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Hilde Roos, The La Traviata Affair: Opera in the Age of Apartheid

Oakland (CA), University of California Press, 2018
Megan Quilliam
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Hilde Roos, The La Traviata Affair: Opera in the Age of Apartheid, Oakland (CA), University of California Press, 2018, 264 p.

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1Musical performance can rarely be divorced from the political situation or cultural context in which it finds itself. There are, of course, countless occasions where musical performance has been wielded as if a political tool; a vehicle intended to help establish group identities and carry messages from the people to those in power. Political institutions throughout the ages have taken similar advantage of music’s power to unite, convince, and propagate ideas by controlling state-sanctioned creative output. Then there are those innumerable instances where innocent music-making, ostensibly untainted by political mission, is naturally imbued with a deeply political dimension simply by occurring at a specific place and time in history. This reality, where a sociocultural context outweighs benign consumption and performance of music, is by far the most convincing evidence of the interconnectedness of music and politics.

2Perhaps nowhere is the critical entanglement of music and cultural politics more apparent than in the history of music and performance in South Africa. The vast political upheavals that have shaped the sociocultural landscape in South Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries have had inexorable effect on both the music and the performance of music in the country. Music certainly contributed to and reflected those political changes, but what of those occasions where South Africans who, on the surface, did not wish to engage with politics but instead simply wanted to make music?

3Hilde Roos’ book, The La Traviata Affair: Opera in the Age of Apartheid, addresses this question through the lens of the Eoan Group, an arts organization that began in 1933 with the mission of enrichment through the arts in District Six, the heart of Cape Town’s coloured community. Over time, the Eoan group became South Africa’s first and only ballet, theatre, and opera company made up entirely of coloured performers. In 1956, Eoan produced its first opera, La Traviata, to rave reviews by those in Cape Town’s media. Over the course of the next two decades, Eoan’s opera productions went from being mainstays in the Cape Town arts environment to disappearing altogether by 1977. In The La Traviata Affair, Roos chronicles the rise and fall of this fascinating organization’s operatic activities while presenting a compelling and nuanced argument regarding the various political factors that contributed to the slow demise of Eoan’s opera company.

4Considering the dominance of the apartheid regime during the two decades that the Eoan Group performed opera, the fact that members the group were coloured invites complex and inescapable questions regarding the politics of coloured identity and the interstitial place they occupied in apartheid society, as well as the performance of Western European art by those considered “non European” in the eyes of the South African government. These questions form the core of Roos’ analysis in this book. For those not initiated into the cruel and often-baffling nature of apartheid ideology, Roos provides ample clarification of what it meant to be coloured during this time. This includes a special “Note on Terminology” at the outset, which explains that “the term coloured (her emphasis) is spelled in South African English because it refers to a specific South African experience that is different to how the term colored (her emphasis) is understood in US society.” She also addresses the preponderance of alternative terms that have sprung up in post-apartheid discourse (including “so-called coloured”). Ultimately, she explains, she decided to use the term that Eoan Group members themselves use: coloured.

5The “coloured” label has been applied in South Africa since the 19th century to those who were born out of early miscegenation between black South Africans and white Europeans. During apartheid, however, the term came to apply to a diverse grouping of people who did not fit tidily into one of apartheid’s uncompromising primary categorizations of “black” (a member of South Africa’s black indigenous tribes) and “white” (of European descent). When carried out, this labeling system included immigrants from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and St. Helena, lighter-skinned indigenous groups such as the Khoi, the San, and the Griqua, as well as descendants of mixed-race relationships even though they were seen by the apartheid government as being a homogenous group (p. 8). The coloured status of being “in-between” black and white afforded them both the hardships and advantages of South Africa’s apartheid system: coloured people received a number of benefits proportional to their level of “whiteness”. By not being white, they were marginalized and oppressed, but not as much as black people were (p. 9).

6The politics surrounding coloured identity is, therefore, complex and contested even today. Roos, in her introduction, sets the stage for her eventual analysis of the Eoan Group by outlining the ideas put forth by historian Mohamed Adhikari (pg. 9). Adhikari proposed that four main issues were responsible for shaping coloured identity during the 20th century in South Africa as a direct result of apartheid ideology and policy: 1. The fact that the coloured population as a whole never surpassed 9% of South Africa’s population in the 20th century meant that their influence in the country or potential to negotiate for themselves was especially negligible and ultimately insignificant. 2. According to Adhikari, coloured identity sought assimilation into white society whereby they might attain the acceptance of white South Africans as equals. 3. Their status in the space between the privilege of white South Africans and the utterly deprived black South African meant that they occupied an extremely difficult space from which it was very easy to accept the benefits of white privilege that were offered to them while simultaneously sympathizing with the struggle against apartheid. 4. Coloured people were often on the receiving end of the extreme condescensions and derogatory stereotypes that are associated with people of mixed racial heritage and were, therefore, made examples of by the apartheid government that sought to promote a dogma of Separate Development. It is out of the discourse set up by Adhikari here that Roos ultimately fashions her arguments in the book.

7With the issues that Adhikari lays out in mind, it is not difficult to understand how the well-intentioned but ultimately condescending act of starting a “cultural and community” welfare group aimed at general amelioration for coloured lives through the “civilizing qualities” of Western culture and art was started by a white, British woman in District Six in 1933. Enter Roos’ first main character in the Eoan Group Story: Helen Southern-Holt, a British immigrant to South Africa who had become a very connected part of Cape Town’s high society network and had been involved in helping Cape Town’s poor since her arrival in the country. She established the Eoan Group to fit a niche in Cape Town’s already saturated market for charitable aid towards the coloured community by shaping it to center on cultural activities. This early version of Eoan manifested itself in through elocution classes, a ballet section, and a drama group. Eventually, a musical component was added in the form of a choir. It is clear from the primary resources Roos quotes early on in her history of Eoan that Southern-Holt sincerely wanted to improve the lives of the coloured community through what she believed to be the mediating and redeeming power of European culture. This is evident even down to Southern-Holt’s chosen name for the group, which she describes in a 1974 speech:

‘[…] I wrote ‘Eos’ the beautiful Greek word meaning Dawn—Eos…Eoan… pertaining to the Dawn. And so I named the new group Eoan, in the consciousness that through its illumination the Coloured People could realise the dawning of a new cultural expansion in themselves and a new understanding of well-being, physical and mental, for their race.’ (p. 19)

8Even from this early stage in Eoan’s history, the patronizing and condescending tone with which white commentators would describe Eoan members is evident, as is the infantilization of the entire group of people. This pattern of considering it one’s duty as an educated westerner to improve (read civilize) the lives of the “childlike” coloured community through Western culture repeated down through Eoan’s history, even after Southern-Holt left her job of managing the group in 1958. Moreover, Southern-Holt’s management of the group initiated another pattern, that of white custodianship and management of the Eoan Group.

9In 1943, Southern-Holt invited Joseph Manca to join the management of the Eoan Group as choir director. This role evolved over time into Artistic Director. Manca, an Italian-South African, was an amateur musician and composer who found in Eoan a way to enter into the high society of Cape Town’s elite music circles. Roos’ analysis of Manca throughout the book is a fascinating portrayal based on the Eoan Group Archival material and interviews with former Eoan members. Manca had dual aspects to his personality. It’s clear that Manca worked tirelessly on behalf of the Eoan Group and that he had their best interests at heart. He sought a politics-free environment where Eoan members could develop their passion for opera. It is also clear, however, that he led the opera section with a paternalistic, possessive, autocratic style that reveals the sense that he saw opportunities to manipulate Eoan’s coloured identity to further his great ambition and success. Roos writes that “Manca, throughout his thirty-four years with the group, referred to Eoan members as ‘my musical children,’ minors who were never allowed to grow into equals […] Manca’s marketing of the group’s performers invariably described them as illiterates who could sing Italian opera” (p. 7). Based on Roos’ extensive archival research, she paints Manca as a well-intentioned leader who ultimately and unfortunately bled the racism of the zeitgeist.

10Even from his early days with the group, Manca always harbored the desire to produce large-scale opera. His dream finally materialized in 1956 with the Eoan Group’s very first opera, La Traviata, the headliner in what would be the first of twelve opera seasons Eoan would produce over the next two decades. The reviews of this first season, written by a white media corps for a white readership, were utterly glowing. Critics celebrated the abilities and achievements of this all-coloured cast, astonished at the concept of “how far, with guidance, these underprivileged men and women from factories, shops, and domestic jobs can travel in the realms of art” (p. 2). The aftermath of their first performances of the work, the “Traviata Affair” of Roos’ title, exposed the roots of the conflict between the Eoan Group and the political realities of its apartheid context, as well as the ideological tightrope the group was forced to walk.

11Glittering reviews by Cape Town’s media stood at odds with vociferously negative responses from within the coloured community itself, especially after it became known that the Eoan Group was accepting funding from the apartheid government’s Coloured Affairs Department and performed in front of a segregating office. To the coloured community in Cape Town, Eoan’s actions seemed to accept and support apartheid policy by submitting to segregation rules in return for taking money from the apartheid government.

12The ever-growing criticism of and lack of support for by the wider coloured community certainly contributed to the final collapse of the opera section in 1977, as did the patronizing media commentators who seemed never to look beyond the group’s racial identity in their celebration of the group. Based on her archival research and oral history, Roos eventually pieces together additions to this litany of contributing factors. One of the biggest factors in their downfall was the systematic and almost continuous attempts by the apartheid government to whitewash the performing arts in Cape Town. In 1963, the apartheid government established the Performing Arts Council (PAC) system, a state-funded arts infrastructure with several large regional entities across the country operating to provide professional career opportunities for white performers only, excluding Eoan performers and dominating the opera market. In 1966, re-zoning of District Six, the symbolic heart of the coloured community in Cape Town, as a white area, resulted in the forced removals of coloured people and organizations like the Eoan Group to the Cape Flats, located miles away from the cultural center of Cape Town. A few years later, the Nico Malan Theatre, a new state-of-the-art, whites-only performance center was erected in Cape Town. Additionally, the re-designing of Cape Town’s City Hall, the site of many successful Eoan performances in previous years, meant that there would no longer be an operational stage on which the group could perform opera. Thanks to expanding apartheid policy and activity, the audiences and infrastructure that had once supported Eoan were slowly stripped away, leaving the group culturally and geographically isolated, as well as financially devastated.

13In addition to her tireless analysis of the impossible situation Eoan found themselves in thanks to the politics of the time, Roos lovingly introduces us to the endearing, talented, and dedicated members of the Eoan group’s opera section whose passion for opera was unfortunately upstaged by apartheid cruelty and the sociopolitical realities of the time. Never paid for their services during the two decades of Eoan opera performances, they individually sacrificed much to pursue their stage dreams and elevate Eoan as a whole. Take, for example, May Abrahamse, Eoan’s most celebrated soloist and leading soprano for many of its seasons, who worked in the Cheque Room at the Cape Times newspaper during the day. It was Abrahamse’s Violetta that garnered many of the favorable reviews during Eoan’s first opera season, something that helped to solidify Eoan’s standing in Cape Town’s operatic community. Ruth Godwin, another of Eoan’s sopranos, was studying bookkeeping and shorthand and working as a secretary at a trade union when she started taking lessons at the College of Music and began with Eoan. In 1963, unable to square Eoan’s apparent submission to the apartheid status quo, she left the group in political protest. Joseph Gabriels, one of Eoan’s more famous tenors, went on to make an operatic career for himself abroad. He debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1971, the first South African singer to do so. Roos features many other Eoan members throughout the book. Even though Roos’ goal is to provide an argument and an in-depth analysis of the various contributing factors that brought an end to Eoan’s opera section, The La Traviata Affair is ultimately best characterized as a chronicle of the group’s history and the impact it made on South Africa’s operatic landscape for just over two decades.

14The level of archival and analytical detail Roos includes in this book is extensive, enlightening, and never overwhelming. For example, Roos provides excerpts from a smattering of critical reviews for each of the Eoan opera seasons she writes about. The pattern of glowing reviews emerges early on and continues almost without abate until the later years of the group’s performances. The reader, based on these complimentary reviews, might almost be swayed into a false narrative regarding the group’s musical and vocal abilities. Roos returns us to a place of realistic analysis midway through her third chapter, however, with several reminders about Eoan’s artistic limitations and its sociopolitical context. Many of the main company members were thoroughly untrained, had full-time jobs outside of Eoan, and when they were able to take private lessons (often through an Eoan bursary), they learned by ear. Roos includes the writings of Gregorio Fiasconaro, a producer who had worked with the group for a few years. He wrote an autobiography in 1982 in which we see rare criticism of the group by implying that Joseph Manca held irrational and unrealistic notions about the group’s musical abilities. As to the root of the congratulatory reviews, he writes that “many people praised them to the skies purely as a political ploy. This of course gave everyone in the Group a totally false idea of their own ability” (p. 81). Roos seems to follow this analytical thread, writing that “throughout its history, Eoan was used for political gain by different stakeholders and for different reasons. White guilt may have contributed to the uncritical support for artists of color who were the victims of an unjust system, while the same situation was used by the apartheid government to showcase “how well the system of separate development worked for coloureds.” (p. 81.) This particular reasoning is supported within the Eoan Group Archive as well as by at least one member who questions whether “the applause is just complimentary because of the cause and the circumstances, or whether they really enjoyed what they had just heard” (p. 81). This is a complex line of analysis to pursue, but Roos balances and critiques the evidence well. While she finds some truth in what Fiasconaro has to say, she is quick to point out that he, too, suffered from the false sense of reality that apartheid afforded him as a white person: “He fails to acknowledge that [Eoan’s singers] were denied decent vocal and musical education in a system from which he benefitted and through which he had a professional career that earned him an excellent reputation” (p. 82). This is merely one example of Roos reminding us of each stakeholder’s complicated relationship with the apartheid mindset.

15With this, Roos must also be credited with remembering her own socio-political context and perspective relative to this book. Early on she acknowledges that she is a white South African who grew up during apartheid. In doing so, she makes the reader aware of her apprehension regarding the act of writing about a marginalized group of people during the apartheid era.

  • 1 André Naomi, Somma Donato and Mhlambi Innocentia, “Winnie: The Opera and Embodying South African Op (...)
  • 2 Roos Hilde, “Opera Production in the Western Cape: Strategies in Search of Indigenization”, PhD Dis (...)

16This book, and Roos’ extended work on the Eoan Group in general, is crucial in filling in a gap in the research that ultimately would have remained nonexistent when the Eoan Group’s opera section fell into obscurity after 1977. As such, it forms an important part of a small-but-growing discourse on opera in South Africa. Much of this multidisciplinary field has so far centered on opera in the post-apartheid dispensation.1 Roos and others, however, have contributed greatly to understanding opera in the country going back to the early days of the country.2 The resulting narrative of opera in South Africa, broadly speaking, is premised on the idea that opera before 1994 was performed by white performers and consumed by white audiences as a way of maintaining cultural ties with European identity. After the end of apartheid in 1994, opera was re-suited to the expressive needs of black South Africans, previously disenfranchised by white culture, and as a way of expressing the new South Africa.

17The case of Eoan, however, complicates this limited narrative based on such strict binaries. Were the coloured members of Eoan demonstrating a desire towards assimilation into white South African culture, as Adhikari’s theorization of coloured identity suggests? Roos avoids outright conjecture on this, although the implication that this was the case for Eoan’s members, at least subconsciously, is occasionally apparent.

  • 3 Pistorius Juliana M., “Inhabiting Whiteness: The Eoan Group La Traviata, 1956”, Cambridge Opera Jou (...)

18In the wake of Roos’ published articles and work on the Eoan Group Archive, Juliana M. Pistorius’ has emerged as another important scholarly voice on the Eoan Group.3 She provides an alternative reading of the Eoan Group and its relationship with apartheid. She presents the idea that Eoan’s performances might be read as subversive acts because they destabilized the apartheid goal of separate development. By inhabiting a performance space traditionally reserved for white ownership, Eoan contravened Apartheid’s strictly defined politics of color.

  • 4 Eoan History Project, Eoan-Our Story, Johannesburg: Fourthwall Books, 2013.

19Roos is an undisputed expert on the history of opera in the Western Cape and, specifically, the Eoan Group. After the comprehensive Eoan archive was permanently loaned to the Documentation Center for Music (DOMUS) at Stellenbosch University by the Eoan board in 2008, Roos (who was then still a doctoral student in opera history at Stellenbosch) was selected to oversee what became known as the “Eoan book project.” Roos, along with seven other book project committee members, immediately set about their mission of combining DOMUS’ newly acquired Eoan archival material with oral histories taken through a series of forty-seven interviews with former Eoan members, performers, administrators, and, occasionally, their family members in order to capture the story of the Eoan Group through the perspectives of those who lived through this group’s extraordinary history. The Eoan book project culminated in the 2013 publication of Eoan: Our Story4.

  • 5 Roos Hilde, “Remembering to Forget the Eoan Group – The Legacy of an Opera Company from the Aparthe (...)

20Roos also went on to publish several articles about the Eoan group in the years afterwards.5 The La Traviata Affair, then, is the result of years of Roos’ immersion in all things Eoan and acts as a companion commentary to Eoan: Our Story. Roos is currently the General Manager of Africa Open Institute for Music, Research, and Innovation at Stellenbosch University.

21The book is divided into five core chapters that detail the history of the group in chronological order. It also includes two appendices that are useful in the course of reading of the book. The first is a chronological list of all the music productions performed by Eoan’s music section that were evidenced in the Eoan Group Archive. These include their productions of opera, operettas, musicals, oratoria, and operatic concerts (and excludes Eoan’s ballet or drama productions). Arranged by year, the information includes dates, names of works, composers, genre, venue of performance, the conductor, and the cast.

22The second appendix consists of the Eoan Group Constitution from 1970. According to her opening paragraph in this appendix, Roos includes it in full because “it reflects the values of the ‘early years’ in the first section as well as the extent to which control was exercised over its operations and its members through the formal representation of the DCA at this time” (p. 211). This is a useful primary resource to anyone seeking to understand the structure of Eoan as a group beyond Roos’ commentary and analysis.

23While the limited scope of the book might indicate a very niche audience, Roos takes care to make this content available to an international readership. She provides in-depth explanations of both tiny intricacies and absurdities of the apartheid era that only South Africans might understand otherwise.

24Throughout The La Traviata Affair, Roos uses the metaphor of the very opera the Eoan Group seemed to favor more than the others as a frame through which we might understand situation the opera section found itself in from its start. The Group, therefore, is Violetta, tragically stuck in between two worlds and punished as a result. The discourse surrounding apartheid history, especially with regards to the music of the apartheid era, has been dominated by the chronicles of two large, opposing racial groups. Roos’ contribution reveals the nuances and complications of those existing in the “in-between” space that their race afforded them. Simply wanting to perform opera, Eoan’s members were stuck in an impossibly difficult and inescapable political situation, attacked from both sides.

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1 André Naomi, Somma Donato and Mhlambi Innocentia, “Winnie: The Opera and Embodying South African Opera”, African Studies, vol. 75, no 1, 2016, p. 1-9; André Naomi, “Winnie, Opera, and South African Artistic Nationhood”, African Studies, vol.  75, no 1, 2016, p. 10-31; Somma Donato, “‘Just Say the Words’: An Operatic Rendering of Winnie”, African Studies, vol. 75, no 1, 2016, p. 32-47; id., “‘The Musical Thread’: Neo Muyanga on Opera and South Africa”, African Studies, vol. 75, no 1, 2016, p. 74-97; Mhlambi Innocentia, “The Question of Nationalism in Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu (2002)”, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 2015, p. 294-310; id., “Embodied Discordance: Vernacular Idioms in Winnie: The Opera”, African Studies, vol. 75, no 1, 2016, p. 48-73; Davies Sheila Boniface and Davies J. Q., “‘So Take This Magic Flute and Blot. It Will Protect Us As We Go’: Impempe Yomlingo (2007-11) and South Africa’s Ongoing Transition,”, The Opera Quarterly, vol. 28, no 1-2, 2012, p. 54-71; Davies James and Dovey Lindiwe, “Bizet in Khayelitsha: U-Carmen eKhayelitsha as Audio-Visual Transculturation”, Journal of African Media Studies, vol. 2, no 1, 2010, p. 39-53; Olsen Andrew, “Mozart’s African Jacket: Die Zauberflöte And Its Localisation in The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo)”, Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa, vol. 9, no 1, 2012, p. 67-80.

2 Roos Hilde, “Opera Production in the Western Cape: Strategies in Search of Indigenization”, PhD Diss. University of Stellenbosch, 2010; Hale Frederick, “The Quinlan Opera Company in Cape Town, 1912-1913”, Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, vol. 67, no 2, 2013, p. 73-86; id., “The First Scholarly South African Interpretation of Wagner? Ramsden Balmforth’s Fabian Analysis of the Ring and Parsifal”, Journal of Musical Arts in Africa, vol. 10, no 1, 2013, p. 53-69; id., “Italian Grand Opera at the Cape of Good Hope: The 1875 and 1876 Cagli Seasons”, South African Journal of cultural History, vol. 29, no 1, 2015, p. 58-73; id., “From a Comedy of Errors to Tragedy: The Cessation of Italian Opera in Cape Town in 1877”, South African Journal of cultural History, vol. 30, no 1, 2016, p. 105-118; id., “Popularizing Comic Opera in Cape Town: the 1887 Season of the Searelle Opera Company”, Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa, vol. 15, no 1-2, 2018, p. 41-58; Davies J. Q., “Melodramatic Posessions: The Flying Dutchman, South Africa, and the Imperial Stage, ca. 1830”, The Opera Quarterly, vol. 21, n3, 2005, p. 496-514.

3 Pistorius Juliana M., “Inhabiting Whiteness: The Eoan Group La Traviata, 1956”, Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 31, no 1, 2019, p. 63-84.; id., “Coloured Opera as Subversive Forgetting”, Social Dynamics, vol. 43, no 2, 2017, p. 230-242.

4 Eoan History Project, Eoan-Our Story, Johannesburg: Fourthwall Books, 2013.

5 Roos Hilde, “Remembering to Forget the Eoan Group – The Legacy of an Opera Company from the Apartheid Era”, South African Theatre Journal, vol. 27, no 1, 2014, p. 1-81; id., “Eoan-Our Story: Treading New Methodological Paths In Music Historiography”, Historia, vol. 60, no 2, 2015, p. 185-200; id., “Probing the Boundaries of Opera as Notated Practice in South Africa: The Case of Eoan”, Muziki, vol. 11, no 2, 2014, p. 79-88; id., “Viva Verdi: Ringing the Changes at Cape Town Opera”, Acta Musicologica, vol. 86, no 2, 2014, p. 249-266; id., “Indigenization and History: How Opera in South Africa Became South African Opera”, Acta Academica, Supplement 1, 2012, p. 117-155.

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Megan Quilliam, « Hilde Roos, The La Traviata Affair: Opera in the Age of Apartheid »Transposition [En ligne], 9 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Megan Quilliam

Megan Quilliam is currently a PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her doctoral research centers on musical theatre and opera in South Africa in the post-apartheid period.

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