The production of grand opera, full scale ballets, dramas, choral concerts and arts festivals as well as the education of numerous singers, dancers and actors count among the wide range of cultural achievements of the Eoan Group from 1933 until the late 1970s. Situated in District Six and later in Athlone, the group played an important role in Cape Town’s cultural life. For many of those involved with the group in those days, it was their life’s calling, despite the difficult circumstances caused by Apartheid policies.
The publication of a book, celebrating the extraordinary history of the Group, became a prerequisite when the contract concerning the transfer or the Eoan Group Archive to Domus was negotiated. A series of public consultations with members of the Eoan Community followed in 2008 and a book committee was created consisting of individuals directly (and indirectly) related to the Eoan Group as well as DOMUS staff.
In the course of 2009 our book team has been able to do 47 interviews with individuals who were involved with the Eoan Group at some stage of their lives and this book will endeavour to preserve the history of the Group through the direct quotation of the memories that have been shared. The interviews have again brought to our attention the enormous effort that people have invested into the arts through the group, the extraordinary circumstances in which they had to operate and the formative role that the group played in so many lives.
The process of the making of this aural history book is still underway. In 2010 the interviews have been transcribed and excerpts will be arranged in chapters guided by themes such as opera and ballet productions, the early years of the group, various individuals, training, dress making, touring and politics. If all goes according to plan the manuscript for the book should be ready for submission to a publisher by the end of the year. All interviews have also been filmed by the Cape-based film maker, Aryan Kaganof, and will be moulded into a documentary on the process of the making of the book.
Source: Written by Hilde Roos
Photograph: Cloete Breytenbach
On Thursday night, 31st January, a prestigious event organised around the launch of the oral history book, Eoan - Our Story (2013) took place as part of the Suidooster Festival in Cape Town. This festive occasion included an exhibition entitled, Op die Planke, 1956-1975, and a concert of some of Verdi’s well-known arias, sung by Vanessa Tait-Jones, Minette du Toit-Pearce, Friedel Mitas, Lukhanyo Moyake and Garth Delport, accompanied by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Minor Hall in the Cape Town City Hall was filled to the brim for the book launch with an expectant audience spilling out into the corridor. In his opening speech, Prof Russel Bothman, rector of Stellenbosch University, noted the value of this event for broadening and enriching our understanding of South Africa’s past. Patricia de Lille, the major of the City of Cape Town focused her speech on the political importance of the group, while Ruth Fourie, widow of the baritone singer Lionel Fourie, spoke about the process of making this book via a book committee including academics and members from the community, instead of a single author.
The book, edited by Dr Hilde Roos, a post-doctoral research fellow at DOMUS, and Wayne Muller, recounts the story of the Eoan Group who staged the first full-scale opera productions in South Africa. Compiled out of more than forty interviews with members of the Eoan Group the material is skilfully curated, constructing a narrative that tells the story of the group from its establishment in 1933 through its heydays of opera production, and eventual demise. At times hilariously funny and deeply moving it is a stirring account of the struggles and sacrifices, hopes and dreams of the group members during the apartheid regime. One large factor that attributed to the personal tone of the book is that the register of the spoken language was not changed by the editors. In the introduction to the book they note that this was important to them, “because language editing was potentially another way in which the stories told by the interviews could be over-written and misrepresented by institutional concerns” (Roos & Muller, 2013:x). What emerges is a unique account of making music in a turbulent time in South Africa’s history.
Even though the Eoan Opera Group formed an active part of Cape Town’s cultural life for more than two decades, today, few remember their extraordinary history. This history is displayed in the exhibition entitled Op die Planke, 1956-1975, on show for the duration of the Suidoosterfees. The exhibition is curated by Dr Lizabé Lambrechts, a post-doctoral research fellow at DOMUS, assisted by William Fourie and built by Henk Dekker. Constructed out of archival material preserved by DOMUS, the academic work of Dr Hilde Roos and oral history material from the book Eoan - Our Story (2013), this exhibition celebrates the extraordinary achievements of the Eoan Group. It examines the story of the group as remembered by individuals, contextualised in historical and political events in South Africa that forever changed the physical and cultural landscapes in which the group operated. This exhibition presents a look at the dynamics of opera production in a time and in places subject to involuntary removals of coloured communities in Cape Town. In a sense, the history of Eoan’s opera performances trace the physical spaces where performances took place and illustrate the restrictions imposed on the company as apartheid legislation intensified. The course of opera history in Cape Town traverses the Isaac Ochberg Hall in District Six, the Cape Town City Hall, the Alhambra Theatre, the Green and Seapoint Civic Theatre and the Joseph Stone Theatre in Athlone. Place therefore plays an important role in narrating Eoan’s history in this exhibition. The exhibition is presented in silence as a reflection on the destruction caused by apartheid to the South African landscape and, concomitantly, the silencing of its many voices.
Russel Bothman noted in 2008 when the Eoan Group Archive was donated to DOMUS: “Somewhere in our past, we know, thanks to these people and their perseverance, there existed voices that sang and did not stop singing. Somewhere in our past, in the darkest hours, there was music that was not drowned out by bulldozers or the sound of gunfire. We want to hear that, I think, as the sounds of hope that never lost courage” (Bothman in Muller, 2013: xvii). This night’s events, which ended with the singing of arias that once formed part of the core repertoire of the Eoan Opera Group, celebrated this hope and strove to honour the largely forgotten history and legacy of the Eoan Group members.
Source: Written by Lizabé Lambrechts