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Two South African classical musicians have created a musical production that’s being hailed around the world. Opera singer Zanne Stapelberg and pianist Kathleen Tagg are the architects of the show, called Soul of Fire – by some critical accounts one of the most remarkable musical productions ever to have come from South Africa.
?The performance blends Spanish folk songs with vibrant tango, jazz and flamenco from Latin America. It mixes opera music from Spain with classical art songs from some of the world’s most famous composers.
When they perform, say Tagg and Stapelberg, it’s as if they’re transported into a magical realm where sound is color. The audience was under their spell at a recent concert at the Chapel of St. Mary and All the Angels in Grahamstown, South Africa.
“At times like these, the audience becomes one giant, organic being,” Stapelberg told VOA. Or, rather, “a beast,” feeding on the melodic electricity generated by the band.
“Everyone in the room is living and breathing and feeling the vibration of the music in the air,” said Tagg. “For me the most amazing thing is when you are in the quietest moments of the music and you actually hear and feel the silence as a heaviness.”
Pain as well as joy
The band consists of top South African violinist Piet de Beer, upright and double bass specialist Charles Lazar, master percussionist Joseph Avergal…and the duel heart and soul of the group, soprano Stapelberg and pianist and arranger Tagg.
? Explaining her attraction to the sounds of Spain and Latin America, Stapelberg said, “I love the fact that it’s extremely expressive, it’s very vivid, it’s passionate, it’s so intense. Literally, my heart breaks every time I sing it; I’m finished; I want to die it’s so beautiful. And we both feel like that about this music and I think that’s why it works for us. We really love it with all our hearts and we are obsessed with it!”
Both the singer and the pianist believe that music is the “communication of joy,” yet they’re also captivated by the pain evoked by the music they’re making.
“Sometimes it’s incredibly beautiful to feel sorrow, or to just wallow in it. It’s necessary,” said Tagg. Stapelberg added, “I love wallowing in sadness. It’s a big turn-on for me.”
Another attraction for the vocalist, who keenly embraces theatricality, is the “sheer, over-the-top drama” of much Spanish and Latin American music.
She explained, “There’s an amazing singer, [Spanish operatic soprano] Montserrat Caballe, one of the most famous opera singers of all time. She once said, ‘When I’m onstage there’s drama, when I’m offstage there’s drama.’ So I found the best way for me to keep the drama [of my life] onstage was to sing as much Spanish music as possible, because then I can sort of vent all the drama.”
Both Stapelberg and Tagg are internationally acclaimed artists, performing around the world; both shun scripts and are respected as experimenters who innovate rather than imitate, who interpret rather than duplicate.
“We’re classical musicians but we…have the souls of rockers. We’re actually like rock chicks,” said Stapelberg, laughing. “So it’s nice to sort of take that kind of vibe and then put it into a classical frame and put that on stage and into the studio.”
The vocalist has indeed made a career of defying expectations of her as an opera singer. She sometimes chugs a beer onstage. She has collaborated with stars of kwaito, a manic, often foul-mouthed variant of house music that originated in South African townships in the 1990s. She has melded cabaret and opera into an alloy some critics have labeled “operacabaret,” at times contributing further to the music’s eccentricity by blowing a saxophone.
Soul of Fire is a continuation of Stapelberg’s refusal to be pigeonholed by convention and the confines of traditional classical music. “I hope that I can be a classical trailblazer, in a way,” she said.
Judging from her recent shows, Stapelberg is hurling classical music and opera into the laps of audiences that previously wouldn’t have listened to the genres – while maintaining their integrity.
“Now I’m performing in little theaters here and there. It’s not just in an opera house anymore, where people put on their furs and their diamonds and only clap seven times. It’s a whole different vibe,” she said.
Stapelberg has taken Tagg on this journey of shattering molds – not that the pianist, who contributed music to the Oscar-winning movie Black Swan, is a reluctant traveler. “Soul of Fire is music outside of the box,” she said with a smile, eyes glinting.
Tagg added, “My biggest obsession in life is working with sound colors. And the possibilities in this music are just so enormous and what you can do and the way you can bend time and bend sound.”
The passport to this “bending” into diverse forms is the musicians’ varied backgrounds. Stapelberg, Tagg and de Beer are classically trained; Lazar is primarily a jazz bassist and Avergal’s forte is world music.
“So we’re asking everyone to sort of bleed into each other’s styles,” said Stapelberg.
If the singer’s versatile voice is the canvas for Soul of Fire, then Tagg is the glue holding it together.
“For me the amazing thing about Kathy is that nothing is impossible [to her]. Musically she can just go anywhere and everywhere,” Stapelberg said of her New York City-based compatriot. “She gets inspiration and then she knows what to do with it. As a musician she’s not only a pianist, she’s really a gifted arranger as well. In Soul of Fire we do 12 different songs. She arranged eight of those; they are brand new, fresh arrangements.”
A dark story
One of those revitalized arias is a rearrangement of La Sombra de Maria, or The Shadow of Maria, by Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, from his opera Maria de Buenos Aires, or Maria of Buenos Aires.
“That’s a hectic piece,” said Stapelberg. “Maria de Buenos Aires is a very dark story; it’s about a prostitute living in the slums of Buenos Aires. And this song that she sings is just crazy; she’s completely obsessed and off her head.”
Much like the singer and Tagg, Maria is seduced by the music of the tango. She is driven insane, and when she dies, she’s condemned to a hell which is the city itself, and her shadow wanders the streets.
In Soul of Fire, Stapelberg and Tagg bring the phantom to life, venting Maria’s fury.
The performance shows their love of extremes. They choose intense songs with rhythm, lyrics and themes that easily rival those of the most vicious death metal music bands.
“This music,” said Tagg, “is not for the faint of heart.”