GÉ KORSTEN, tenor, born 6 December 1927 (Holland), died 29 September 1999 (South Africa)
For the best part of three decades, no male opera singer in South Africa could hold a candle to Gé Korsten. It was more than the undoubted quality of his voice, however, that made him a household name for South Africans - he also had shockingly good looks and buckets of charisma. He was also prepared to do what few, if any, serious opera singers dared do in those days of artistic elitism - mix weighty, traditional opera with light, popular folk music. He became the ultimate heart-throb for hundreds of thousands of mainly Afrikaans women, who travelled vast distances to hear and, more importantly, look at him. To others, though, there was something vaguely ridiculous about the way he brought his considerable operatic skills to bear on the mawkish lyrics his fans lapped up. But, being the consummate professional that he was, there were never any half measures. No one performance was any less important to him than another. As much as he sang light music because he genuinely enjoyed it, Korsten clearly made a lot of money out of it. For all the disparaging remarks he endured, his willingness to descend to the level of the masses did more for the cause of opera in South Africa than anything else. People who would normally have run a mile at the mere mention of the word began flocking to opera houses to hear their idol. They liked what they heard, and returned to hear more. In the 1970s, performances would draw full houses, and for a chance to hear the likes of Korsten and Mimi Coertse, people would queue all night outside the State Theatre in Pretoria. Why he did not work overseas - as, for instance, Coertse did in the 1960s and early 1970s and Deon van der Walt and Johan Botha do today - is a question often asked about Korsten. What few know is that Korsten, who arrived in South Africa from Holland at the age of seven, began his working life as an electrical artisan. He began to develop his singing talent (initially as a baritone before becoming a tenor) relatively late in life, receiving no formal voice training until he was well into his 20s. The chance to work overseas presented itself in 1962, when he was awarded a bursary to study in Vienna for a year - but by this time he was already 35 and had a business to run and a family to support. There is little doubt that he could have built a career for himself in opera overseas if he had wanted to. After an audition at the State Theatre in Vienna while studying there, he was asked to take the place of a late withdrawal in Madama Butterfly. Instead, he returned to South Africa and spent another 10 years singing and running his business, which he sold in 1970 to devote himself to singing professionally. He appeared on stage more than 3,000 times, taking 23 roles in most of the major operas, but his finest hour was probably his performance in Jenufa, the 20th-century opera by the Czech composer Janácek. For once he did not take the part of the glamorous hero. His character was decidedly unromantic and nasty, and for this alone his decision to take the role was courageous.
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The following is an article written by Henning Viljoen, and taken from Scenaria magazine (April 1984)
Gé Korsten, one of the most diverse South African artists, belongs to that very rare breed of lyric tenors who also have enough metal in the voice to venture into the lyrico-spinto fach. He established himself in the musical world of South Africa not only as an opera singer, but he is also very at home in front of the TV cameras and on the concert platform performing light popular music. He is one of the top record sellers in South Africa, having made 41 long-playing records of which 20 received golden disc awards. He has also won six SARIE awards. Apart from these achievements in the field of popular music, his first love is still opera.
Gé (short for the Dutch name Gérard) was born in Rotterdam, Holland as the youngest of eight children. He was eight years old when his family immigrated to South Africa, settling in Johannesburg, near Lower Houghton, where he is still living today. He grew up in a very religious home environment where singing around the organ and making music was very much part of the daily home routine. His father built the oak organ that formed the centre of their music evenings and today Gé is the proud owner of this family treasure. Although singing formed a part of his life from his childhood and people recognised the beauty of his voice when he became a member of the church choir, his family could not afford the luxury of sending the young Gé for singing lessons.
After school and his technical training at the Technical College in Johannesburg, Gé started a career with an electrical engineering firm in Cape Town. He soon worked his way to the top and was asked to open and administer a new branch of the firm in Pretoria. Within a year after he moved to Pretoria, he started his own business that rapidly developed into one of the very big electrical firms in the Transvaal. Apart from his success in the business world, he never neglected his love for music, and a considerable amount of his first earnings as a young man was spent on singing lessons with Rupert Stout in Johannesburg and Adelheid Armhold in Cape Town. In Pretoria he studied with Albrecht Lewald, before he changed to his singing tutor, who was also to become his singing partner, Nellie du Toit – a person who played a very important role in his singing career. At the age of twenty, he joined several choirs and singing groups. Some of these groups became very popular on the SABC [South African Broadcasting Corporation], such as the Sangluskoor, Die Johannesburgse Mannekwartet (with Gert Potgieter, another tenor who became famous, as one of the members), and Die Minnesangers, which included singers such as Jan Schutte, a former deputy director-general of the SABC, and the very young Mimi Coertse.
In 1957, Gé and other opera lovers in Pretoria felt a great need to promote opera as an art form. This led to the foundation of Die Pretoriase Operagroep – a group that not only did magnificent pioneering work, but also paved the way for PACT [Performing Arts Council of Transvaal]. Die Pretoriase Operagroep provided an excellent training school for several South African singers, including Gé. It consisted of a group of enthusiasts who gathered in the evenings after work to prepare and practise for opera productions. The first production of the group, I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) also marked Gé’s opera debut on stage as Canio. It was performed in the Pretorius Hall of the Pretoria Town Hall with the ISCOR Orchestra conducted by Peter Rorke, and Denis Reinecke – the present deputy-director of PACT – as Tonio. This production of I Pagliacci was coupled with a South African opera by Peter Rorke, Die Nuwe Dominee [The New Minister].
After Gé’s great success as Canio, leading roles in various operas presented by Die Pretoriase Operagroep and/or The South African Federation of Opera (OPSA) followed one after the other. First of all there was the production of Die Fledermaus that also included singers such as Gert Potgieter, Doris Brasch, Jaco van der Merwe and Jossie Boshoff – it was conducted by Anton Hartman and produced by Hermien Domisse. This was followed by a production of Madama Butterfly with Gé as Pinkerton and Saline Koch and Nellie du Toit alternating as Butterfly, as well as a La Boheme with Nellie. It was during this production of La Boheme that Nellie helped Gé with some of the vocal difficulties he had encountered with the role of Rodolfo. This marked the beginning of their long artistic relationship. There were also very successful productions of Carmen (with Gé as Don José, Marina de Gabarain as Carmen, Norman Bailey as Escamillo and Anna Neethling Pohl as the producer) and Lucia di Lammermoor (with Gé as Edgardo). The fact that he studied and performed the role of Edgardo during these pioneering years served him well a few years later when, at short notice, he had to take over the role in PACT’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor with Mimi Coertse in the title role. It was a great performance that will be remembered because Gé sang his arias/duos in Italian but the rest in English – the language in which he first performed the role.
After the founding of the Arts Councils of the various provinces in 1963, Gé became a very sought after singer because of the exceptional quality of his voice and his dynamic stage personality. He reached the stage where he had to choose between business and singing as a career. Singing, being a very selfish and demanding art form, tends to require one’s total commitment if one wants to really get somewhere. The decision was difficult, because as a father of five children, he could not foresee what the financial payoff for a singer would be in South Africa. Opera won, and he took the risk of selling his business to devote all of his time to music – a decision he has never regretted, because since then he has had very little time that has not been taken up by music, be it on the concert platform, the opera stage, operetta, musicals, films, or in front of the TV cameras.
During the past 25 years Gé has played a great role in the development of opera in South Africa, singing the leading tenor roles in 24 different operas. Several memorable performances spring to one’s mind – especially his wonderful portrayal in the demanding role of Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach) together with Mimi Coertse in the opening production of the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg in 1962. Apart from being an excellent Manrico, Alfredo, Rodolfo, Pinkerton, Cavaradossi or Faust, his spine-chilling performances as Don José in NAPAC’s [Natal Performing Arts Council] production of Carmen (1972), Edgardo in PACT’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor (1974), Chenier in NAPAC’s Andrea Chenier (1975), Laca in PACT’s Jenufa (1976), and Erik in CAPAB’s Der Fliegende Holländer (1978) will be remembered for their star quality. He was awarded the Nederburg Prize for Opera for his portrayal of Chenier in 1976. Gé is one of the few singers with the remarkable achievement of having sung a leading tenor role opposite almost all of the well-known South African sopranos of the last two decades – Saline Koch (La Boheme and Madama Butterfly), Jossie Boshoff (Die Fledermaus, and The Magic Flute in Afrikaans), Désirée Talbot (Tosca and Manon Lescaut), Emma Renzi (Il Trovatore), Hanlie van Niekerk (La Boheme), Mimi Coertse (The Tales of Hoffmann, Die Fledermaus, Lucia di Lammermoor and Faust), Joyce Barker (Turandot and Der Fliegende Holländer), Rikie Venter (La Boheme and La Traviata), Marita Napier (Fidelio), and Nellie du Toit (Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Tosca, Norma, Lucia di Lammermoor, Il Trovatore, Faust, Andrea Chenier, La Traviata and Jenufa).
Looking back on his very rewarding opera career, Gé personally considers the Turandot with Joyce Barker in Cape Town, the Andrea Chenier in Durban, and the Fidelio and Der Fliegende Holländer in Cape Town as musical highlights and artistically the most fulfilling experiences. It is however with sadness that he recalls the period when, at his peak as far as certain roles were concerned, he was given a cold shoulder by PACT, because of a personal grudge held against him by one of their authorities. He also feels that a singer in South Africa is at a big disadvantage as far as bargaining power to sing certain roles is concerned. To a certain extent, the singer is at the mercy of the authorities of the various Arts Councils if he is to sing a role or not, even if he sometimes might feel that he is perhaps better suited for one role than another. Gé personally had to sing a Radames at a stage in his career when he felt he was vocally not mature enough for the role – but the opportunity did not arise again to sing the role at a later stage when he felt he had the vocal stamina for it. This situation creates a prevailing feeling of uncertainty amongst South African singers – a feeling that if they refuse at one stage they might not be given the chance again. This is the main reason for singers accepting roles not well suited to them.
Apart from the opera scene, Gé played a significant role in the revival of popular Afrikaans songs on record. In some opera circles he was scolded for this interest – some even unjustly claimed, in no uncertain terms, that this interest had a detrimental effect on his opera singing. His rendering of these songs, nevertheless, one after the other became bestsellers and it also opened the way for him to play in films such as Hoor My Lied [Hear My Song], Lied In My Hart [Song In My Heart], and A New Life. His involvement in the record industry was coincidental. In 1956 his father-in-law, Rev. Burger, asked him to make a religious recording in aid of the Abraham Kriel Children’s Home. The reaction of the public to this recording was so positive that it provided the incentive to make more records – a venture which is still paying off, judged by the fact that Gé’s 42nd long-playing record is to be released soon.
Pondering over his musical achievements, Gé experiences a lot of satisfaction, particularly as his youngest son, Gérard, is following in his footsteps by taking up a musical career, and by doing so is perpetuating the family’s musical tradition. There are, however, still unfulfilled dreams as far as his own singing career is concerned, and Gé hopes that his ambition to sing a Lohengrin or Otello might still materialise.
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