South African opera singers’ lives documented in new film

March 30, 2014 at 2:42 PM EDT
Some of the world’s best young opera singers hail from the impoverished black townships of South Africa. Three of those singers are now in the United States to perform at the American Documentary Film Festival, where a documentary about their lives called “I Live to Sing” is being shown. The film’s director, Julie Coehn, tells the story of one of the singers: Thesele Kemane.

THESELE KEMANE: I grew up in difficulty, I grew up in poverty. There was a time when both my mom and dad didn’t work. But they always tried to make sure there was something on the table for us to eat.

JULIE COEHN: Thesele Kemane grew up in a township in central South Africa called Galeshewe, with the same challenges confronting many of the country’s black communities – crime, poor access to health care and an unemployment rate of up to 70 percent.

THESELE KEMANE: My father was a cleaner and a messenger for Standard Bank before he was retrenched.

JULIE COEHN: In Thesele’s early childhood, before Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, the family had to contend with racist laws that restricted travel and education.

DAD: that is why I always tell all my children that since we are in a new environment please devote yourselves to studies and for better life.

JULIE COEHN: Thesele’s vision of a better life was filled with music. In his church choir he discovered a talent for singing. He was chosen for a community chorus where he first learned opera, which he wanted to pursue as a career. His parents, who hope Thesele will support them in old age, were skeptical.

JULIE COEHN: Did your father make those concerns clear to you?

THESELE KEMANE: Yup he actually made it quite clear but then again the dream was mine.

JULIE COEHN: Thesele was accepted to the opera school at the University of Cape Town, which had been whites only for most of its hundred year history.

THESELE KEMANE: For us in our culture it’s like a big thing if one could go to university.

JULIE COEHN: But the Kemanes were overwhelmed by the price tag of a college education.

THESELE KEMANE: I was struggling I was struggling. I didn’t have much money by then. How are we going to pay for this?

JULIE COEHN: The family was able to scrape together bus fare to send him to Cape Town. And Thesele, like many of his black classmates was awarded a scholarship, including room and board.

KAMAL: Music is a fundamental human right. We all have the right to have a chance to make music.

JULIE COEHN: For Thesele, a first rate education opened the door to opportunities unthinkable a generation ago. In 2012, shortly after completing his undergraduate degree, he was selected as an apprentice at the prestigious Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York, and invited to sing before the United Nations General Assembly.

Thesele singing La Calunnia

THESELE KEMANE: I felt I was it was an auspicious occasion. Did you see my posture when I walked? It was a very decent elegant posture.

JULIE COEHN: But as thrilled as he was by accolades from around the world, Thesele had another audience in mind… his mom and dad had never seen an opera.

MOM: I would like to see him at the theater.

JULIE COEHN: The makers of I live to sing, the documentary about Thesele and his classmates, paid for plane tickets so that Mr. and Mrs. Kemane could come to Cape Town to see him perform. The city’s main opera hall, once closed to both black performers and black audiences, is now a launching pad for the new generation of black opera stars. As his parents listened intently, Thesele took center stage.

Thesele Sings

Dad ovation, cheering

DAD: When I was cheering Thesele it was a tribal praise. It means oh you are pleasing me my son. I am proud about it.