‘A Long Way from Home’: Opera, Performance and Cultural Boycott in Apartheid South Africa

8 October 2019, 4.30 PM - 8 October 2019, 6.00 PM

Dr Juliana Pistorius, University of Huddersfield

Victoria's Room, Victoria Rooms

When African-American soprano Joy Simpson collapsed on-stage at Cape Town City Hall during the final notes of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, her audience thought it was part of the performance. It was 1987, and Simpson had defied the United Nations’ cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa to undertake a concert tour meant to ‘bring hope to the oppressed’.

Despite condemnation from the international anti-apartheid movement, Simpson accepted ‘honorary white’ status from the apartheid government in order to appear before racially segregated audiences. Three days after her collapse, she was dead. For the international press, Simpson’s death was more noteworthy than the ambiguities of her artistic life.

Having largely ignored her tour and its controversies until then, newspapers widely broadcast Simpson’s passing, with satirical magazine Spy (June 1987) reporting her death under the heading ‘That’ll Teach Her’. Thus, she came to embody the quintessential operatic heroine—undone for sounding out a transgressive presence.

But as an African-American woman bringing opera to a largely white public, her arrival on and departure from the South African operatic stage signified a more ambivalent musical and political reality. Though her voice challenged prevailing stereotypes about the confluence between culture and race, her presence alone implied endorsement of an abhorrent regime.

In the face of increasingly urgent debates (Morgan 2012; Duncan 2017) regarding the moral and political pertinence of cultural boycotts, and building on work by Roos (2018) and André (2018), this paper offers a critical account of the gendered discourses of transgression, collusion, and demise inscribed into the relationship between Western art music and political protest.

While the growing literature on cultural boycotts tends to centre on celebrities and the seemingly universal symbolism of their actions, I shall draw on recently uncovered archival material related to Simpson’s tour to call for an interrogation of the struggles of individuals forced to negotiate a reality fraught with artistic aspiration and political impossibility

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