Magdalene Minnaar is one of those people who makes you question when she has time to sleep. She is the founder of Little Maestros and Biblioteek Productions, where she also serves as Artistic Director. She is an accomplished actress and singer, having performed the coveted role of Christine Daaé in the international touring production of The Phantom of The Opera as well as performing alongside Josh Groban during his tour to South Africa last year. Currently she is directing Calling Us Home, a highly anticipated new musical which is about to take South Africa by storm. We sat down to chat about the many hats that she has worn during her career.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I would say essentially it would be my parents and the way that I was brought up. My parents are both architects. They’ve always loved classical music. They lived in Europe before they had kids so they had all of those influences which they then brought back to South Africa. They were also brought up in classical homes where they listened to a lot of good, quality music. I kind of fell in love with theatre as a child, just being part of youth choirs and things. I remember my first memory of really falling in love with theatre and the smell of theatre and the way that the lights fall on your face, I was about 10 years old and was part of the Pretoria Children’s Choir. We were doing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the ballet company in The State Theatre on that big opera stage. That is my first memory of standing there going, “This is it.”
When did you realize that you could sing?
It was always something that I did. It wasn’t a realisation. It’s as with the love of theatre, and being an artist, it was just kind of what I did. It wasn’t ever a question of whether I would pursue singing as a potential career, it was just kind of the path. It was just there.
A lot of people have the ability to sing, but how did you know you were any good?
You don’t. That’s the thing. I think that’s the tricky thing of being a singer or choosing singing as a career. It’s the same with photography. Everyone thinks they can be a photographer and everyone can but there are levels of being a singer or a photographer or an actor. Anyone can act. I truly believe that anyone can act and sing and take photographs but there is a point in your own development as a young child and then as a young adult where you go, “Oh hang on, the audience actually felt something.” You become aware of the other side. Once again, I don’t think it’s a clear-cut thing. I think it’s part of the journey and also obviously people along the way will tell you, “Oh yes, you are doing it right.” I had a lot of amazing guidance as a young singer. In matric I was asked to join The State Theatre Opera Choir which was a lot of fun and it was amazing. Someone there said to me, “Listen, you have to go and study with the best singing teacher in the country. She lives in Stellenbosch and you need to get there.” You kind of take that advice and then you start thinking about how you are going to do it and hopefully you land up there and if you do, I suppose, the journey continues.
What was it about Calling Us Home that made you want to be involved?
I think, firstly, the way that Alice [Gillham] sold it to me. She asked me to pitch as director. She played me the music and that was completely a trump card. I was completely taken aback. I work with a lot of new music and composers who write new works for theatre and this was just as good as anything I’ve ever heard but with a very special international flavour. It sounded like something I would walk in on in a Broadway show. The quality was just so phenomenal and it really just moved me. I read the story and the story also really moved me. And then my mind just started exploding with ideas. It was just quite inspiring. Also, I think the fact that Alice wrote the story, the lyrics and the music. That is quite special. That doesn’t happen often. It’s usually a collaboration. That for me was quite significant as well.
I feel like there is a lot of secrecy around the actual plot of the musical. What can audiences expect?
There is no secrecy about the story that I know of….anymore… but I think it’s nice to have a couple of secrets. The audience can expect the unexpected. It’s a story that we all know. It’s lost love, lost home, people being uprooted, forced migration which I think is a huge topic at the moment. Globally it is such a problem in society. And also, this feeling of being an outsider. It keeps coming up. With the current presidency in America and in countries like Zimbabwe where you’ve got these absolute tyrants who are only fending for themselves. There are a lot of very current themes which for me is very interesting thematically and narratively. Visually, this is groundbreaking in South Africa. I am quite nervous about it. Because we are working with a lot of animation and video mapping, timing is going to be absolutely critical. That is why we are starting with the process of finding choreography early on in the process. The cast is learning the music very early on in the process so that once we get to the rehearsal room we can really start tweaking. I think the audience is going to see a very polished, well-timed product that is basically just going to blow their minds.
How do you feel your career as a performer influences your directing?
I think the two go hand in hand. Since I was a little girl, I have always felt like a director because I was always putting on shows and telling people what to do. In my career as a performer, I have worked with a huge spectrum of different kinds of directors. It was always interesting to have that. Just seeing how different directors do it, that was, for me as a performer, quite a valuable thing going into directing a couple of years ago. From the other side I would say that working with singers, especially with singers and with singing actors, I think that I understand the instrument. As a performer, I have pushed myself purposefully to find the very edge of where you can sing, where you can act with your voice, where you can act with your body while singing and making a sustained sound. I’ve really explored that in detail and I think that is very valuable for me to guide other performers in the end, especially in something like musical theatre where you are moving, singing and acting quite extensively.
From the musicals that I’ve seen recently there doesn’t seem to be many women directing them. I’m not sure what the case is with opera…
It’s not different in opera. There are even fewer female directors in opera in South Africa. There are a couple of female directors in Afrikaans musicals but yes, it is very much a male dominated world. For me, that is very exciting because our team on Calling Us Home somehow became really female. It’s been a really interesting process because I’ve been involved in a lot of new productions, I feel very comfortable in putting on a new production from scratch. It’s been a very calm process. One would think if all these women start working together, it is going to be very chaotic but it’s been really lovely. It’s been a very kind-hearted process. A lot of the production team are female. The males on there are also amazing but it’s just been a very kind process. What’s been really lovely is that I think the cast [and] everyone who auditioned for us, felt that.
I feel like I’ll get shouted at if I don’t ask you about Phantom. What was it like to be involved in that? Was it always a dream role?
Actually not at all. It’s weird. As a performer, I really didn’t have any dream roles other than one operatic role which I did get to do which is Lucia di Lammermoor just because there is a lot of blood and she stabs herself. I got the role of Christine when I was kind of just doing any audition that I could because I didn’t have work. Then I got it and everyone started making a fuss and I was like, “Whatever.” Then I got to rehearsals and I was like, “Oh fuck.” I grew to love the role and I grew to love Andrew Lloyd Webber and the production. I am really fond of it and now in hindsight, it really is a dream role. It was a very strange process because throughout my career, I was always involved with new works. It was quite strange for me to be bound by a blueprint production where you are told, “This is your light, you have to stand there. You have to only turn 34.5 degrees that way otherwise you are out of your light.” That was quite tough for me. In a production like that there is no leeway. You are the character. You really follow the handbook. It is also quite comforting because you don’t have to think too much. You just have to do and then in doing, you have to find everything but there is no discussion with the director, “So what do you think about this character? Let’s find and explore.” There is none of that. It was really strange but also very interesting.
As the founder of Biblioteek Productions, what can you tell us about it?
I started Biblioteek Productions in 2010 just because I have always had this library of ideas in my head. It is just the way that my brain works, once again new productions are my thing. From early high school, I would think up these shows. I have notebooks like a library. I needed to create a platform where I could start putting the stuff out and actually making it happen on a larger scale than how it was happening before which was more underground vibes. I just created it, the name came to me and I just decided to enter new four shows into a festival, as one does. In the first year, three of those got accepted and I was like, “Wow, someone gave me money!” Because I had been collaborating with so many young composers, I started creating this platform where we [would] just write new shows. With the little 2 cents that we get, we do whatever we can. It’s just passion. It started growing and creating some traction and ended up with a rather large, full-scale opera. It grew exponentially and it is really cool. There is no money in the arts at the moment. It is quite disastrous actually which makes Calling Us Home even more exciting because people are actually buying into it. It’s funded largely by private investors. If you love the arts, and you have R10 extra, just give it. That is how we bring new works to the stage.
Yet it’s so unusual that the talent level seems to be increasing while the amount of funding is decreasing.
It’s tragic because I feel like our talent in South Africa is just getting exponentially better. It’s like almost every year, everyone is getting better and better. It’s the weirdest thing and the money is just getting less and less. I’ve completely stopped doing arts festivals because in the end the producers are the ones that get screwed and who are left with the bill at the end after everyone has enjoyed the festival. I feel like the arts festivals are a bit broken at the moment. That is perhaps because our economy is broken and the government is not doing much for the arts. I feel like I need to stand on my little soap box and say this out loud because I really think the arts are heading for a massive crisis. In the past we would be assigned a certain amount of money, it was never a huge amount of money but you could do something with it. Since 2014, that just stopped. Everything at the arts festivals are running at door deals which means when you want to put on a new production, which is how the arts resuscitate and keep going, you have to pay out of your pocket.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
I think I am most proud of not conforming too much and not ever selling out. I had a hell of a lot of people who wanted me to go in the line of classical crossover music. I suppose I’m very stubborn and I think that has been a very good thing. I didn’t take too much career guidance from anyone. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’m not good enough or that I’ll fail or that this is the wrong decision and I’ve just kind of gone, “Whatever. I’m doing it my way whether you like it or not. See you on the other side.” I’ve also made some stupid decisions in my career but mostly I think my hardheadedness was a good thing.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Definitely Alice Gillham for her brilliant writing of this musical. Zolani Mahola. I really love that chick. She is amazing. I’ve known her from when she studied drama and we did some weird shows together. She is a phenomenal actress, she is a phenomenal singer [and] she can sing opera! She is also fearless. That for me is really important. Tara Notcutt! I love her work. I think she is so inspiring. I hope that one day I can be as good a director as she is. Ina Wichterich is an absolutely phenomenal choreographer. I’ve known her for quite some time now and she is just a networker. She convinced me to use Shaun [Oelf] and Grant [van Ster] as my choreographer and assistant director, respectively. She just has this knack of choreographing theatre and choreographing opera which is not something that a lot of choreographers can do.
You can follow Magdalene on Twitter.
All photos were taken by Sophie Kirsch, on May 7th 2017 at Artscape Theatre.