Metropolitan Opera Archives

Renata Tebaldi in the title role of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, 
Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1958

It is a Saturday afternoon in winter, ritual time for the game of rugby. With his father he catches a train to Newlands in time for the 2:15 curtain-raiser. The curtain-raiser will be followed at 4:00 by the main match. After the main match they will catch a train home again.

He goes with his father to Newlands because sport—rugby in winter, cricket in summer—is the strongest surviving bond between them, and because it went through his heart like a knife, the first Saturday after his return to the country, to see his father put on his coat and without a word go off to Newlands like a lonely child.

His father has no friends. Nor has he, though for a different reason. He had friends when he was younger; but these old friends are by now dispersed all over the world, and he seems to have lost the knack, or perhaps the will, to make new ones. So he is cast back on his father, as his father is cast back on him. As they live together, so on Saturdays they take their pleasure together. That is the law of the family.

It surprised him, when he came back, to discover that his father knew no one. He had always thought of his father as a convivial man. But either he was wrong about that or his father has changed. Or perhaps it is simply one of the things that happen to men as they grow older: they withdraw into themselves. On Saturdays the stands at Newlands are full of them, solitary men in gray gabardine raincoats in the twilight of their lives, keeping to themselves as if their loneliness were a shameful disease.

He and his father sit side by side in the north stand, watching the curtain-raiser. Over the day’s proceedings hangs an air of melancholy. This is the last season when the stadium will be used for club rugby. With the belated arrival of television in the country, interest in club rugby has dwindled away. Men who used to spend their Saturday afternoons at Newlands now prefer to stay at home and watch the game of the week. Of the thousands of seats in the north stand no more than a dozen are occupied. The railway stand is entirely empty. In the south stand there is still a bloc of die-hard Colored spectators who come to cheer for UCT and Villagers and boo Stellenbosch and Van der Stel. Only the grandstand holds a respectable number, perhaps a thousand.

A quarter of a century ago, when he was a child, it was different. On a big day in the club competition—the day when Hamiltons played Villagers, say, or UCT played Stellenbosch—one would struggle to find standing room. Within an hour of the final whistle Argus vans would be racing through the streets dropping off bundles of the sports edition for the vendors on the street corners, with eyewitness accounts of all the first-league games, even the games played in far-off Stellenbosch and Somerset West, together with scores from the lesser leagues, 2A and 2B, 3A and 3B.

Those days are gone. Club rugby is on its last legs. One can sense it today not just in the stands but on the field itself. Depressed by the booming space of the empty stadium, the players seem merely to be going through the motions. A ritual is dying out before their eyes, an authentic petit-bourgeois South African ritual. Its last devotees are gathered here today: sad old men like his father; dull, dutiful sons like himself.

A light rain begins to fall. Over the two of them he raises an umbrella. On the field thirty halfhearted young men blunder about, groping for the wet ball.

The curtain-raiser is between Union, in sky-blue, and Gardens, in maroon and black. Union and Gardens are at the bottom of the first-league table and in danger of relegation to the second league. It used not to be like that. Once upon a time Gardens was a force in Western Province rugby. At home there is a framed photograph of the Gardens third team as it was in 1938, with his father seated in the front row in his freshly laundered hooped jersey with its Gardens crest and its collar turned up fashionably around his ears. But for certain unforeseen events, World War II in particular, his father might even—who knows?—have made it onto the second team.

If old allegiances counted, his father would cheer for Gardens over Union. But the truth is, his father does not care who wins, Gardens or Union or the man in the moon. In fact he finds it hard to detect what his father cares about, in rugby or anything else. If he could solve the mystery of what in the world his father wants, he might perhaps be a better son.


The whole of his father’s family is like that—without any passion that he can put a finger on. They do not even seem to care about money. All they want is to get along with everyone and have a bit of a laugh in the process.

In the laughing department he is the last companion his father needs. In laughing he comes bottom of the class. A gloomy fellow: that must be how the world sees him, when it sees him at all. A gloomy fellow; a wet blanket; a stick in the mud.

And then there is the matter of his father’s music. After Mussolini capitulated in 1944 and the Germans were driven north, the Allied troops occupying Italy, including the South Africans, were allowed to relax briefly and enjoy themselves. Among the recreations mounted for them were free performances in the big opera houses. Young men from America, Britain, and the farflung British dominions across the seas, wholly innocent of Italian opera, were plunged into the drama of Tosca or The Barber of Seville or Lucia di Lammermoor. Only a handful took to it, but his father was among that handful. Brought up on sentimental Irish and English ballads, he was entranced by the lush new music and overwhelmed by the spectacle. Day after day he went back for more.

So when Corporal Coetzee returned to South Africa at the end of hostilities, it was with a newfound passion for opera. “La donna è mobile,” he would sing in the bath. “Figaro here, Figaro there,” he would sing, “Figaro, Figaro, Feeegaro! ” He went out and bought a gramophone, their family’s first; over and over again he would play a 78 rpm recording of Caruso singing “Your tiny hand is frozen.” When long-playing records were invented he acquired a new and better gramophone, together with an album of Renata Tebaldi singing well-loved arias.

Thus in his adolescent years there were two schools of vocal music at war with each other in the house: an Italian school, his father’s, manifested by Tebaldi and Tito Gobbi in full cry; and a German school, his own, founded on Bach. All of Sunday afternoon the household would drown in choruses from the B-Minor Mass; then in the evenings, with Bach at last silenced, his father would pour himself a glass of brandy, put on Renata Tebaldi, and sit down to listen to real melodies, real singing.

For its sensuality and decadence—that was how, at the age of sixteen, he saw it—he resolved he would forever hate and despise Italian opera. That he might despise it simply because his father loved it, that he would have resolved to hate and despise anything in the world that his father loved, was a possibility he would not admit.

One day, while no one was around, he took the Tebaldi record out of its sleeve and with a razor blade drew a deep score across its surface.

On Sunday evening his father put on the record. With each revolution the needle jumped. “Who has done this?” he demanded. But no one, it seemed, had done it. It had just happened.

Thus ended Tebaldi; now Bach could reign unchallenged.

For that mean and petty deed of his he has for the past twenty years felt the bitterest remorse, remorse that has not receded with the passage of time but on the contrary grown keener. One of his first actions when he returned to the country was to scour the music shops for the Tebaldi record. Though he failed to find it, he did come upon a compilation in which she sang some of the same arias. He brought it home and played it through from beginning to end, hoping to lure his father out of his room as a hunter might lure a bird with his pipes. But his father showed no interest.

“Don’t you recognize the voice?” he asked.

His father shook his head.

“It’s Renata Tebaldi. Don’t you remember how you used to love Tebaldi in the old days?”

He refused to accept defeat. He continued to hope that one day, when he was out of the house, his father would put the new, unblemished record on the player, pour himself a glass of brandy, sit down in his armchair, and allow himself to be transported to Rome or Milan or wherever it was that as a young man his ears were first opened to the sensual beauties of the human voice. He wanted his father’s breast to swell with that old joy; if only for an hour, he wanted him to relive that lost youth, forget his present crushed and humiliated existence. Above all he wanted his father to forgive him. Forgive me! he wanted to say to his father. Forgive you? Heavens, what is there to forgive? he wanted to hear his father reply. Upon which, if he could summon up the courage, he would at last make full confession: Forgive me for deliberately and with malice aforethought scratching your Tebaldi record. And for more besides, so much more that the recital would take all day. For countless acts of meanness. For the meanness of heart in which those acts originated. In sum, for all I have done since the day I was born, and with such success, to make your life a misery.


But no, there was no indication, not the faintest, that during his absences from the house Tebaldi was being set free to sing. Tebaldi had, it seemed, lost her charms; or else his father was playing a terrible game with him. My life a misery? What makes you think my life has been a misery? What makes you think you have ever had it in your power to make my life a misery?

Intermittently he plays the Tebaldi record for himself; and as he listens the beginnings of some kind of transformation seem to take place inside him. As it must have been with his father in 1944, his heart too begins to throb in time with Mimi’s. As the great rising arc of her voice must have called out his father’s soul, so it now calls out his soul too, urging it to join hers in passionate, soaring flight.


AP Images

A rugby match between the South African Springboks and the British Lions, 
Newlands, Cape Town, 1962

What has been wrong with him all these years? Why has he not been listening to Verdi, to Puccini? Has he been deaf? Or is the truth worse than that: Did he, even as a youth, hear and recognize perfectly well the call of Tebaldi, and then with tight-lipped primness (“I won’t!”) refuse to heed it? Down with Tebaldi, down with Italy, down with the flesh! And if his father must go down too in the general wreck, so be it!

Of what is going on inside his father he has no idea. His father does not talk about himself, does not keep a diary or write letters. Only once, by accident, has the door opened a chink. In the lifestyle supplement to the weekend Argus he has come upon a Yes-No quiz that his father has filled in and left lying around, a quiz titled “Your Personal Satisfaction Index.” Next to the third question—“Have you known many members of the opposite sex?”—his father has ticked the box No. “Have relations with the opposite sex been a source of satisfaction to you?” reads the fourth. No, is the answer again.

Out of a possible twenty, his father scores six. A score of fifteen or above, says the creator of the Index, one Ray Schwarz, MD, Ph.D., author of How to Succeed in Life and Love, a bestselling guide to personal development, means that the respondent has lived a fulfilled life. A score of less than ten, on the other hand, suggests that he or she needs to cultivate a more positive outlook, to which end joining a social club or taking up dancing might be a first step.

His father works as a bookkeeper for a firm that imports and sells components for Japanese cars. Because most of these components are made not in Japan but in Taiwan, South Korea, or even Thailand, they cannot be called authentic parts. On the other hand, because they do not come in forged manufacturers’ packaging but proclaim (in small print) their country of origin, they are not pirate parts either.

The owners of the firm are two brothers, now in late middle age, who speak English with Eastern European inflections and pretend to be innocent of Afrikaans though in fact they were born in Port Elizabeth and understand street Afrikaans perfectly well. They employ a staff of five: three counter hands, a bookkeeper, and a bookkeeper’s assistant. The bookkeeper and his assistant have a little wood and glass cubicle of their own to insulate them from the activities around them. As for the hands, they spend their time bustling back and forth between the counter and the racks of auto parts that stretch into the shadowy recesses of the store. The chief counter hand, Cedric, had been with them from the start. No matter how obscure a part may be—a fan housing for a 1968 Suzuki three-wheeler, a kingpin bush for an Impact five-ton truck—Cedric will know where it is.

Once a year the firm does a stocktaking during which every part bought or sold, down to the last nut and bolt, is accounted for. It is a major undertaking: most dealers would shut their doors for the duration. But Acme Auto Parts has got where it has got, say the brothers, by staying open from eight AM until five PM five days of the week, plus eight AM until one PM on Saturdays, come hell or high water, fifty-two weeks of the year, Christmas and New Year excepted. Therefore the stocktaking has to be done after hours.

As bookkeeper his father is at the center of operations. During the stocktaking he sacrifices his lunch hour and works late into the evening. He works alone, without help: working overtime, and therefore catching a late train home, is something that neither Mrs. Noerdien, his father’s assistant, nor even the counter hands are prepared to do. Riding the trains after dark has become too dangerous, they say: too many commuters are being attacked and robbed. So after closing time it is only the brothers, in their office, and his father, in his cubicle, who stay behind, poring over documents and ledgers.

“If I had Mrs. Noerdien for just one extra hour a day,” says his father, “we could be finished in no time. I could call out the figures and she could check. Doing it by myself is hopeless.”

His father is not a qualified bookkeeper; but during the years he spent running his own legal practice he picked up at least the rudiments. He has been the brothers’ bookkeeper for twelve years, ever since he gave up the law. The brothers, it must be presumed—Cape Town is not a big city—are aware of his checkered past in the legal profession. They are aware of it and therefore—it must be presumed—keep a close watch on him, in case, even so close to retirement, he should think of trying to diddle them.

“If you could bring the ledgers home with you,” he suggests to his father, “I could give you a hand with the checking.”

His father shakes his head, and he can guess why. When his father refers to the ledgers, he does so in hushed tones, as though they were holy books, as though keeping them were a priestly function. There is more to keeping books, his attitude would seem to suggest, than applying elementary arithmetic to columns of figures.

“I don’t think I can bring the ledgers home,” his father says at last. “Not on the train. The brothers would never allow it.”

He can appreciate that. What would become of Acme if his father were mugged and the sacred books stolen?

“Then let me come in to the city at closing time and take over from Mrs. Noerdien. You and I could work together from five till eight, say.”

His father is silent.

“I’ll just help with the checking,” he says. “If anything confidential comes up, I promise I won’t look.”

By the time he arrives for his first stint, Mrs. Noerdien and the counter hands have gone home. He is introduced to the brothers. “My son John,” says his father, “who has offered to help with the checking.”

He shakes their hands: Mr. Rodney Silverman, Mr. Barrett Silverman.

“I’m not sure we can afford you on the payroll, John,” says Mr. Rodney. He turns to his brother. “Which do you think is more expensive, Barrett, a Ph.D. or a CA? We may have to take out a loan.”

They all laugh together at the joke. Then they offer him a rate. It is precisely the same rate he earned as a student, sixteen years ago, for copying household data onto cards for the municipal census.

With his father he settles down in the bookkeepers’ glass cubicle. The task that faces them is simple. They have to go through file after file of invoices, confirming that the figures have been transcribed correctly to the books and to the bank ledger, ticking them off one by one in red pencil, checking the addition at the foot of the page.

They set to work and make steady progress. Once every thousand entries they come across an error, a piddling five cents one way or the other. For the rest the books are in exemplary order. As defrocked clergymen make the best proofreaders, so debarred lawyers seem to make good bookkeepers— debarred lawyers assisted if need be by their overeducated, underemployed sons.

The next day, on his way to Acme, he is caught in a rain shower. He arrives sodden. The glass of the cubicle is fogged; he enters without knocking. His father is hunched over his desk. There is a second presence in the cubicle, a woman, young, gazelle-eyed, softly curved, in the act of putting on her raincoat.

He halts in his tracks, transfixed.

His father rises from his seat. “Mrs. Noerdien, this is my son John.”

Mrs. Noerdien averts her gaze, does not offer a hand. “I’ll go now,” she says in a low voice, addressing not him but his father.

An hour later the brothers too take their leave. His father boils the kettle and makes them coffee. Page after page, column after column they press on with the work, until ten o’clock, until his father is blinking with exhaustion.

The rain has stopped. Down a deserted Riebeeck Street they head for the station: two men, able-bodied more or less, safer at night than a single man, many times safer than a single woman.

“How long has Mrs. Noerdien been working for you?” he asks.

“She came last February.”

He waits for more. There is no more. There is plenty he could ask. For instance: How does it happen that Mrs. Noerdien, who wears a headscarf and is presumably Muslim, comes to be working for a Jewish firm, one where there is no male relative to keep a protective eye on her?

“Is she good at her job? Is she efficient?”

“Very good. Very meticulous.”

Again he waits for more. Again, that is the end of it.

The question he cannot ask is: What does it do to the heart of a lonely man like yourself to be sitting side by side, day after day, in a cubicle no larger than many prison cells, with a woman who is not only as good at her job and as meticulous as Mrs. Noerdien, but also as feminine?

For that is the chief impression he carries away from his brush with her. He calls her feminine because he has no better word: the feminine, a higher rarefaction of the female, to the point of becoming spirit. With Mrs. Noerdien, how would a man, how even would Mr. Noerdien, traverse the space from the exalted heights of the feminine to the earthly body of the female? To sleep with a being like that, to embrace such a body, to smell and taste it—what would it do to a man? And to be beside her all day, conscious of her slightest stirring: did his father’s sad response to Dr. Schwarz’s lifestyle quiz—“Have relations with the opposite sex been a source of satisfaction to you?”—“No”—have something to do with coming face to face, in the wintertime of his life, with beauty such as he has not known before and can never hope to possess?