Saying Farewell to George Stevens – August 2018
George Stevens, Baritone
* 20 November 1966, Cape Town, South Africa
† 11 August 2018, Cape Town, South Africa
Cecil George Stevens, known professionally as George Stevens, enjoyed an international career as an opera singer, making his professional debut in South Africa in 1992, and in Europe in 1994.
At the time of this death in a city hospital following an operation, Stevens was the acting director of the Opera School at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town (UCT). He was 51. Known for his versatility in traditional and contemporary repertoire, Stevens was comfortable in performing classical masses, oratorios and operas, deploying his vocal and theatrical talents to great effect on stage when interpreting roles.
George Stevens had a rich and supple voice that enabled him to excel in bel canto and verismo repertoire. He was admired for his interpretive insights and exceptional control and was considered by some European critics as one of the finest Verdi singers of his time. They appreciated his elegant and expressive phrasing, velvety tone, musical intelligence and acting qualities. He excelled in long, lyrical lines, and was also valued for being prepared to perform smaller roles.
But an illustrious career that took him from the local opera houses to those in Europe did not happen overnight. He overcame many professional and personal challenges, including health, to build the substantial career he enjoyed at the end of this life.
The second eldest of five children, Stevens grew up in a musical family in Heathfield on the Cape Flats. His one brother, Paul Stevens, remembers: ‘He was enthusiastic about theatre and music from a young age, and took part in the school plays at Heathfield Primary. […] George was interested in all kinds of music! He then found his passion, classical music and opera. His first classical performance was the bass role in the Mozart Requiem with Vetta Wise’. His sister Crystal Stevens says their mother, Lydia, was the biggest influence on George: ‘Mom sang in the Eoan Group and the church choir, often as a soloist. They had a special bond. When overseas, George would play her some music over the phone. She would sing the soprano part, and he the baritone or bass part’. She also relates how George played the flute and trumpet and how he taught their brothers how to play.
After being discovered in a New Apostolic Church choir, Stevens started private singing lessons with Professor Nellie du Toit. In 1992 he became a member of CAPAB, singing the title role of Selim in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia. His debut was broadcast live in South Africa. In 1993 Stevens studied with Kammersänger Wicus Slabbert in Vienna and in 1994 continued his studies with Professor Josef Metternich in Munich. There he was chosen for the final concert by Bayerische Theaterakademie and made his European debut at the Bayerische Staatstheater to critical acclaim.
Over a number of year Stevens worked as guest soloist in Europe and South Africa, where he performed the entire classical repertoire in his fach (a system of classifying singers according to the range, weight and colour of their voices).
From 1998 to 2006, Stevens became a principal soloist as an Italian baritone of the Theater Bremen in Germany, performing roles such as Figaro in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen, Mefistofeles in Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, Frank in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, Demetrius in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Lescaut in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Figaro in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Wolfram von Eschenbach in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. He also distinguished himself in modern repertoire. In recognition of his talents, the Theater Bremen awarded him the Kurt-Hübner Prize for ‘most convincing singer and actor with extraordinary stage presence’.
In the Verdi repertoire Stevens sang the title role in Rigoletto and performed parts such as Il Conte di Luna in Trovatore, Don Carlo di Vargas in La Forza del Destino, Iago in Otello and Simone in Simone Boccanegra. He also sang in Verdi’s Requiem under the direction of Sir David Wilcox with the London Bach Choir.
Launching his international freelance solo career in 2007, Stevens was often booked three seasons in advance. Invitations took Stevens to, amongst others, Opera Festival in Macerata, Rome, Staatstheater Braunschweig, Saarländisches Staatstheater Saarbrücken and Royal Opera Copenhagen, Moscow, Vienna, Stuttgart, Berlin, Portugal and Norway. In February 2014, Stevens returned to South Africa permanently and took up the post of senior lecturer at the UCT Opera School. George had a very inclusive vision for the future of opera. He celebrated everybody’s successes, no matter how small. As a teacher he always wanted his students to be the best versions of themselves. In October 2016 he became acting director of the UCT Opera School.
Stevens was also a philanthropist, involving himself in various cultural and community initiatives. These included sponsoring local Klopse and Christmas bands to go on trips and taking church congregations on outings to have coffee or lunch at leading venues in Cape Town. At the time of his death, he was planning a feeding scheme for underprivileged children. To continue Stevens work, his wife Zoë created the George Stevens Opera Grant to support South African students.
Michael Arendse is a board member of the National Arts Council of South Africa.
Some information incorporated in the two above obituaries was obtained from Tertia Visser-Downie and Patrick Tikolo.
It has been my privilege to know George as a friend, co-worker and fellow New Apostolic Christian for over three decades. We met as teenagers; I was the choir-conductor in our Heathfield congregation, and he was a choir member. I recall his very first solo in church: God is love. From the start, it was evident that he had a special gift: a naturally beautiful baritone voice combined with great musicality. George also sang in our voluntary youth choir, where we performed, among others, oratorio excerpts. Here we collaborated as soloist and conductor, and he had his first opportunities to perform arias from these great works. Together, we would listen to recordings of leading international soloists and conductors, as benchmarks for our work together. In one concert I accompanied him on the organ as he sang Rolling in foaming billows from Haydn’s Creation. Then already, at age 19, he brought a sense of uncompromising artistry and thorough preparation to his performances. He adhered to this standard that he set for himself, throughout his career.
George was not content to rely on natural talent alone. He undertook voice training and studies over many years, and finely honed his instrument and his craft as an opera and concert performer. Besides his excellent voice and musical sensitivity, he also possessed a dramatic flair which added to his all-round ability as a performer. His work and studies took him to Europe for many years, but even after returning to Cape Town, he told me, shortly before his passing, that he wanted to take voice lessons again. He lamented the desire for quick success among some young singers, and as teacher placed great emphasis on the ethic of hard work and commitment to life-long learning.
George never lost his love for his musical roots in the church. He loved the simplicity and spirituality of music in worship, and in church concerts and recordings. In 1991 he sang as choir member and soloist on the first CD of the New Apostolic Church in Cape Town, Redeem the time. He continued to perform in our concerts over the years, and even while living in Europe, would make himself available when visiting Cape Town. He was always happy to coach and encourage young soloists in the church, many of whom regarded him as a role model. He had a fine ear and feel for choral music too, even though he did not feel drawn to conducting choirs. As a youth he played the flute and trumpet in our church
orchestras, and in later years would still participate as an instrumentalist in his local congregation. In 2017 he made his last recording as soloist on our CD Sing Hom ‘n loflied.
As a person and friend, George was vibrant, outgoing, warm, humorous, caring, loyal and outspoken. He loved life, and he loved people of all backgrounds, and could literally engage with anyone. He disliked pretentiousness and snobbishness, and made it known when he encountered it. He was a raconteur with a knack for imitating people, and always had a new joke to tell.
George treasured his Christian faith and New Apostolic upbringing throughout his life, and valued the word of God. He happily participated in congregational life, and sang in the congregation choir until his passing. George is deeply missed, but as believers we look forward to being reunited by grace in God’s kingdom.
Former Music Manager, NAC SA
George Stevens had a glorious send-off from the magnificent New Apostolic Church Auditorium in Silvertown. The Philharmonic Orchestra & massive choir started a hour before the official service and I just drank in all that music excellence performed in German precision! A real taste of heaven! Why on earth all the churches don’t have orchestras and choirs is beyond my understanding when the Bible is so clear!
George, an exceptionally gifted singer and musician died suddenly on 11 Aug at the age of 52. The Priest said that “life in George was a gift.” He sang his first solo in the church at age 15 and went on to perform before audiences around the globe, especially in Europe. I wondered what the preacher was going to say at such a sad time. He read Psalm 63:3 “Because Thy loving-kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee.” How fitting and comforting, when life is interrupted so suddenly and a loved one is wrenched away. The Priest told how George lived out the verse serving God and he certainly praised God with his lips singing in the House of the Lord and playing the horn, trumpet and flute.
I’ve never cried throughout a funeral as I did today. And so did the woman, who was sitting next to me. She’s a fundraiser for UCT’s College of Music, where George worked. The closing hymn was “Come ye that love the Lord” accompanied by the full orchestra the pipe organ with its 75 pipes and sung by the huge choir and the audience which must have been around 1 000.
Can you even imagine the sound, glory and splendour of it all. I tried my best to sing this ancient, beautiful hymn, but got all choked up at times. The Refrain is: We journey to Zion, beautiful, glorious Zion! Yes, heavenward go we to Zion, the glorious city of God!” As my sister will say, when you cry so much: “it was a good funeral”
Joanna Flanders Thomas
George Stevens was the very first person I met at Theater Bremen.
On my very first day ever of rehearsals he was hanging out of the Pfoertner’s window smoking a cigarette when I rode my bike up to the back entrance.
He watched me struggle with the bike lock from the window.
—You can leave your bike with me, darling. Though you’ll have to tell me your name.
I blushed because I didn’t know him yet, hadn’t yet been introduced to his trademark blend of outrageous cheek and warmth.
I didn’t know yet how in this gloomy-weathered northern town he was basically the theatre’s official ray of sunshine. I didn’t know how he flirted with the entire world.
Later when we did Don Giovanni together his daily hugs were by far the best part of that rehearsal process.
Because he gave the best hugs. We are talking Olympic level gold champion hugs.
I was sad a lot in those days but George had this ability to make me laugh when it took a Herculean effort to get even the tiniest of smiles out of me.
This experience wasn’t special to me, though.
George made everyone slightly happier then they just were 5 minutes ago.
His love for people was as big and cushy and comfy as those trademark bear hugs.
He loved older people, younger people, babies, men, women, people who didn’t quite fit in and people who were the epitome of north german comme-il-faut. The man freaking loved people.
He took a lot of time each morning to bestow those sunshiney bear hugs and real authentic greetings to absolutely everyone in that opera house—the folks in the administration, the assistants, the costume folks, the maintenance people, all of the singers, all of the young artists, the conductor—he seemed to never forget anyone.
He did not see hierarchy.
His singing and stage presence were irresistible because they were infused with a warmth and beauty that you cannot teach.
I miss him and am heartbroken and shocked and confused that he left.
Rest in cheeky humor darling George Stevens.
Rest in shameless flirtation with the angels.
Rest in love.
Baruch Dayan Ha’emet.
„Some years ago, I had the great pleasure to get to know George Stevens while in Cape Town in search for opera singers to our Strauss Concerts in Helsinki in Finland. I was immediately amazed by his sincere desire to help young artists pursue an international career.
George himself was a superb international opera singer with a fabulous charisma and charm. I was able to get him to perform at the Strauss Concert in the Finlandia Hall in 2017. The audience fell madly in love with George not only because of his beautiful bari-tone voice, but also because of his enormous warmth and stage presence. George was supposed to perform again in Helsinki when we got the incomprehensible news about his passing.
On a personal level I lost a fine, humane and humoristic friend.“
Lagus Productions Oy Ab Ltd.
Dearest George –
You will always have a very special place in my heart – from that time many years ago when you crept unknown and uninvited into one of my choral rehearsal at the College of Music. At the end I confronted you and asked who you were in a not very friendly way. When you said ‘I heard your practices were such fun’ it was the beginning of a very special life-long friendship.
What a wonderful personal and musical journey we made together – over so many, many happy years . I was privileged to conduct memorable performances where you sang in so many great choral works, oratorios, masses and lieder when I accompanied you on the piano. So many were first for us both and so we discovered the finest music together.
For that I shall always be grateful.
How fitting that the last time we worked together was a performance of the greatest piece of music ever composed – Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ with you singing in that ecstatic aria – ‘Mache dich, mein Herze rein’ –
Everlasting love from Barry – ‘Ruhe sanft’.
George Stevens was a wonderful friend and colleague of mine here in Cape Town on the opera stage and at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town! He embraced his roles and teaching responsibilities equally with full energy and enthusiasm! His love for life and people was enthralling! He made everyone feel special, always showing warmth, affection, encouragement and respect for others’ individuality and abilities!
When I was retired by the university due to compulsory employment termination at age 65, George was recruited and chosen as my successor; what a happy, fortunate appointment his was! He embraced it whole-heartedly! He never hesitated to seek advice when he recognized he could learn from others! Although an outstanding singer in his own right, George remained humble when it came to sourcing knowledge from those of us who, through years of experience, were more adept at teaching and better-versed in the academic world!
Arrogance was anathema to George! His disposition was remarkable! He was always able to keep a sense of humor about sometimes even quite difficult situations. To know him was to love him!
His absence is painful, yet how grateful we are that his spirit remains so powerfully in our presence!
Thank you and much love to you, dear George!
Dr Brad Liebl
Associate-Professor Emeritus, South African College of Music, University of Cape Town 10 November 2019
Rede Dr. Ralf Waldschmidt
Nadine Lehner : Killian Farrell : Guido Gallmann Moderation
Ines Köhler : Killian Farrell
Adagio aus dem Streichquintett von Anton Bruckner
Quintett Bremer Philharmoniker