The following is extracted from Volume I of the 1986 edition of South African Music Encyclopedia (J.P. Malan, ISBN 0 86965 586 8
BOB BOROWSKY, baritone and pharmacist, born 23 June 1929 in Pretoria (South Africa)
Son of a cantorial tenor and the younger brother of the tenor Jules Borowsky, Bob began singing solos in a synagogue at the age of six. After matriculating in 1946, he qualified as a pharmacist.
In 1947 he sang in the choirs of John Connell's Johannesburg Municipal Opera seasons. While studying singing with Bruce Anderson (1952-54) he sang roles in operas, operettas and oratorios for the Johannesburg Operatic and Dramatic Society and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Society, including Trial by Jury (Gilbert & Sullivan), The Gypsy Baron (J Strauss), and Yeomen of the Guard (Gilbert & Sullivan). While serving as an interpreter at the Australian Legation in Rome (1954-55), his vocal talent was developed by Gilda Alfano. Since his return to South Africa in September 1956, he has sung baritone roles for the Rota Company, the National Opera of South Africa and the South African Federation for Opera. Since 1963 he has sung leading roles for PACT (Performing Arts Council of Transvaal) in operas by Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti and Strauss.
His light music partnership with Doris Brasch has become widely known in South Africa as a result of commercial records and extended concert tours. For broadcasting he has sung in solo recitals and with orchestras. He has also had roles in a number of radio recordings of operas.
Bob Borowsky currently lives in Australia, and is still performing actively on the operatic stage.
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The following is an interview with Bob Borowsky, as published in Scenaria magazine (January 1994)
SCENARIA INTERVIEWS BOB BOROWSKY
~ For the Love of Singing ~
Bob Borowsky has been a pillar of the South African music and opera scene for nearly four decades, during which time he has performed in over 650 concerts throughout Southern Africa as well as singing a wide variety of baritone roles on the operatic stage. He was recently awarded the 1993 Transvaal Vita Opera Award for his performance of Sharpless in Madama Butterfly in the Roodepoort City Opera production.
You have been around the operatic stage in South Africa for probably more years than you care to remember. What led you to become an opera singer in the first place?
I started as a chorister at 5½, and at the age of 15, at Athlone High School in Johannesburg, I was a drummer in a military band. We had a very good band and during the John Connell opera seasons in the 1940s, as you may remember, they asked some drummers and buglers or trumpeters to participate in the second act of La Boheme – you know, when that little band comes along. I was one of the fortunate ones asked to take part in this production as a drummer. That was the first time I had ever heard Puccini’s music. In fact, it was the first time I ever heard an opera and I was totally bowled over by this incredible music. So much so, that from the first performance I made sure I was there on time before the opera started, and I would wait right until the end in the wings – by the end of the season I knew the opera.
The following year we were asked again, so I actually saw two full seasons of La Boheme – probably six performances a season – and as I was in Std 9 I thought to myself that maybe I could sing in the chorus. So, after I matriculated, I plucked up the courage and applied to the Johannesburg Philharmonic Society that provided the chorus for John Connell’s opera season each year. Much to my surprise, I was accepted. So, I started singing in the chorus in 1948 and 1949 whilst I was studying pharmacy part-time – 8am to 6pm in the pharmacy, then run to lectures from 7pm to 10pm, four nights a week. One of the masters was very kind and he used to let me off at about nineish, and I used to tear off from the station, where the Technical College is, all the way up Eloff Street to either the Empire of His Majesty’s where the operas used to be performed, possibly to get there in time for the second act. So that’s how it all started and funnily enough, I sang in the chorus of La Boheme, Fledermaus and Faust, for those two years. And that really was the beginning. The first two lines that I sang on my own were in La Boheme, in the third act where they are all standing at the gate.
After that it just didn’t stop. Then of course there was the collapse of the local opera season – that was at the end of 1949. The municipality ran out of money and refused to subsidise it any longer. Think the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra was disbanded as well and there was nothing – Johannesburg was left without any opera whatsoever.
After I qualified as a pharmacist at the end of 1951, I started taking singing lessons with Bruce Anderson, because I couldn’t afford it before. Apart from being a fine broadcaster, he was also a very fine baritone. So I started taking lessons with him in 1952 and in 1953 I did an audition with the SABC [South African Broadcasting Corporation] and was accepted. By then I was doing some small parts with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Society, where I did a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan. I recall that I did the Judge in Trial by Jury and I appeared in The Yeomen of the Guard. We did a concert performance of Cavalleria Rusticana at the City Hall but there was then very little going on.
I then left for Italy. I was apprenticed to my brother George, who sings as well, you know. He went to Italy for two years and my agreement with him was that after two years he was to return, and exactly two years later, he came back. Within three weeks, I was gone, with one objective, and that was to learn how to sing. I made that very clear – to learn production and technique – to learn how to produce a beautiful sound that would project. I wasn’t interested in learning repertoire. Repertoire you can learn anywhere in the world. We have some very good répétiteurs and coaches here. I was just interested in learning how to sing and part of that, not only from a teacher, but to live in an environment of great opera performances. In Rome the standard from the end of 1954 to September 1956 was outstandingly high. I heard all the great singers you could think of. People like Tebaldi, Callas, Simionato and Gobbi. Corelli was just starting his career at that time. I used to go to the opera three times a week, and listening to these great singers was marvellous. It was great fun, but more than that, it was the most exciting period of my life.
Of course, there were also the symphony concerts. I saw some of the greatest conductors and instrumentalists. And the cost of the tickets in those days was the equivalent of 20 cents – but of course 20 cents was 20 cents!
So, that’s how it all started. By then it was in my blood. All I wanted to do was to learn how to sing. I didn’t kid myself that I would be a great baritone and conquer the stage or anything like that. I was doing what I wanted to do. I had enough money to last me for six months, to pay for my singing lessons – and I had a singing lesson every day, six days a week – to pay for my board and lodging, and to go to the opera a few times a week and probably also a symphony concert. And that was the life that I led which was undoubtedly the most stimulating and enjoyable period of my life. No money, but I couldn’t have been happier, and I was learning Italian at the same time. I also realised that if I got a job it would be because of my knowledge of Italian. I was not allowed to work, as there were 3½ million unemployed Italians in those days – the law was very strict. If you were caught working without permission, your employer got a five-year prison sentence without an option of a fine, and you were thrown out of the country. If you had the money they would put you on a plane, but if you didn’t, they would escort you to the Swiss border and drop you on the other side. It wasn’t a joke and I realised that in order to get a job I had to get to grips with the language, which was something I wanted to do anyway. Being interested in opera, and particularly Italian opera, I realised this was essential because, unless you know what you are singing, you cannot give your best. It’s a handicap not knowing the language you are singing in. Literal translations are fine, but they don’t take the place of knowing every word of what you sing.
I studied the language on my own – I never had the money to go to a teacher or conservatoire or something like that. I soon realised that the only way I was going to get a job was through one of the embassies. I started knocking at all the embassy doors – and there are four hundred embassies in Rome. I was knocked back continuously when they had a look at my passport as I had toured Europe for five months before getting to Italy to study. I couldn’t convince them I was going to be there for a long period. I wanted to study singing, but I didn’t have enough money to stay on. I was tipped off that there was something going at the Australian Embassy, and having been there four times, I went there for a fifth time and I think the chap took pity on me. By then I had been in Italy for six months – I had three weeks to go, no more money (but my air ticket), and I clinched the job. Fortunately the bloke who gave me the job couldn’t speak Italian very well, so I managed to get a job that allowed me to stay another thirteen months.
I came back to South Africa after having been away for 2½ years. I started doing a lot of sacrificial work when I came back in September 1956. We started doing a lot of operatic concerts with Allesandro Rota – he came to Johannesburg from Cape Town and was quite a promising teacher. He started organising excerpts from operas for the concert platform. We used to do the first act of I Pagliacci and the last act of Rigoletto, and put up operatic concerts in Johannesburg, East and West Rand, and even in two Free State towns – Bloemfontein and Welkom.
Of course, in those days there was no question of your earning a living full-time as a singer?
No, there was absolutely nothing. Of course I still went back to the SABC. Anton Hartman was at the helm in those days. His wife was a singer, as you know – Jossie Boshoff. We started doing these operatic concerts, for next to nothing, just to keep opera alive – with a five-piece orchestra and two strings.
Then, in 1957, a well-known patron of the arts put up a guarantee of one thousand pounds to stage Madama Butterfly at the Alexander Theatre. It was done on the basis that the SABC would provide the orchestra, with Jeremy Shulman as conductor. Rosa would produce, the sets were done on a shoestring budget by a well-known South African artist and we begged and borrowed the costumes from various places and hired them from JODS. We put this on with three Butterflies, I might tell you, with Sergio Galli and myself and two other principals, Nellie du Toit and Rita Roberts. So that was the beginning, and the agreement with the SABC was that when we finished the season, we would make a recording for the SABC in their studio for the archives, which we did.
Two years later, in 1959, we put on La Traviata in the same way – we covered our costs – with two Violettas, Saline Koch and Rita Roberts, and Sergio and myself. In those days there were different opera organisations, such as OPSA and various others who put on a season of Madama Butterfly in Pretoria for the Pretoria Opera Group. Gé Korsten had just started his career. In 1961 they got together and invited me to do La Traviata, which we did at the old Empire Theatre. We did twelve performances which were sold out before we started.
Then of course in 1963 we saw the beginning of the Performing Arts Councils and I did the first opera – in fact about this time 30 years ago, when Kennedy was assassinated – we were doing the performance of Il Segreto di Susanna and it was just after the performance that we were told that he had been killed. It was a one-act opera. So I remember the 22nd of November 1963 – it was a rather significant day – I have never forgotten it.
That was the beginning, we had a permanent conductor in Leo Quale and I sang just about everything in those days. I was offered a full-time contract by Bosman de Kock who was the first head of PACT [Performing Arts Council of Transvaal], as you know. I knew Bosman from the SABC. At that stage I was married – I got married in 1957 – and I told him that I now had to feed a wife and two kids. I told him that if he could offer me what I was earning as a pharmacist as well as the small amount I made from my part-time singing, I would seriously consider his offer of a full-time contract. He said he just couldn’t do it. So, my part-time career continued. In 1963 I did Il Segreto di Susanna – that was the beginning. In 1964 I did [the main baritone roles in] Lucia di Lammermoor and Il Trovatore. In 1965 I did La Boheme, I think in Afrikaans. In 1966 I did Fledermaus and they brought back Il Trovatore. That Trovatore was produced by Peter Ebert who was a very fine producer. In 1967, I can’t remember, but in 1968 of course we did La Traviata with Elizabeth Vaughan from Covent Garden. And Richard Tucker did two performances as guest artist without any rehearsals.
That was at the Civic in Johannesburg?
Yes, at the Civic. Of course, the Civic was opened in 1962.
During all this time I was doing a tremendous amount of concert work. When I came back [from Italy], in those days they did a lot of lunch-hour concerts – people used to come with their sandwiches and the City Hall used to be packed out and we would feature either an instrumentalist or a couple of singers. We would do three or four arias and a couple of duets – it was tremendously popular and it was also broadcast, either that night or the next day, whatever it was. And my first lunch-hour concert was with Doris Brasch, whom I did not know at that stage. We did the duet from I Pagliacci and a few others and we sort of got together. We felt that our voices blended well and we started doing some of the lighter stuff – Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddie – translated by Bosman de Kock, funnily enough, into Afrikaans. We pioneered the whole area and struck our first record in 1960. Then we started getting a lot of concert work, so, apart from the operas, in the 1960s, I was averaging nearly fifty performances a year whilst working. As you know, most opera houses contract for forty performances a year and anything above that you get pro rata. So I was really singing more than full-time, working eight hours a day. It wasn’t easy, but very, very enjoyable.
Of course, Hartman and the SABC were doing some very good things at this time. We did Fidelio, which nearly killed me. I must tell you, I will never look at the role of Don Pizarro again. That was a grave mistake.
We did La Boheme. We did Eugene Onegin. Very often we did it both in English and Afrikaans. Anton Hartman tried very hard for the singers. He was a lover of vocal music, particularly opera. He wanted to conduct but he wasn’t the greatest conductor. But he was a hard working conductor in terms of preparing the work. He really knew what the work was about. He didn’t always achieve the results that he set out to do for a variety of reasons, but he was very, very enthusiastic and hard working. He always went through it with the artists – took no chances, which many of them did.
Very thoroughly prepared?
Very thoroughly prepared. So, there was a fair amount of work going between opera performances, concert work, and broadcasting. I had a very busy ten-year period and then suddenly PACT forgot about me. That’s not uncommon. I think my last performance was in 1971. I did Il Tabarro and in 1971 I did La Traviata, which was Neels Hansen’s first production. Until then I think he had just designed some costumes. And I filled in with a Monterone at 24 hours notice, which was nearly disastrous and which I should never have done. After that, I was totally forgotten. I actually didn’t do any work for about six or eight years and contacted them to ask if there was anything wrong, and they said: “No, nothing’s wrong.” Lawrence Folley had joined them and they were using him, which was fair enough. But, I realised that if I wanted to sing opera, I had to sing for PACT – nobody else was doing any work. It was the days before the Roodepoort City Opera started, so if you were not singing for PACT – and the SABC was doing very little – you simply were not “in”. I wasn’t prepared to just hang up my boots and say, “that’s the end, Bob, forget about singing”. I wasn’t prepared to do that. And I did persevere and eventually Neels Hansen started giving me some smaller parts and that’s the way I sort of clawed my way back.
When I was asked to do La Traviata recently in Bloemfontein, I thought: “Bloemfontein – is this the right thing to do?” I had never sung in Bloemfontein, although I heard about the theatre. I had not sung Germont for 22 years. The last time I had sung it was in 1971.
You have never sung for CAPAB [Cape Performing Arts Board]?
I have never been asked to sing for them. I have been on to them many times. In fact, I phoned them two weeks ago. Their excuse has always been that they have full-time singers and they have to use them. It is a very good excuse, but it is the truth.
I grabbed this La Traviata because I said to my wife: “Here’s a chance to revisit the Germont which I had done probably a hundred times up until 1971, but not since. And it’s probably the best decision I ever made. I felt greater depth in the role, probably because I like to think I am more mature. I look like the father, because I am a father and a grandfather I am very happy to say – and the whole thing took on total new dimensions. The company, the whole set-up in Bloemfontein is a very happy, enthusiastic, and hard working environment. There is no backstabbing, there’s no nonsense. People really want to make things work there. It’s probably the happiest environment I have ever worked in. So it was a good thing to revisit, and I think based on that, it looks as if PACT will be happy to cast me again.
There’s not a lot of work going. I have had a very good year this year. I did four operas – two big roles in Madama Butterfly and La Traviata, and two small roles, Sacristan [Tosca] and Monterone [Rigoletto]. So that’s where I stand right now. I have had a wonderful year – my best singing year. This is my first cold this year – I have been free of any form of ‘flu and my voice has been in great shape. This is the first year I have sung full-time.
The thing that amazes me is that your voice gets better every year, which is, of course, the total reverse of most singers. As they get older the voice declines a bit. Do you have some sort of workout that keeps your voice in such a good shape?
I feel very sad that none of my colleagues are singing any more. I am speaking of Nellie du Toit, Emma Renzi, and Gé Korsten. Joyce Barker gave up and started teaching. Really, other than Mimi [Coertse] – Mimi is younger than me – and Hans van Heerden, there are not many of us left who are still singing. It’s very sad. I have to assume that they stopped singing because their voices have deteriorated. They didn’t stop singing for any other reason. In fairness to them, and certainly if my voice started deteriorating, I would follow the same path. A voice has got to have quality. It’s not just a question of producing a sound. It’s got to be a beautiful sound with quality. So I feel that if that happens, and when it happens, it will be time to give up. But I don’t believe it has happened yet.
But, to return to your question, I am a very individual singer, if I may say so myself. I am not one of those singers who have to sing all the time to keep the voice in shape. I have always been a great believer in resting the voice whenever one can. So when I don’t have any singing to do, I don’t sing. It’s as simple as that. I can go for two or three months and not sing a note, unless I am preparing for something, and then pick it up quite easily – a couple of weeks of scales and I’ll pick it up and I have no problem. The reason, possibly, is that my technique, for me, seems to work, because I believe that singing is a very individual thing. A teacher can take you so far, but after that it’s what you do with your voice through your brain and how you analyse every time you go on stage. One has to analyse and not just the good things you do or the bad things you do. You should continually be trying to improve a beautifully rounded sound that has a shine to it and projects. If it doesn’t project, you are wasting your time. So that’s really what I have always done. I believe in resting the voice, but there are singers who are told, possibly by their teachers, that they have to exercise every day. I am not a believer in that and I have never done it. I must also say that when I came back from Italy in 1956, I went back to Bruce [Anderson] and after a few lessons I found I was getting very tired, and stopped, and have since studied entirely on my own. I have never been with another teacher since 1956.
How do you approach a new role?
First of all I read everything about the opera and the composer and particularly about the role. I look at the words very, very carefully and I read the whole opera in terms of where it fits in with everybody else. I then look at the music and put the two together because I am a great believer that diction is probably the most important part of singing. What is the sense of standing on the stage and nobody can hear one word of what you are singing? After all, if you are doing straight theatre, and one couldn’t hear the words, you wouldn’t be on the stage. There’s no difference between straight theatre and opera, except that in one you sing and in the other you speak. To me, diction is very, very important. You have to know what you are saying and make sure the audience knows what you are saying. I know that there are many great singers who have tended to shift aside the diction because they say it interferes with the production – Sutherland was a good example. Callas in many ways was also a good example. I don’t go for that because some of the greatest singers I have heard had the most excellent diction. There is really no excuse for it. The fault lies with the teachers – they don’t place enough emphasis on the importance of good diction – perfect diction.
It’s interesting that the German singers have better diction than the Italian singers?
And they sing in a much more difficult language because German is a much more difficult language to sing in – there are too many consonants. I mean, why is Italian undoubtedly the best language to sing in? Because every word ends in a vowel. It’s a singer’s dream. There’s no language that can compare.
What are your views about Lieder? Is it a discipline that the German singers have but which is uncommon amongst Italian singers?
I have not done enough Lieder in my time and I am very seriously thinking of going back and doing some Lieder. I think it’s not too late, frankly. Nobody knows better than the singer himself whether they have sung well. You may not like it, but they know when they have sung well. It is very important. You don’t get the best of crits, and on the other hand, when you know you have sung poorly you get wonderful crits – which means the technique is working for you and the audience is not aware of your problems. You know when you are in top voice etc., and [if] the breathing goes a bit haywire, you can get out of it. The audience should never know when you are having a bit of a problem for whatever the reason. This is the plight of the singer. If you allow the emotion to take over, you’ll be buggered – you’ll never finish the opera because you’ll start doing things that you shouldn’t be doing. Your breathing goes haywire, you’re tired, and you get slightly hoarse, and you are not pacing the opera.
Now, if you were to do Lieder, which repertoire would you look at?
I have done some Schumann and Schubert – I have done a bit of Wolf – not too much Strauss – I would like to do the Winterreise for a start. I have done bits of it, but this would take a lot of work which I would be happy to do. I would like to go to the SABC and say: “I will prepare some things – if you like it, you can use it. If you don’t like it, you can tell me I’m a has-been.”
Have you ever had an interest in teaching?
I have a great interest in teaching and I have been approached over the years, but the reason why I have not done it is because the way I would like to teach is the way I was taught, which is by demonstration, and that is very taxing on the voice. Whilst I am still performing, professionally, I cannot allow the voice to be hurt in that way – and it would be.
Is it something to look forward to in the future?
Oh, I’m not saying that I will possibly be a good teacher. All I can do is offer what I have done, which has worked for me, and hopefully it would work for a few other people. I am the last one to knock somebody else’s production and technique or their teacher. I very often get phone calls: “What do you think of so and so?” I have to say I don’t know. I don’t know how Dawie Couzyn teaches – I don’t know how Emma Renzi teaches – I don’t know how Joyce Barker taught. But they were artists in their own right and they know something about singing, and I respect them as artists, and some of them are producing some very fine young singers.
I studied with Gilda Alfano in Rome. She was a very fine mezzo-soprano singing at La Scala – everywhere. She was the granddaughter of Franco Alfano who completed Turandot after the death of Puccini. To this day I have not heard a singer sing a scale like she did. She had a beautiful, dark, mezzo voice. I have never ever heard a scale sung that way, ever. Funnily enough, when I went to the first lesson, within five minutes she sung this scale for me. I was then convinced that you could only learn from a person who can do that. Her husband was a general and I don’t think he liked her running around the world singing, so she stopped singing. So, I was very lucky – she only took a few pupils – I think she had five pupils, that’s all. I was paying in those days the equivalent of R1 a lesson. OK, in 1954 that was a bit of money, but it wasn’t a lot of money compared with some of the others, and I stayed with her all the time. I did nothing but scales – never learned any songs – she couldn’t play [the piano] – played with one finger. Six days a week for half an hour at a time. She always said to me: “Don’t do your scales at home, but here, with me.”
You mentioned earlier that German is a very difficult language to sing in. How do you feel about translations? You have done English translations, Afrikaans translations – obviously not easy to sing.
From an artist’s point of view, it’s the worst thing that can happen to you – to sing an Italian or German opera in English. I think it is sacrilege. I can understand that there may be room for it in some of the comic operas like The Barber of Seville.
But the laugh lines don’t get funnier?
No. Half the time you don’t hear what they are singing. They may as well be singing in Greek. How often do they put these things on in English and you cannot hear one word. For me there is only one language to sing in and which best suits my voice. I’ve struggled with German, and I’ve struggled with English. English to me is the worst. Afrikaans is not as bad. Russian is quite good. French is extremely difficult.
But you have a strong affinity for the French repertoire?
I love the French repertoire – Massenet’s works are just unbelievable. And Gounod. The French repertoire is magnificent. I mean, I would like to think I did a very good job of Dr Miracle in Hoffmann, but it’s absolutely scandalous that we have never done a Werther or any of the other magnificent Massenet operas. No, I think the French repertoire is marvellous. We don’t get a chance to do it, other than the occasional Faust or Carmen. I think they are great operas, but it’s one of those things. What is one supposed to do? You sit and wait. I’m not complaining. I haven’t come here to complain.
When I look back, I have had the best of three worlds – you may wonder what the third world is. The first world is that I have been very happily married for 36 years with three married children, and have had wonderful support from my family. If you don’t get that support, you either get divorced or you don’t carry on. That’s number one. The second, the commercial world – I was with my company ICI for 34 years – and was a pretty successful marketing manager and had tremendous stimulation – a totally different world to the artistic world, but in many ways complimentary to it, because you have a good idea [of] what happens in the real world. And then of course, there’s been my singing career that could have been better, there’s no doubt about it. But as a part-time singer, I don’t think I have too much to grumble about. More importantly, the voice has held out. I think that at age 64 I feel very grateful that I am still around and can still perform, and hopefully it will still continue.