08a / Big Wig Opera: there’s a new opera company in Gauteng

Founded by tenor Stéfan Louw, Big Wig Opera’s directors, as well as key volunteers, don an impressive 200 years’ cumulative professional theatre experience.

Big Wig Opera will soon be registered as a non-profit company and Louw hopes that it will continue the work he has been doing in his private capacity over the past ten years.  “The team of volunteers will be working together to produce The Tragedy of Werther at the Roodepoort Theatre on 5 December,” he says.  “We are using it as a practice run for bigger productions next year.”

Next year’s operas at the Roodepoort Theatre are La Boheme, Il Trovatore, Madama Butterfly and L’elisir d’amore. 

At the helm of Big Wig Opera are Louw as the Executive Director, mezzo-soprano and business owner Elizabeth Lombard as Artistic Director, tenor and business school graduate Muzi Mazibuko as Marketing and Funding Director, bass and financial guru Gawie de Wet as Financial and Operational Director, as well as bass and seasoned businessman Willem de Bruïne (also a qualified medical doctor) as Human Resources and Development Director.  Mazibuko has also been put onto a succession planning programme with the goal to have him take over from Louw when he (Louw) retires in 20 years’ time.

A number of other volunteers are also on board already:  Louw’s wife Marisa in an administrative capacity, soprano Natalie Dickson as assistant chorus master, pianists Eugene Joubert, Annika Burke and Rudolf Geldenhuis as repetiteurs, baritone and fashion designer (bridal couture) Johan van den Heever as costume designer, acclaimed actor Johan Engelbrecht as set designer as well as experienced theatre and television lighting designer Izak Furstenberg.

According to Louw the applications for auditions for next year’s productions poured in over the past couple of weeks. “On 10 November we will be listening to more than 50 candidates for soloist (leading roles), comprimarios (supporting roles) as well as chorus members.  The audition panel will consist of myself, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Lombard, soprano Natalie Dickson and conductor Graham Scott.”  Louw hopes to put together a permanent opera chorus that will be complimented by a group of ad-hoc singers for bigger productions.  Louw mentioned that he is also going to approach some of Gauteng’s most experienced professional opera singers to become in-house soloists.

“For now we will be using the Roodepoort Theatre as a base,” says Louw.  “But after a recent conversation with the Bloemfontein City Orchestra’s Paul van Zuilenburg we hope to be touring with our productions to other major theatres as well in the near future.”

Big Wig Opera’s primary mission is to bring audiences opera productions of an exceptional artistic standard.  The challenge however is to build the audience, but Louw started to overcome this task when he launched the Youth Audience Development Programme for Opera in April 2013.  “Before we launched the programme our average audience age was 65.  In the past year and a half the average audience age came down to 45 while it also grew in size,” explains Louw.  “I believe Big Wig’s funky name and youthful look-and-feel will bring the average audience age down even further once it is revealed in December.”

And from the Youth Audience Development Programme came another programme, the Youth Artist Development Programme.  Louw explains that three of the participants in the former are now part of the opera chorus.  Neliseka, Thobeka and Mfihlakalo Malinga (three sisters in high school) will be put onto a formal opera training programme next year.  “I believe the sisters have immense natural talent but we need to teach them not only theory of music and a solid classical technique, but also general stagecraft in order to ensure they have a sustainable future ahead of them,” he says.  Once they have a solid foundation Louw hopes to see a sponsor come forward to pay for their tertiary education at Cape Town University, one of the leading opera training facilities in the country.

Big Wig Opera will be taking small steps, one at a time, over the next few years and hope that its mini-operas with minimal décor and costumes, piano and a narrator will soon grow into full opera productions with an orchestra that will tour the country. 

For more information about Big Wig Opera’s sponsorship packages, or if you’d like to be added to the database and receive Big Wig news, please contact Marketing Director Muzi Mazibuko at muzi@bigwigopera.com.

Big Wig Opera is also constantly on the look-out for volunteers with business and theatre skills.  If you’d like to become a volunteer please contact Human Resources Director Willem de Bruïne at willem@bigwigopera.com.