Mimi Coertse was South Africa's first operatic prima donna."Prima donna", in its true sense, properly indicates the chief female vocalist in an opera company. It signifies a vocalist of high reputation and earning power. For seventeen years she held that position in Vienna, where she reigned as first coloratura of the famed State Opera.
"Prima donna" can also indicate a singer of temperament; capricious by nature, imperious, and sometimes even feared by colleagues, but always adored b the public. That was Mimi, too.
That she became a celebrated operatic artist, a prima donna, at all, is quite amazing. She comes from a humble Afrikaans family, and arrived in Vienna ii 1954 as a naive boeremeisie, armed with no more than a beautiful voice and 2 burning ambition to become an opera singer. She studied at the Vienna Academy for only eighteen months before stunning the sophisticated Viennese public with a sensational debut at the State Opera. She first performed there as Mozart's Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, on 17 March 1956.
What made this feat even more amazing was that she was not yet steeped in the traditions of European culture, and knew little or nothing about what is regarded as "the Mozart style". Yet she became one of the finest exponents of the music of this composer. She is remembered in Vienna, and elsewhere, as a brilliant Queen of the Night, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira (in Don Giovanni], Fiordiligi (in Cosi Fan Tutte), Constanza (in Die Entfiihrung aus dem Serait) and the Countess (in Le Nozze di Figaro).
For seventeen years, she pursued a successful career. She became the youngest singer in the history of the State Opera to be appointed to the permanent ensemble. She became a valuable member of an elite group of permanent singers, re-establishing the reputation of the State Opera as one of the world's major opera houses. Ten years later the Austrian Government honoured her with the title "Kammersangerin", the Austrian equivalent of a British Dame.
Admittedly she was a capricious and sometimes temperamental prima donna, and music writers would often add "lazy" to the list of adjectives they enjoy hurling at singers of stature. Lazy? For any singer to have absorbed a multitude of challenging roles, ranging from Bel Canto favourites by Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi, to the Verismo world of Puccini, to the intricate twentieth-century milieu of Richard Strauss, is unusual.
To have assimilated, and excelled in, these different styles, and to have become an extraordinary interpreter of lieder and oratorio and even operetta, took more than just a pretty voice, instinct and good fortune. It took guts and hard work.
Mimi Coertse paid her dues, and by becoming an acclaimed South African singer in Europe, opened the door for many others. South Africa has always been a country rich in its crop of good singers. We fondly remember the legendary Cecelia Wessels, who sang in many concerts and operas in England, and those who came after her - notably Emma Renzi, Joyce Barker, Wendy Fine, Marita Napier and Elizabeth Connell. They had fine careers abroad, some of them even achieving what some writers refer to as "the grand slam" of opera singing at the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and the Metropolitan in New York.
With much respect to these ladies, none of them achieved what Mimi Coertse did in seventeen glorious years in Vienna, performing in dozens of new productions with distinguished colleagues, among them conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Karl Bohm, Lorin Maazel and Dmitri Mitropoulos.
Not only did Mimi perform well to the music of European composers, she also did what many singers of international fame do. She introduced the music of South African composers to Europe. Prominent in her lieder recitals were Arnold van Wyk's Vier Weemoedige Liedjies, Pieter de Villiers's Boerneefliedjies, as well as evergreens such as Heimwee and O Boereplaas, all of which became favourite encores.
In 1973, at the age of 41 when many people thought she was at the height of her international career Mimi Coertse decided to return to South Africa.
She married, set up an elegant home in Pretoria, adored her two children, Mia and Werner, and sang many of the roles that had brought her fame and fortune in Europe for South African audiences.
We sometimes wonder why it is considered important for a singer, who has worked hard and well, to "put back" into music the benefits he or she has taken out of it. Surely it is easy enough to rest on your laurels, and indulge in happy memories of a fine career. Not Mimi Coertse. Her restless spirit led to her membership of dozens of committees, including the SABC Board. There she often made life miserable for station managers whose services did not, according to her, properly serve the interests of South African composers and artists. To this day, she serves on many arts councils, acting as chairperson for education in the South African Music Education Trust. She has become a formidable force for improving the musical possibilities of previously disadvantaged young musicians.
She realised, while still living in Europe that many fine voices would become lost to the world of opera if they did not receive financial backing, which she herself did not have when she was a student in Vienna. She created the Mimi Coertse Bursary, enabling many South Africans to further their studies in Europe, and to start careers of their own. During the 1980s, she initiated the "Debut with Mimi" series. Auditioning young hopefuls around the country, she now provides a platform for promising young singers to be heard with a full symphony orchestra at the State Theatre in Pretoria. She teaches and coaches young singers, preparing them for the professional stage.
Mimi Coertse, at the beginning of a new century, is in the autumn of what has surely been a most distinguished career. Retirement is not part of her vocabulary. Occasionally she performs with music that suits her voice, often surprising her most devoted admirers with a still youthful vocal quality.