Opera star lights the way for new SA talent

World renowned opera singer Wendy Fine, of Rondebosch, has received a lifetime achievement award from the provincial government for her contribution to the arts.

International opera star Wendy Fine has performed with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, she has graced some of the world’s most famous stages, sung for Queen Elizabeth II and basked in thunderous applause from adoring audiences. She is also a Rondebosch resident.

Wendy’s debut as Madama Butterfly in Switzerland in 1965 made her an overnight sensation.

She became the first South African to be invited by Claudio Abbado, one of the most celebrated conductors of the 20th century, to sing at La Scala Opera House, in Milan. She later went on to perform at the Royal Opera House, in London, for 10 years running and was invited to sing the lead role in Janácek’s opera Jenufa for Queen Elizabeth II at her Silver Jubilee in 1977.

“Back then it was all or nothing, and it led to my success. I was as fine an actress as I was a singer, and it made my career worthwhile,” says Wendy.

“My voice was recognised very early on at age 12, and I started singing at age 14. At the age of 18, my parents sent me to the Music Academy of Vienna.

“I then moved to Germany, where I was heard by a worldwide agent who took me under his wing and led me to become world famous,” she says with a chuckle.

Off the stage she has battled with bipolar disorder, but found ways to channel its debilitating highs and lows into her performance.

The retired soprano now, 78, lives a humble life in Rondebosch and devotes a lot of energy to training young singers in her Claremont music studio to reach their potential.

Although she has lived a life outside of the limelight since the 1980s, the provincial government gave her a curtain call on Saturday September 2 when it gave her a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to the arts.

She was also honoured for nurturing singers and finding talent in informal settlements at the time and and taking them to the international stage.

Wendy discovered international star Fikile Mvinjelwa, who went on to study at UCT, before he began to perform internationally and eventually settled at New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera.

James Bhemgee, the street sweeper who went on to win the SA’s Got Talent competition, is another of Wendy’s students as is George Stevens, head of singing at UCT’s College of Music.

Right now she is working on creating an opera competition with Artscape just for sopranos.

The first opera competition she hosted in Cape Town, The Wendy Fine Opera Competition, ran for 10 years from 1990 and gave many singers the chance to audition abroad. .

Sitting opposite the fireplace in her Rondebosch home, Wendy’s blue eye’s light up as she tells of how she ventured into church choirs in informal settlements in the 1980s to find voices to nurture.

“The greatest singers in the world come from our country and the greatest choirs. Singers have huge chances now to perform in our own theatres, and, when given the chance to do so, they’re highly successful. Because of their great talent they find themselves overseas.”

Asked if she misses singing, she sighs heavily and is silent for a while as if listening to echoes of applause from concerts long past. Then her eyes fill with tears.

“I wish that I could go on forever… I sang for 25 years. It was my life.”

But then she laughs through the tears. “You have to know when to stop singing because you don’t want to sound like an old worn-out lawnmower.

“If you love something so much and you’ve been so loved by an audience… it’s difficult,” she says, clutching her hands.

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