Julie Cohen and Kamal Khan met in elementary school in Fairfax County about 40 years ago. Today, Cohen, 49, is the Brooklyn-based founder of BetterThanFiction Productions, a documentary film company; Khan is the director of the University of Cape Town Opera School. “I Live to Sing,” a feature-length documentary directed and produced by Cohen, focuses on three of Khan’s black students who made their way from humble beginnings in often poverty-ridden townships to excel in opera — an art form most closely associated with white, elite audiences and performers.
“I Live to Sing” was shown Wednessday during the World Music and Independent Film Festival in Washington; it is a finalist for Best Feature Documentary in Music and Best Screenplay. The awards will be handed out at a gala Saturday night. What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation between Cohen and The Post’s Eva Rodriguez, who met in the 1990s when both worked for Legal Times and Court TV.
It was just the fortuitous situation of knowing Kamal Khan. I met Kamal in third grade at Pine Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax County. He was unusual in that even at age 9 his prime interests seemed to be opera, classical music, Shakespeare. These are interests that when you’re 40 and living in New York are not so strange! He became James Levine’s assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and he still now does a lot of conducting internationally, although his home base is at the University of Cape Town. In the meantime I started doing several documentaries about the human side behind the performing arts. Knowing what Kamal was up to I realized that his fascinating work — from an artistic, political and social context — was just the sort of thing I was interested in making films about.
We’re all so steeped in the relatively small circle of people who become really famous or really big deals. But it’s also, I think, wonderful to see the work of and hear the life stories of the majority of performing artists who are toiling away, many of whom are supremely talented, but the world doesn’t necessarily get to know.
Thesele Kemane [a bass baritone] came to Cape Town from a relatively small township in the northern part of the country. Thesele’s dad worked as a janitor at Standard Bank for several decades and was a ground-level, grass-roots anti-apartheid activist for many, many years. He was not Nelson Mandela. He was not Desmond Tutu. But he was part of the very large number of South Africans who became actively involved in civil disobedience and the anti-apartheid movement.
Thesele developed an interest in music through a community choir. The community choirs in South Africa are a really, really big deal. They have national competitions where choirs are competing again each other for prizes. His parents were happy, like “Oh, he’s a great singer. That’s terrific.” But much to their chagrin, he decided that this is what he wanted to do professionally.
Linda Nteleza comes from a huge township adjacent to Cape Town that has a lot of problems — poverty, health-care issues, education issues, huge unemployment. I believe it has the fastest-growing rate of tuberculosis in the world, and Linda has suffered from the consequences of that. Linda learned to sing in school and then followed by her work in community choir, and through the teachers and coaches learned about University of Cape Town and its music program. She lived only [a] half-hour from the university but hadn’t been aware that music was something that was out there. She was encouraged to go and apply. I think she didn’t expect to get it, but to her joy and amazement she did.
Makudupanyane Senaoana grew up in a number of different places. He’s younger than the other two characters; he was 20 years old when we were filming last year. He was not a community choir singer. He is an extremely affable and extremely sociable young man. Unlike the other two singers that we followed, he’s very interested in politics. [Makudu, as he’s called, performed a solo for President Obama during his recent trip to Africa.]
When Linda told her mother that “I want to go to college to study opera,” her mother’s immediate response was, “What’s opera?” It wasn’t that she wasn’t well-versed in the art form; she didn’t know what it was. Linda herself had first heard opera in a TV commercial for Shell Oil that had a beautiful soprano opera singer as background music and she was completely entranced, like, “That’s what I want to sing.”
In a way, being a young person whose big interest is classical music separates these kids of all races from their peers of all races who are saying like, “Why do you want to study opera? Why don’t you sing pop music, then you could be a superstar right away?” Some of the black students mentioned that their friends who called them “coconuts” — which is their slang equivalent for “Oreo” — wonder why a black person would be interested in opera. And while the white students didn’t have that experience, a lot of them said that the friends didn’t understand.
In this case, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has been a huge supporter of the opera program at UCT, was our lead sponsor. And we also got backing from deeply committed New York art lovers Jody and John Arnhold and the Friends of Thirteen/Dorothy Pacella Fund. United Nations Television signed on as a co-producer. And keep in mind, the film was produced for less than $180,000.
[Laughs] I . . . must . . . confess that I was not only not an opera fan, but really almost actively probably disliked opera before this project. That’s actually not something that I mentioned to Kamal when I was pitching the idea of “Can I follow your program around? Can I bring cameras to your school?” [Laughs] . . . But as often when you delve into different art forms, particularly classical art forms that you are ignorant of, the more you get to know it, the better it starts to sound.