Cape Town Opera brings music education to over 4,000 children in deprived areas across South Africa each year. The company isn’t shy of highlighting their work to the government, either, having recently sent a group of their singers to perform in front of the standing committee on Cultural Affairs and Sport in the Western Cape Parliament. “They were moved by the fact that children’s lives are changed through this programme,” says CTO Head of Education and Outreach Christine Crouse. We caught up with her to talk about her company’s approach to music education.  


DR: Your Opera is My First Language project is run in schools in rural and township areas. What kind of access, if any, would these children have to music education if CTO didn’t go there?

CC: Most of the schools that we go to have very little access, if any, to music education. Some of the schools have choirs, but there are normally not enough skilled music trainers, as music is no longer a subject in many schools. We worked with a special school in Vredenburg on the West Coast, where we performed a piece called The Singing Garden with some of our singers and learners from the school. It was the first time ever that the school put on such a performance. We are also able to transport them to the Cape Town Opera House, where they watch final dress rehearsals of our performances.

What have been the children’s reactions to projects like Opera is My First Language? Do they enjoy the performing aspect or is it hard to get them to come out of their shells?

At the beginning it is normally quite hard. But we teach them to use their voices properly, to dance, and we encourage them to read and draw. In the process they become more confident and in the end they have become so much a part of us that they feel like family.

On one of the surveys that we sent out one of the learners answered the following question: Is your singing better now, after your experience with Cape Town Opera? Her answer was: “It is great – I tried it in church and they screamed” She definitely stepped out of her shell!

Students from Louwvile Secondary Vredenburg taking part in Ambali ethu
Students from Louwvile Secondary Vredenburg taking part in Ambali ethu


Your Amabali Ethu project allows students to devise their own short operas with the help of a composer/dramatist from CTO. What sort of works and stories have the students come up with?

The primary school wrote about their ancestors and the culture of violence and xenophobia, calling on their ancestors to help them fight this.

The secondary school wrote something totally different. At the time they were all housed in temporary classrooms, as there was a new school being built. These students didn’t have a hall and the temporary classrooms were daily filled with dust from the building-site. They wrote about their lives in the dust: “There’s not a lot of money. / There’s not a lot of work. / Not a lot of anything. / Except the dust and dirt!”

Eventually the school had a singing competition, and the students wrote about cheating, relationships and strife: “Amabali ethu / Our stories tell of strife / Amabali ethu / Our stories give us life.”

What do you think the CTO’s impact has been on the underdeveloped schools that you work in?

I think it has been huge. With one of the schools in Retreat, they have become little professionals. Hope Cornelius, one of their students, was in Tiger Bay the musical here at Artscape and they performed our version of Hansel & Gretel as a foyer concert. On the day of our performance at Karritas Special School in Vredenburg the one teacher remarked “There is such joy at this school today… Everybody is excited about the performance.” It’s about changing lives.

Cape Town Opera Outreach Department's production of <i>The Magic Flute</i>
Cape Town Opera Outreach Department's production of The Magic Flute



What do you make of the state of music education in South Africa in general at the moment?

Music education in schools is poor. Unfortunately, it plays out in the big economic divide. The schools that can afford to appoint music teachers, often by a governing body, do well and have huge music departments. It is the poorer, government-funded schools that often have no music education at all! You might find drama classes. At some schools they don’t even let the learners draw.

So that is why our project is so encompassing. We give the readers reading material on the operas and we have a drawing workshop with them where they draw the characters that they are performing, and we give them dance workshops as well as vocal training.

What have been the main challenges in bringing your work to schools in township communities?

We often find that the parents, teachers and head-masters don’t buy into the project 100%. In schools where leadership is weak we battle with commitment, whereas with schools where the leadership is strong we flourish. We travel far, so it is often quite tiring, but outreach work is not for the faint-hearted!

South Africa is known for its traditional choral music, and CTO’s education department does a lot in that realm - giving workshops in the National Schools Tour to help students prepare for a national choral competition and establishing choirs in primary schools. Was it important for you to address that choral tradition, even though you’re an opera company?

The beautiful thing is that many of the choir competitions have an operatic section, or are entirely focused around opera. So there is a lot of synergy between the choirs and the opera company. There is huge need for skilled training in preparation for these competitions. We also have a keyboard skills teaching programme where we teach Western notation to community choir leaders. 

Students performing in a CTO Outreach production of <i>Hansel and Gretel</i>
Students performing in a CTO Outreach production of Hansel and Gretel



Could you tell us about any exciting upcoming projects you have for schoolchildren?

We will be continuing with the youth operas, and the department is currently working on creating a musical piece around Tsotsi, the novel by Athol Fugard, with the title Finding David, which will be performed next year. We will also be creating new works for special seeds schools, which is a very rewarding experience.

Go here to learn more about Cape Town Opera's Education and Outreach programmes.