A Series of Essays by Erik's Daughters

The Bloemfontein Bonehead Debacle ~ by Fiona Chisholm

Erik Chisholm, my father, thrived on controversy. It was meat and drink to him. It brought about a recklessness and excitement that sent him on a high, particularly if he appeared to be standing on high moral ground.

One of the most publicised controversies during his years at UCT became known countrywide as the "The Bloemfontein Boneheads." Or the "B.Bs" as the rumpus was known in the Chisholm household. The cause of this on-going hilarious, yet sometimes bitter argy bargy was the world premiere of John Joubert's three act romantic opera, Silas Marner.

It all started innocently in 1959 when plans were being made in two separate camps to celebrate two golden jubilees in 1960.

One was a national event to mark the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 when the two Boer republics, defeated during the South African War (1899-1902) and the two British colonies, came together to form one country.

The other festival was local to Cape Town. This was to celebrate the achievements of the South African College of Music over 50 active years.

In the ordinary way the two events would not have got in each other's way. But there was a link. Dad served on the music advisory committee to the Union Festival (i.e. the big one) and he was the driving force behind the College festival.

This advisory committee, made up of so-called "nationwide musical experts", held a meeting on February 28, 1959 at which the members – doubtless with some prodding from Dad – took the unanimous decision to recommend to the festival committee that for a fee of £300 John Joubert be commissioned to compose a full-length opera to be presented at the Union Festival with Mozart's Zauberflote.

Furthermore the committee also agreed that the National Opera of Pretoria and Johannesburg would perform the Mozart, while "Dr Chisholm's opera groups at UCT could possibly study the Joubert's opera". There was also a vague recommendation that he might be invited to conduct the opera.

Dad got carried away and foolishly leaked the news of this recommendation to Joubert himself telling him that confirmation of the commission "was more or less a formality".

Much to his embarrassment, he received a letter from Mr J C Pauw, the Union Festival Director, to tell him that the executive committee had given Joubert's opera the thumbs down.

In an angry letter to the Cape Times he called the festival committee a bunch of "operatic boneheads" for their determination to stick with tried and tested works rather than to be brave and go for the new and the bold. He even offered to present the Joubert opera as the climax to his College of Musical Festival.

The newspapers loved all this fighting talk and immediately pounced on the word boneheads. Soon the hapless Union Festival Committee came to be known throughout South Africa as "The Bloemfontein Boneheads".

In fairness the Festival Committee did have some reason to be cautious about Joubert's work.

The composer then aged 33, who lectured in music at the University of Hull in the UK where he lived, was not a big name in South Africa and had then only written two one-act operas. Also hardly any of Silas Marner had actually been written for the committee to judge how it would turn out. So its members preferred to tackle a "safe" Verdi opera.

Dad's next step was to write a letter to Mr Pauw offering personally to pay £300 (from where I wonder?) to Joubert to finish the opera which the UCT Opera Company would perform without fees.

Naturally Pauw declined and wrote to Joubert pointing out his side of the debacle.

"Chisholm was a member of the advisory committee only and all decisions or recommendations had to go before the festival music committee.

At a meeting of that committee in March the recommendation from the advisory committee was not confirmed. To the amazement of the festival committee it was later learnt that Chisholm had without authority brought you under the impression that your opera had been commissioned and that you could proceed, getting confirmation at a later date as a mere formality.

It is abundantly clear that Dr Chisholm's unauthorised action was the cause of the confusion and the misunderstanding on your part and I am satisfied that the Bloemfontein committee acted strictly constitutionally and in all good faith."

In an interview with the Cape Times in June 1959 Chisholm said:

"I am convinced that if John Joubert was now to offer the free services of the Sadler's Wells Opera Company in a production of Silas Marner, the Bloemfontein Committee would still turn it down. All along they have proved themselves incapable of thinking of opera other than as a medium for showing off some popular South African singers.

With no professional opera in South Africa, the occasions for a professional standard production of a new South African opera are almost entirely limited to national festival events…. All those who have the cause of South African culture at heart could not but deplore the blindness and stupidity of Bloemfontein in rejecting the world premiere of Silas Marner for trivial and irrelevant reasons…

In a Sunday Times article on July 5, 1959 he had another crack at the Bloemfontein Boneheads, blaming the committee for being unable to distinguish between creative work and recreative work. "Thus it was selecting operas merely to give big fancy parts to over-publicised South African singers like Mimi Coertse".

He suggested that Joubert's opera was turned down because he was "not 100 per cent Afrikaner and the opera is not about those crushing Voortrekker bores". He later apologised for this remark about the "worthy Voortrekkers".

"I mean of course" he hurriedly explained, "that so diffuse a movement as the Voortrekkers is not a suitable subject for concentrated operatic treatment."

On the same page in the Sunday Times appeared comments from "sore" composer John Joubert, who felt an apology was due to him. He had been told he would receive £300… had made up my mind to go to Bloemfontein with his family for the premiere and loyally never blamed Dad for leaking the news. But there is no doubt that Dad's outraged reaction at the negative decision by the executive committee spurred his determination to see that the world premiere of Silas Mariner would at all costs be the star turn of the college festival.

It did become a matter of "at all costs".

With his pride and reputation at stake before the "BBs", Dad's overriding worry was to get each new act out of Joubert so the waiting cast could study it. Being a new work, written to meet a specific deadline, meant that the director, designers, conductor and singers had no previous productions to serve as a guide as to how the opera should look and what sort of sets and costumes would suit the piece.

Joubert, up to his eyeballs with academic responsibilities, kept pleading for more time and requesting postponements. Each postponement had a domino effect necessitating a change of venue from the Little Theatre to the City Hall and back again to the Little and change of orchestra from small to big and back to small.

The correspondence between Chisholm and Joubert charts the saga of the birth, with forceps delivery, of Silas Marner. The letters that flew weekly between Hull University and UCT from September 1959 and February would make an absorbing radio drama.

Sometimes Dad's letters had a nasty edge.

Cape Town February 22, 1960

Dear John,

So that Bloemfontein Boneheads doesn’t cry lustily from the roof tops I TOLD YOU SO, how about keeping the real reason for SM postponement a dark secret? You have accepted a lucrative commission to write an orchestral paean in praise of the Sheik of Tillicoutrie on the birth of his 300th son or something.

I have got the City Hall booked for some dates in November but I don't know if we can now get the orchestra. Sir Ernest MacMillan will be here as guest conductor with the city orchestra and the city council is not likely to let us hire the orchestra for a week during his visit.

We can do the opera at the Little in October-November with our own orchestra plus additional players. After all we have done, and quite successfully too, difficult works like Bluebeard’s Castle, Tosca etc. If your parts are reasonably clear there is no reason why we should not make a success of SM. Otherwise we have to hold it over for a 1961 production.

Hull March 1, 1960.

Dear Erik,

I don’t care a damn what the Bloemfontein people say. I have been coming round to thinking it would be better in the Little Theatre. For one thing your people will feel more at home there. For another there's more atmosphere and consequently more rapport between stage and audience.

Two things slightly worry me though. What size orchestra can you accommodate? The minimum is 45-50 players. And is the stage big enough to accommodate a chorus?

If you think these difficulties could be got over satisfactorily I would be very happy about having it in the Little Theatre for performance in November

Cape Town June 1.

Dear John,

We have not yet received the vocal scores for the Act II. As you know Silas is the climax of our festival and for 10 different reasons we are extremely keen to see that the performance we give of this important work, is as excellent as we can make it.

Hull June 9.

Dear Erik,

Many apologies for the delay in sending Act II. I received your telegraph yesterday and immediately telephoned Novellos. Apparently the copies have been lying around for weeks waiting to be sent but just got overlooked. They were dispatched by airmail yesterday.

Now I am getting on with Act III. Could you please send me a) date of performance b) absolute deadline date for receipt of vocal scores of Act III? c) Absolute deadline date for receipt of orchestral material of Act III?

Cape Town June 28, 1960.

Dear John,

We are getting very excited about SM and hope there is no possibility of you not finishing it for us well in time.

Hull, July 28.

Dear Erik,

Just to say the opera is finished but for the copying out of the vocal score and full score of the very last scene. It should be in Novellos hands next week so it should be able to reach you as requested.

Then just when things were starting to go well, Gregorio Fiasconaro, who was both to sing the title role and direct the production, was given devastating health diagnosis.

Cape Town, January 13, 1961.

Dear John

I purposely refrained from writing to you until there was really something definite to tell you about our SM production. You will recall that we postponed our performances from a season in the Little Theatre last October to perform in the City Hall March 25 – 27 and this was solely on account of Mr Fiasconaro's throat troubles.

In the ensuing months, the condition of the growths on Mr Fiasconaro’s vocal chords has not improved and acting on his doctor's advice, he was operated on Monday of this week. The growths on his vocal chords were removed and are now being clinically examined.

The question now appears to be not whether Fiasconaro will be able to sing the part of Silas in March but whether he will EVER be able to sing again.

However now that we have been forced to give up the March dates for the City Hall and use our own Little Theatre, we have decided to ask our own Albie Louw to take over the role of Silas. Probably you know his name. He has sung for us for 15 years and is, of course, much better known as a jazz pianist as he has made 10 LPs for HMV. He is a jolly good actor and his voice is quite big enough for performances in the Little Theatre.

Fiasconaro will still be the producer….

Hull, April 4 1961.

Dear Erik,

I have decided to make Silas Marner the occasion of paying my long deferred visit to the Cape and my family and I hope to be there from May 10 till May 27. This will give me plenty of opportunity to attend the last few rehearsals and the premiere on May 20. I needn't tell you how much I look forward to being able to be present at it this, for me, very important occasion.

Cape Town, April 25, 1961.

Dear John,

Have you any experience conducting? Have you conducted an orchestra? Have you conducted an opera? If "yes" how would you like to conduct your own opera here? If you arrived here on May 10 you could have six rehearsals with the orchestra. I will conduct the ones on May 5, 7 and 8. We could probably manage some sort of a fee for you.

Cape Town, April 26, 1961.

My Dear John,

Your mother came to our rehearsal last night and seemed excited. She says you have never conducted an opera so let's forget that idea. I suggest you help us in last minute coaching and at orchestral rehearsals. For this I can get a fee of £150 pounds which will help toward your fare.

Yours in haste EC

Picture of Erik Chisholm with John Joubert during rehearsals
Erik with John Joubert during rehearsals

Finally on May 29, 1961 the world premiere of Silas Marner took place at the Little Theatre, too late for either the Union Festival (which probably brought a rousing cheer from the Bloemfontein Boneheads) or to be the climax of the 1960 College of Music Festival.

Nevertheless on that opening night a nervous but proud Joubert was in the audience to watch Albie Louw bring to life the character of the old miser who finds redemption by opening his home and his heart to the waif Eppie, sung by Gudrun Barrella.

Poor Gregorio Fiasconaro for months unable to speak in anything but a croak, let alone sing, gallantly hid his depression and put his heart and soul into producing Rachel Trickett's attractive if not altogether faultless libretto. The production honoured John Joubert as among the college's most successful past students.

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