Boycotting the boycott

Defying Desmond Tutu, the Cape Town Opera is here doing its best to build bridges.

November 13, 2010 21:03
3 minute read.
THE CAST of ‘Porgy and Bess’

Porgy and Bess 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In the 1960s, international artists and academics, at the request of the African National Congress, began to boycott apartheid South Africa.

This movement became part of a larger series of boycotts, which extended as far as the exclusion of South Africa from the 1964 Olympic Games. One of the main supporters of this initiative was Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Last month, Tutu called upon the Cape Town Opera to take part in a similar boycott, this time against Israel. In a letter written to Michael Williams, managing director of the 10-year-old opera house, Tutu compared Israel’s current political situation with the discriminatory apartheid government.

He urged Williams to forego his commitment to Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center and join a group of international artists who have pulled out of engagements in Israel in the past several years.

Williams arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, two days after the 70 members of the Cape Town Opera Company. The troupe opened their production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess the following day.

Williams is a man of firm beliefs. Sitting at the Aroma caddy-corner to TAPAC, Williams explained his reasons for going against Tutu’s wishes.

“I’m against arts and academic boycotts,” he said.

“It did not help the artists fraternity in South Africa when the boycott took place. We became voiceless.

It set us back 10 years. [The arts] is not the place to be boycotting. That is the place to be supporting, to be interacting, strongly. The place to express oneself.

I believe in doing something positive, in positive actions. Not coming is negative. Nothing would have come of not coming. Our being here will create all kinds of other reactions.”

The Cape Town Opera has a history of making headlines. In fact, Porgy and Bess was a major part of its rise to fame in South Africa. Staged for the first time in 1995, one year after the official end of apartheid, Porgy and Bess presented an almost exclusively black cast for the first time. The opera, which premiered in New York 1935, deals with issues of drug abuse, domestic violence, hope and the strength of a community. Although the story is set in 1920s America, the themes touched upon in Gershwin’s work resonate with modern day South Africa.

“The story has a lot of relevance for us,” said Williams.

In a statement to the press, Hana Munitz, director of the Israeli Opera, said that both the Israeli Opera and the Cape Town Opera are apolitical organizations.

“The agenda is culture and art,” she said. “Both houses relate to culture as a bridge.”

During his time in Israel, Williams plans to make use of this “bridge” to reach out to opera lovers and musicians throughout the region.

“I made commitments to pro Palestinian organizations in my country that we would be entering into dialogue. I have made contact with the Barenboim- Said Foundation (the organization responsible for the Musical Education in Palestine project).

I have written letters to the Palestinian Circle School. We are bringing them in to see performances.

We are trying to get people from Nazareth and Ramallah to come see the show. Hana Munitz has said that we would encourage dialogue and she is putting her money where her mouth is,” he explained.

The range of responses to this tour took Williams by surprise.

“I never thought that the archbishop of Cape Town would write us a [critical] letter,” he said. “We have received a lot of hate mail, a lot of threats of protests outside our theater. At the same time we received a lot of support. A lot of people thanked us for taking a principled stand on this issue. We are here to produce a work of art, something that will be meaningful to us and to our audience. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.

Cape Town Opera will perform at TAPAC until November 27. For information and tickets, visit

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