spectrum in which case, congratulations, you’re a victim.

A vibrant classical music and opera tradition is the hallmark of a civilised society; a label our government seems to want to avoid at all costs.


If you’ve been following international news you will know that parts of Victoria and, more recently, New South Wales in Australia have been subjected to extremely heavy rainfall which has resulted in massive flooding, both of homes and businesses. The TV footage of people wading through their homes waist deep in water is heartbreaking and the piles of water damaged household items awaiting collection outside the flooded homes gives some idea of the extent of the disaster.

Obviously this must all be due to climate change and will no doubt add grist to the mill in the upcoming climate waffle-shop known as COP27. Except that both the towns of Echuca in Victoria and Forbes in New South Wales have experienced serious flooding before. In the case of Forbes this was apparently the worst flood in 70 years and in the case of Echuca the worst for 150 years. Which means that both towns have been badly flooded previously and long before climate change was even a recognisable rallying call.

Which tends to suggest that if you build a home at the confluence of a couple of rivers or in a known flood plain then it’s got very little to do with fossil fuels or carbon emissions and you must expect your personal belongings to get a bit soggy from time to time. Hopefully, if we all switch to renewable power sources and electric vehicles these disasters will be averted in the future. Or maybe not.