Celebrity tenor rides into town

I’m keen to taste bobotie, says Steven Harrison

Beverley Brommert

Globetrotting opera celebrity Steven Harrison has no hesitation in identifying Cape Town as his favourite place – which is quite a feather in the cap of the Mother City, since this tenor’s professional commitments have taken him to capitals as far apart as Moscow and Buenos Aires.

Based in his native New York, Harrison is here to sing the lead in Cape Town Opera’s production of Werther at Artscape.

He had been in South Africa for only five days before this interview, and was due to have his first encounter with his leading lady (Michelle Breedt) shortly after our conversation: his acquaintance with local culture may have been brief, but it had already filled him with enthusiasm.

“I’ve been looking at your mountains, and I can feel there’s something very special about this place; I’m keen to explore it, and I’ve yet to discover your cuisine. Cape Malay dishes like bobotie sound wonderful.”

Harrison’s trim figure belies his passion for food. “I love to cook and eat; food is a vital element in any nation’s culture, because it gives an idea of what the people are all about. I’m certainly an adventurous eater: I enjoy Vietnamese and Japanese cuisine, but then at the other end of the spectrum there is nothing like that fragrance of good meat roasting on an open fire, like you have in Buenos Aires.

“After Werther, I’m off to sing the lead in Andre Chenier in Cagliari, Sardinia, so I’ll be sampling fine Italian food.” He smiles in anticipation.

In addition to food, Harrison thoroughly enjoys travel – which is just as well in view of his nomadic existence. “Travelling is a joy to me because of the people I meet,” he says. “I find taxi drivers are particularly interesting, as they are a mine of information about any new place one visits.

“I am fortunate in that, when I go to sing in a production, I stay between four and five weeks in one particular city, so I get to know it really well – unlike your average tourist.”

The topic of Werther makes its way into the conversation, and Harrison is delighted with conditions at Artscape. “The auditorium of your opera-house is an ideal size for a production like Werther, which is a nuanced, intimate opera; in a large venue the human voice is diffused and intensity is lost. You should feel the vibrations and the calories coming from the performers.”

He says he was “most impressed” by the professionalism of Artscape’s costume department, as the pre-measured garb he dons for Werther was ready and waiting for him on arrival.

“It’s an authentic period costume, multi-layered and potentially very uncomfortable, especially under hot stage lights. This one has been very cleverly designed, using light fabrics that look heavy but ‘breathe’.

“Singers can hyperventilate in unsympathetic costume – we are vocal athletes making demands on our muscles, and performance is more strenuous than one imagines.”

A career that began with piano lessons at the age of five, progressed to oboe studies at nine, and (once due confidence in his vocal prowess allowed him) then opera, has brought Harrison to centre stage internationally. It seems to leave little to be desired, yet he admits to one secret longing: “I would love to have a dog, but with all that travelling…”

At present, his love of animals can only be gratified in horse-riding on a friend’s cattle ranch back in the US.