There is no clear-cut path to becoming a successful artist. Success is subjective, often defined by the artist, and the struggles and sacrifices one has made to pursue their craft can be difficult to understand. Many give up pursuing their artistic passions because of the many obstacles, and the inherent instability an artistic career can bring. These people may not ever see the fruits of their years of dedication, study, practice, nor of their financial investment.
Now imagine being an aspiring young, black, opera singer in post-Apartheid South Africa, dedicating your life to an art form that has frequently been associated with white performers and audiences. The documentary “Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing,” by Julie Cohen, does exactly that, chronicling the particular struggles that three opera singers at the University of Cape Town Opera School face.
“Decades after the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first black president, the nation struggles to fulfill the promise of a transformed society. At the University of Cape Town’s once all-white opera school, both the struggle and the promise are embodied in an enormously talented group of classical singers from the black townships. When the opera school opened its doors to black students after apartheid, faculty members were awed by the wave of gifted singers that poured in. Many learned opera in competitive community choirs in the townships while others heard it only on TV. Today, the school is two-thirds black and mixed race and is achieving greater success than ever in propelling graduates to the world opera stage. Recent alumni are now achieving great acclaim at venues such as The Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and La Scala in Milan, Italy.
Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing (half of the title is in Xhosa, the native language of many of the black students) is a documentary and performance film following three of the opera school’s top students through a year in the program. The filmmakers travel with the students from their home townships, where they’ve faced financial hardship and in some cases health struggles, to Cape Town, where they perform in the city’s opera hall, once a flashpoint in the anti-apartheid movement, to New York where they sing at the prestigious Glimmerglass Festival. Along the way, they confront everything from racial politics to tuberculosis to their parents’ fears that opera is not a suitable career. Filmmaker: Julie Cohen” American Documentary Film Festival