Grand dame sings a Fine tune for youth

SA Opera great’s life­time award

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

WITH a jan­gle of bracelets and a charm­ing hint of gravel in her voice, Wendy Fine flings her arms up in an ex­pan­sive ges­ture to de­clare that, in world opera to­day, South Africans are the best.

Hers is not the overblown brio of a dizzy pub­li­cist, but the con­sid­ered judge­ment of one of the lead­ing per­form­ers on the world stage of late 20th cen­tury opera – even if many to­day are not aware of it.

The Pine­town- born diva, who per­formed with noted dis­tinc­tion at La Scala, the Met, Bayreuth and Covent Gar­den, among many other opera houses, has the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing been the only South African so­prano to have sung lead­ing roles with two of the world’s great­est tenors, Plá­cido Domingo and José Car­reras.

But her con­sid­er­a­tion of South Africa’s op­er­atic con­tri­bu­tion is also in­formed by her own en­gage­ment with it, at close quar­ters.

One day in the late 1980s, hav­ing re­tired from the world stage, Fine had gone to lis­ten to a choir in Langa – she had by then launched her own stu­dio to de­velop home-grown singing tal­ent – when a bari­tone voice from the back row res­onated with her, and she sin­gled out the per­former.

From her stu­dio, Fik­ile Mv­in­jelwa went on to study at UCT, then com­pete in­ter­na­tion­ally and even­tu­ally find a mu­si­cal home at New York’s pres­ti­gious Metropoli­tan Opera.

If Mv­in­jelwa turned out to be the first black South African to make it big abroad, he is not the only young South African singer to ben­e­fit from Fine’s con­tin­u­ing in­volve­ment in the world of opera and mu­sic.

Among other singers Fine “af­ter a Mu­nich per­for­mance of Büch­ner’s Wozzeck, con­ducted by Car­los Kleiber – con­sid­ered to be among the great­est con­duc­tors of the 20th cen­tury and one of her great­est sup­port­ers – a critic wrote: ‘Wendy Fine made a tri­umphant first ap­pear­ance here, it will prove to have been the first of many. Overnight she be­came a new star in Mu­nich. Act­ing with wild im­petu­os­ity, she ex­hib­ited a tremen­dous voice of im­mense dra­matic in­ten­sity, char­ac­terised by the most mov­ing of pi­anis­si­mos to the most ring­ing of force­ful ut­ter­ances pro­duced with a warm op­u­lence of tone’.”

And it all be­gan with scrap metal, Fine laughed in an in­ter­view this week, though warn­ing quite sternly this was noth­ing to scoff at.

There was a link – of af­fec­tion, of course, but also of hard graft, re­source­ful­ness and stamina – between the grubby world of the scrap metal deal­er­ship her Rus­sian grand­fa­ther, Ja­cob Max Fine, es­tab­lished af­ter his ar­rival in Natal in 1903 and his grand­daugh­ter’s stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion in the heady cos­mos of world opera half a cen­tury later.

The busi­ness is still in the fam­ily, just as Fine her­self re­mains ac­tively en­gaged in the mu­si­cal ca­reer it spon­sored at its launch. Early mu­si­cal en­cour­age­ment from her mother and fa­ther, Eva and Les­lie, led to her singing op­er­atic roles in Dur­ban in her late teens. Fine went on to the Mu­sic Academy of Vi­enna, and a glit­ter­ing, if de­mand­ing, ca­reer of in­ter­na­tional per­for­mance opened be­fore her.

At 28, her Mu­nich Staat­soper de­but un­der Kleiber in the role of Marie in Wozzeck made her an overnight sen­sa­tion, and Fine soon be­came the most sought-af­ter per­former of this role, tour­ing with Kleiber world­wide. This led to her be­ing the first South African to be in­vited by the es­teemed Clau­dio Ab­bado to sing at La Scala Opera House in Mi­lan in the Ital­ian pre­miere of Wozzeck and in Stravin­sky’s Rake’s Progress. She be­came the first South African singer to be put un­der con­tract at La Scala in two sep­a­rate roles for two years run­ning and to be in­vited back again two years later to per­form the same roles.

She later went on to a 10-year stint at the Royal Opera House in London. In 1977 she was in­vited to sing the lead role in Janácek’s opera Jen­ufa for Queen El­iz­a­beth II at her Sil­ver Ju­bilee. She was also the first South African to be in­vited to per­form “be­hind the Iron Cur­tain”, as it was called at the time, at the Prague Spring Fes­ti­val, singing two fa­mous Slavic roles, in the orig­i­nal Czech.

Her de­but in Bayreuth, at 29, was in Richard Wag­ner’s Die Walküre and Göt­ter­däm­merung pro­duced by Wolf­gang Wag­ner. She made her US de­but un­der the ba­ton of Sir Ge­org Solti. Among other renowed con­duc­tors she per­formed with over the years are Pierre Boulez, Ist­van Kertesz, Marek Janowski, Sir Si­mon Rat­tle, Sir Colin Davis, Lam­berto Gardelli and Carlo Maria Gi­ulini.

At 79, Fine is ev­i­dently as ir­re­press­ible as ever she was on stage – “Me, shy? How do you spell that?” – though her en­ergy since her re­tire­ment from pro­fes­sional singing in 1988 has been chan­nelled into de­vel­op­ing the tal­ents and dreams of others. Know­ing when to stop singing, she ob­served, was a skill of sorts, too – though some singers, men es­pe­cially, didn’t know when to stop.

“Some carry on and sound like old lawn­mow­ers… and you think, ‘ Jirre!’”

In fact, Fine ad­mits that when some­times she gives a brief demon­stra­tion of a pas­sage to a stu­dent, they of­ten re­spond, “but you should still be singing!”

But the “big thing” in her life now is an opera com­peti- tion she in­tends launch­ing in con­junc­tion with Artscape in the new year.

“It will be just for so­pra­nos,” she said em­phat­i­cally. “I want it to be dif­fer­ent. And I can’t wait for it!”

It would be a show­case of the font of South Africa tal­ent she re­ally does be­lieve is mo­men­tous.

“The great­est opera singers to­day are from South Africa. World­wide, they are win­ning all the com­pe­ti­tions… there is no stop­ping them.”


Wendy Fine re­ceives the Western Cape gov­ern­ment’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award at The Artscape dur­ing the Clas­si­cal Youth Mu­sic Fes­ti­val on Septem­ber 2.

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