Resplendent in tux and white tie, Thesele Kemane takes the stage at the United Nations General Assembly, rendering an elegant performance of a selection from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The occasion is momentous: Kemane is at the U.N.’s New York headquarters in July 2012 to mark Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday. The honor is especially significant for the young South African bass baritone: Just a few decades ago, apartheid would have stopped his journey to stardom.
Kemane’s performance is one of the life-changing moments depicted in Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing, which opens the American Documentary Film Festival (AmDocs) in Palm Springs on March 27. Kemane and his co-stars, soprano Linda Nteleza and tenor Makudupanyane Senaoana — students at the University of Cape Town’s once all-white opera school — will sing live at the opening night gala at Camelot Theatres following the screening. The film’s Emmy-winning director, Julie Cohen, will also be on hand for a Q&A and to introduce the singers.
The film encompasses the “struggle and promise embodied in an enormously talented group of classical singers from the nation’s black townships,” according to its synopsis. “After the end of apartheid, the school opened its doors to black students, many of whom had learned opera in competitive community choirs in the townships, others there inspired by television advertisements. The wave of gifted singers who came to audition awed faculty members. The school, now comprising two-thirds blacks and mixed-race students, is achieving greater success than ever, propelling students to world opera stages, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York and La Scala in Milan.”
“I think that this is an important work, given the changing times,” says the festival’s director, Ted Grouya. “While apartheid only just ended in 1989, that is really not that long ago. When society becomes more equitable and open, people become socially enculturated and the world becomes enriched and more mature.
“When you view a film like this and realize that not long ago a black South African could not even walk on the sidewalks that whites walked on, you realize that the world is changing for the better when anyone can pursue their dreams of becoming a world-class opera singer,” he says. “So, in essence, this film is a metaphor for something bigger than film or opera — an opportunity for all.”
VIDEO: See the trailer for Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing.
The New York–based Cohen says she is happy to be returning to the desert for the premiere: “I love Palm Springs!” Her film The Unforgettable Hampton Family, about renowned musical performers, screened at the Palm Springs International ShortFest in 2011. While Cohen’s previous work also focused on the lives of performing artists, the opportunity to document the young opera students’ journey was fate.
“Coincidentally, [Kamal Khan], a guy I had known from elementary school, had gone to Cape Town to be the director of the opera program,” she says. “[And in 2011], when I finished a film on Cuban dancers, it occurred to me that these opera singers would make a really compelling story.”
As it happened, some of the young singers were coming to New York in the summer of 2012 to participate in the renowned opera-centric Glimmerglass Festival, and Cohen was able to begin filming. The filmmakers traveled to South Africa twice to capture the students’ experiences, which ranged from financial hardship, family objections, and health struggles to their performances at Cape Town’s Opera Hall.
“These are not just ordinary young people,” she says. “These are students at the finest university in South Africa. They’re amazing, and they are very different from one another. What I think people are unprepared for is how phenomenally talented they are — by any standard.” Cohen says that Kemane, for example, is weighing an offer to attend the prestigious Juilliard School this fall.
The singers are “extremely excited” to be visiting Palm Springs, she says. The trio will also perform throughout the week at other Coachella Valley venues.
“Julie Cohen does a terrific job of balancing the world the singers live in with the world of the arts,” Grouya says. “We are proud to be showcasing this film and to host the stars at our AmDocs 2014 event.”
Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing, along with the short Gloria Victoria, screen Thursday, March 27, at the American Documentary Film Festival’s opening night gala. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres begin at 5:30 p.m.; films start at 7 p.m. The festival runs March 27–31 at Camelot Theatres, the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, and the Indian Wells Theater. For more information, call 760-322-3689 or 888-718-4253, or visit www.americandocumentaryfilmfestival.com.