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The stories behind the black opera stars of 'I Live to Sing'
Washington Post − Saturday, August 24, 2013
Julie Cohen and Kamal Khan met in elementary school in Fairfax County about 40 years . Today, Cohen, 49, is the Brooklyn-based founder of BetterThanFiction Productions, a documentary film company; Khan is the director of the University of Cape Town Opera School. “I Live to Sing," a feature-length documentary directed and produced by Cohen, focuses on three of Khan's black students who made their way from humble beginnings in often poverty-ridden townships to excel in opera ‒an art form most closely associated with white, elite audiences and performers.
How did you come to do this project?
It was just the fortuitous situation of knowing Kamal Khan. I met Kamal in third grade at Pine Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax County. He was unusual in that even at age 9 his prime interests seemed to be opera, classical music, Shakespeare. These are interests that when you're 40 and living in New York are not so strange! He became James Levine's assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and he still now does a lot of conducting internationally, although his home base is at the University of Cape Town. In the meantime I started doing several documentaries about the human side behind the performing arts. Knowing what Kamal was up to I realized that his fascinating work − from an artistic, political and social context − was just the sort of thing I was interested in making films about.
Why is it interesting to you to document performing artists?
We're all so steeped in the relatively small circle of people who become really famous or really big deals. But it's also, I think, wonderful to see the work of and hear the life stories of the majority of performing artists who are toiling away, many of whom are supremely talented, but the world doesn't necessarily get to know.
Tell me about Linda's life, the young soprano featured in your film.
Linda Nteleza comes from a huge township adjacent to Cape Town that has a lot of problems − poverty, health-care issues, education issues, huge unemployment. I believe it has the fastest-growing rate of tuberculosis in the world, and Linda has suffered from the consequences of that. Linda learned to sing in school and then followed by her work in community choir, and through the teachers and coaches learned about University of Cape Town and its music program. She lived only a half-hour from the university but hadn't been aware that music was something that was out there. She was encouraged to go and apply. I think she didn't expect to get it, but to her joy andnamazement she did.
When Linda told her mother that “I want to go to college to study opera," her mother's immediate response was, “What's opera?" It wasn't that she wasn't well-versed in the art form; she didn't know what it was. Linda herself had first heard opera in a TV commercial for Shell Oil that had a beautiful soprano opera singer as background music and she was completely entranced, like, “That's what I want to sing."
Were you an opera fan before this?
[Laughs] I . . . must . . . confess that I was not only not an opera fan, but really almost actively probably disliked opera before this project. That's actually not something that I mentioned to Kamal when I pitched the idea of “Can I follow your program around? Can I bring cameras to your school?" [Laughs] . . . But as often when you delve into different art forms, particularly classical art forms that you are ignorant of, the more you get to know it, the it starts to sound.
(Adapted from http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/qanda-the-stories-behind-the-black-opera-stars-of-i-live-to sing/2013/08/23)
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