South Africa’s leading opera house has been accused of financially exploiting 12 singers who performed internationally in a controversial but critically acclaimed production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, set in colonial north Africa and portraying racial abuse and rape by fascist Italian troops.
The 12 black chorus members of the Cape Town Opera (CTO) were put on standard South African monthly pay rates of between 6,000 and 11,000 rand (£316-£580) for seven weeks of rehearsals and a heavy programme of performances in Aix-en-Provence, France, before Così Fan Tutte transferred last week to Edinburgh.
But they then discovered they had been contracted by the Aix festival, which runs for three weeks, to appear for €3,640 (£3,000) each and complained. They accused Michael Williams, managing director of the CTO, of misleading them about the French employment contracts they had to sign to give them the legal right to work at Aix.
With the chorus members threatening to strike at one stage in the dispute, executives at Edinburgh and Aix intervened and gave all 12 singers individual contracts, in effect removing CTO from the events.
The Edinburgh festival gave them a £500 appearance fee plus £30 a day and flights, visas and accommodation for three performances which ended on Sunday night, played to near-capacity audiences.
As a direct result of the contract dispute, the singers have been dismissed by the opera house and now face allegations of theft in South Africa, brought by CTO for accepting the French fee while still receiving their basic salaries.
Arline Jaftha, the assistant chorus mistress for CTO, who is representing her colleagues in the dispute, told the Guardian the singers believed they were being exploited because of their colour.
Williams knows he has a company of talented black singers, so by paying them peanuts and knowing that living expenses in South Africa are so high [and] for us to know that we put much work into these productions when we travel abroad and we don’t even get a bonus, it’s very upsetting.
The freedom and respect we experienced in Aix gave everyone a different vision of how everyone should be treated.
The new version of Mozart’s opera, which is set in pre-war, fascist-controlled Eritrea, was a centrepiece of last month’s Aix festival, which included a heavy schedule of other shows, including five performances of the Debussy opera Pelléas et Mélisande, three further concerts of songs, and a wholly new performance of European medieval sacred music set to African instrumentation.
Williams denies the chorus members were ever misled or exploited. They were told up front they would receive their normal South African salaries in France and could not be on two contracts, he said.
Williams, whose CTO company is currently in the UK with his tribute to the former South African president Nelson Mandela, Mandela Trilogy, said company members were always paid their South African salaries during overseas tours.
We [CTO] get paid a fee which goes into the pot and we put on operas in Cape Town which lose us money every time. That’s how it works.
He insists that all chorus singers knew what the deal was. Before we went to France we informed the 12 singers, there’s this rule in France that requires you have independent contracts. Obviously you work for Cape Town Opera; we can’t have you signing two contracts. You are going to have to sign a document that you are members of CTO and I have the right to negotiate a deal with the festival. CTO will receive the money and you will be paid your normal salaries.
He accepted that the South African salary was a lot less than the money on offer from Aix. Yes, because we live in South Africa. The economy in South Africa and the economy in France is totally different, as are the wages.
You cannot be in a contract with CTO and then sign another contract … you cannot get double salaries. While they were in France we were paying their monthly salary.
They were saying: ‘They deserve this.’ You know what, I deserve a million rand for the job I do, but I don’t get it. You deserve a lot more than you get paid; you don’t get it either. There are other ways to negotiate a salary.
But the singers say Williams brushed off their concerns, and that he described the French contracts as fake and a form of work permit. The singers say that could have put them at risk of deportation from France and being fined – a risk potentially also faced by the Aix festival, until its executives put them on their personal contracts.
Jaftha said the Aix festival had rebuffed an effort by Williams to get them replaced by singers still on the CTO’s books. The Aix festival has confirmed it plans to use the same chorus members again when Così Fan Tutte tours to Lille in northern France later this year and the South Korean capital, Seoul, in 2017.
Williams denied ever calling the French contracts fake. He also denies trying to prevent the singers appearing at the festivals. How could I possibly do that when they know the production, how would we train up people to sing it? What about the costumes? That’s totally ridiculous.
Fikile Mthetwa, a junior soloist in the chorus, said: It has been draining, emotionally. We didn’t expect it to turn out like this, but then we tried so much to get answers and they were not given to us. We tried so many times, but then they lied to us and the worst part is that he [Williams] accuses us of stealing money.
Siphesihle Mdena, a chorus member since 2013, said: For the first time, a contract was discovered [by accident] because we weren’t meant to see it. We asked about it and we weren’t given straight answers.
Chorus members said that in one highly charged moment after they returned to South Africa from France to face disciplinary charges by CTO, there was a confrontation with Williams where he allegedly said: Who do you think you are to think that you deserve this money?
The CTO is now pursuing the sacked singers through South Africa’s labour court to recoup wages paid for the Aix productions.
Jaftha said the opera wanted the 12 to repay the full €31,200 they were paid by Aix, after French tax was deducted. It is also pursuing Jaftha and another former staff chorus member for 40,000 rand and two freelance chorus members for another 20,000 rand.
Fergus Linehan, the director of the Edinburgh international festival, told the Guardian his organisation had intervened after being told about the dispute by its counterparts in Aix.
We were made aware that the individual artists weren’t satisfied with the arrangements that were being made, he said. So we moved to ensure that that wasn’t the case. We would never want artists to come to the [Edinburgh] festival under arrangements that they considered to be inappropriate or unfair.
A spokeswoman for Aix said: In order to preserve the interests of the singers and of the Cape Town Opera, the festival doesn’t want to add further comments about the financial and contractual details regarding this show. Nevertheless the festival underlines that the contracts have been made in full compliance with the French law.
White members of the cast also said they were unhappy to learn of the arrangements. Kate Lindsey, the soloist who played Dorabella in Così Fan Tutte, one of the two sisters who are tricked by their fiancés into falling in love with other men, said she had been horrified when she heard of the chorus’s dispute.
The opera’s challenging relocation to a fascist-controlled African colony had been a huge leap of faith for everyone. To be portraying such ugliness and then find out during this that, unbeknownst to us, members of the chorus were fighting this battle in order to be fairly paid was absolutely sickening. We heard that Aix had stepped in and were incredibly relieved.
Williams said: The supreme irony of it all is that they are having the time of their lives. They have got this fantastic opportunity.
If it wasn’t for me they would not be at Aix. I initiated all of this and I am working for Cape Town Opera. I am not their agent. If they want to be freelancers they should be freelancers, go out into the world, go and live in France, get yourself an agent and earn the money.
Williams is also acutely aware of how it looks: a black chorus claiming exploitation, appearing in a production foregrounded by white exploitation of black people. I can see the irony … I’m a writer for God’s sake.
He denied that the chorus had been exploited by CTO. Not in the slightest. You want to try and keep singers employed every single month and get their salaries going in South Africa? All the money is ploughed back into keeping the company going.
Williams also said his whole working life had been about getting singers of all races on to the stage. I returned to South Africa when Mandela was released after having left the country to avoid military conscription. I went to go and write operas for all South Africans and to work to get opera into the townships.
He said CTO had currently lost its money from Aix and the money it paid in salaries. I feel deeply disillusioned and disappointed. What have we got from it? Nothing but a headache and bad press and reputational damage.
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