The following is an extract from and article written by Henning Viljoen, and taken from Scenaria magazine (October 1983)


Marita Knobel is a South African born mezzo-soprano who has been living overseas for the past ten years, where she is a member of the permanent ensemble of the opera house in Cologne.  She will be returning to South Africa to sing Herodias in PACT’s [Performing Arts Council of Transvaal] production of Salome (Strauss) next year [1984].

Marita comes from a musical family.  Her father is the well-known baritone Louis Knobel.  He studied singing in London and was one of the founder members of the Pretoriase Opera Geselskap – a society that was one of the predecessors of PACT.  As a child she attended all the rehearsals of the operas performed by this society and this stimulated her interest in singing.  She recalls an incident after such a rehearsal where she and her brother sang the whole love duet from Madama Butterfly after hearing Nellie du Toit and Gé Korsten singing it – not knowing then that in future she would share the stage with them as Suzuki in PACT’s production of the same opera.

Although she embarked on speech therapy as a career, she started singing lessons during her university years with Xander Haagen.  He is a person whom she still holds in high esteem, saying:  “Apart from singing he also taught me all the basics of stage craft.  He is a real theatre person – one who knows and understands the theatre from all aspects, and he realised that a sound singing technique is not enough – so he managed to create opportunities for his students to gain stage experience.”  It was in such a student production, in cooperation with PACT, that she made her opera debut as Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck) in 1963.  Several other student productions followed, such as The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart), Der Bekehrte Trunkenbold (Gluck), and The Impressario (Mozart).

Then came the years as speech therapist at the school for cerebral palsy in Pretoria, during which she and fellow pupils of Xander Haagen, like George Kok and Barbara Veenemans were given roles by PACT – in the beginning mainly for school tours.  Her first big role was Suzuki with Nellie and Gé, which she later repeated with Elizabeth Vaughan as the Butterfly.

After these early experiences with PACT she was advised by Leo Quale – whom she regards as her first opera coach, and to whom she feels very much indebted for what he had taught her – to go overseas to gain experience.  She set out with the intention of coming back, but was never asked back except for the role of Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, a production in which she was not very pleased with her own performance.

She would very much like to return to South Africa, but not unless she could be part of a permanent ensemble which would provide a singer with more security.  She feels it is a pity that there is no cooperation between the various Arts Councils in so far as establishing a joint permanent ensemble through which singers could partake in operas all year round like in Europe.  This type of permanent joint ensemble will not only provide enough opportunities for a singer, but will also provide the necessary security for a career.  She feels that at present, even if she is part of the permanent ensemble of PACT or CAPAB [Cape Performing Arts Board], the few operas per year (PACT’s five productions or CAPAB’s eight to ten productions) do not really warrant a full time contract, unless one is contracted by both.

For the past eight years she has been a member of the opera house in Cologne where she mainly sings true character roles, such as her favourite role the Witch (Hänsel und Gretel) or Herodias (Salome).  She feels that the art of acting in creating a character is even more satisfying than the singing of the role.  She admits that she has often been scolded for not doing the roles of Eboli, Amneris or Octavian in smaller houses.  But for her the reward of working with the great singers and being part of memorable performances, like an Adelaide with the Arabella of Kiri Te Kanawa, or a Magdalene with the Stolzing of René Kollo, a Mother in The Tales of Hoffmann with Edda Moser and Placido Domingo, or a Herodias with the Salome of Gwyneth Jones in the new Ponelle production of Salome, and to sing regularly with conductors such as Sir John Pritchard, Nello Santi or Marek Janowski is far more satisfying.

She also emphatically states that the life style of the ‘great career’ – the so-called jet-set career where one is compelled to live out of a suitcase and in hotel rooms – does not appeal to her.  For her the art of living is just as important as the art of singing, and there are still too many things she wants to do which the real ‘great career’ does not allow.

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The following information was provided to me by Marita Knobel, as a biographical update (September 2005)

In 1985 Marita Knobel left the Cologne City Opera and went back to South Africa to become Assistant Artistic Director of Opera at CAPAB where she helped to develop the Young Singers Program.

In 1988 she returned to Europe as a free-lance singer.

In 1990 she became a permanent soloist at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where she was renowned for her acting ability and stage personality, singing (amongst others) Herodias in Salome, Mrs Sedley in Peter Grimes, the Mother and the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel, Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, Berta in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Grimgerde in Die Walküre, Nutrice in L´incoronazione di Poppea and Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana.

In February 1992 she was asked by the Cologne City Opera to join them on their Japan Tour where she sang the Axinia (in Lady Macbeth of Mzensk by Shostakovitch) in Tokyo and Yokohama.  In the same year she went on the Japan tour of the Bavarian State Opera, singing Mary (Der Fliegende Holländer) and Marcellina (Le Nozze di Figaro) in Tokyo and Nagoya.

She has sung in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Bogota, Quito, Tel Aviv, the Edinburgh Festival, the Vienna State Opera as well as all major centres in South Africa.  She is a famous Mrs Sedley and has sung the role in eight different productions - amongst others in Munich, Cologne, Strasbourg and Toulouse.

In May 2000 she sang Mrs Peachum in Brecht/Weills Dreigroschenoper for the Bavarian Radio.

Marita retired in September 2004 and can look back on more than 40 years as an opera soloist of which 30 were spent in Europe.  She has worked with the conductors Zubin Mehta, Wolfgang Sawallisch, John Pritchard and Charles Mackerras, the stage directors Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Alfred Kirchner, Harry Kupfer, August Everding and David Alden, the singers Edita Gruberova, Thomas Hampson, Waltraud Meier, Cheryl Studer, Bryn Terfel, Kurt Moll, Leonie Rysanek, Hildegard Behrens, Agnes Baltsa and Lucia Popp.

In 2001 Marita wrote a manual for young opera singers in Germany, called Beruf: Opernsänger (with her co-author Brigitte Steinert) for the music publishing company, Baerenreiter.  Due to the great success of the German version she has translated it into English for the international market.  Singing Opera in Germany, A Practical Guide for Beginners by Marita Knobel and Brigitte Steinert is available from November 2005 at Baerenreiter.

She is also very active as a consultant for young opera singers and teaches audition training and role interpretation.  She is the artistic organiser of the annual Summer Course: Acting for Opera Singers with Acting, Movement and Interpretation coaches from all over Germany.

On 18 November 2003 Marita celebrated her 60th birthday on stage in Bilbao, Spain, singing the part of the grandmother Burya in Jenufa by Leoš Janáček opposite Raina Kabaivanska as Kostelnička.  The production was by David Pountney and the conductor was Jiri Kout.

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Young singers looking for work in Germany, please visit this site:

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The following is extracted from Volume III of the 1986 edition of South African Music Encyclopedia (J.P. Malan, ISBN 0 19 570363 4)

MARGARETHA LOUISE (MARITA) KNOBEL, mezzo-soprano, born 18 November 1943 in Johannesburg

Marita Knobel is the daughter of Louis Knobel and studied at the University of Pretoria from 1960 until 1964 to obtain a B.A. (Log.) degree, qualifying as a speech therapist.  From 1965 to 1970 she practised her vocation at the Pretoria School for the Cerebral Palsied.

While a student at the University, she sang at student concerts and won first prizes at student art festivals.  From 1962 onwards she was a pupil of Xander Haagen at the Music Academy of the University of Pretoria and in 1965 played her first leading part in the Academy's presentation of Gluck's Der Bekehrte Trunkenbold.  After this start she took part in the Academy's annual opera presentations until 1968 when she was offered a role in professional opera  -  the PACT production of Verdi's La Traviata.  A month later she interpreted the part of Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel, followed in 1969 by the parts of Auntie in Britten's Peter Grimes and of Suzuki in Puccini's Madama Butterfly.  Her first appearance as a concert soloist was in Johannesburg in June 1968  -  the programme was devoted to Afrikaans art songs.

In 1970 she continued her vocal studies in England and Germany and in 1971 she was contractually engaged by the Opera House in Cologne.  The contract has been renewed several times.  During the years in Cologne she has built up a representative variety of roles in her particular vocal range and quality of voice, including Dorabella (Cosi Fan Tutte), the Witch (Hänsel und Gretel), Suzuki (Madama Butterfly) and Geneviève (Pelléas et Mélisande).  Over and above her opera commitments she has sung for the recording of contemporary works, as well as in the St Matthew Passion (Bach) and Elijah (Mendelssohn), and has often appeared in other centres as a guest artist.  These include Düsseldorf, Basle, Bayreuth and Duisburg.  The Dutch Radio engaged her in 1978 for the interpretation of Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier) and Marcellina (Le Nozze di Figaro) in two opera broadcasts.
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