Names: Gow (Adams, Vera
Born: 14 February 1942, Cape Town, Western Cape (then Transvaal), South Africa
In Summary: Opera singer and Social Worker
Vera Gow was born on 14 February 1942 in Cape Town. Her primary school years were spent near Evaton in the Free State Province where her father was Dean of the Theological School at the Wilberforce Institute of the African Methodist Church (A.M.E.)
In Evaton, Gow was immersed in an ethos of music and culture, and sang at church and at community weddings. She was profoundly influenced by the Manhattan Brothers and celebrated South African singer Dolly Rathebe, who performed at her school.
At the age of 15, Gow moved to Cape Town, and at Trafalgar High School, she thrived in the vibrant milieu of culture and liberation politics, singing in school productions such as The Peasant Cantata and Hiawatha’s Wedding.
At 17, Gow joined the legendary Eoan Group in District Six, where under the guidance and leadership of its founder, Mrs Southernholt, young people were taught drama, ballet and classical singing.
In 1956, the Eoan Group became the first fully-fledged operatic company in South Africa, albeit an amateur grouping, when under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Manca and Mr Ismail Sydow, the Group decided to stage complete operas. Gow became a regular singer in the company and toured the country, singing the female role of Flora in La Traviata and later, Lolla in Cavaleria Rusticana, and Muzzetta in La Boheme.
The company received such acclaim that by 1965 it was touring the country with no fewer than five productions: Rigolleto, La Boheme, Il trovatore (with Gow in the lead female role of Leonora), L’Elisir D’Amore and Carmen (with Gow in the lead role of Carmen).
In 1967, Gow was offered the much-coveted role of Violetta in La Traviata, a role she performed over four sold-out seasons of this production. In 1968, she sang in South Pacific and two years later in Carmen Jones, the musical based on Bizet’s Carmen.
However, apartheid had begun to impact on all forms of social living in the Western Cape. During this time, District Six was declared a white area, and consequently the beloved A.M.E. church of Gow’s father and grandfather was razed to the ground.
When the young Dr. Chris Barnard went back-stage on the opening night of South Pacific, he was hurriedly escorted out for breaking the provisions of the Group Areas Act. Eventually all venues in the city were closed to non-racial performances and in a callous irony, the government’s Performing Arts Council opened with a performance of Verdi’s Aida, at its newly built whites-only operatic venue, the Nico Malan Theatre.
Gow had qualified as a social worker in 1965, so therefore began to work among farm workers in the Western Cape to improve their working conditions while highlighting the pernicious impact of the “tot-system”.
In 1972, Gow won the Johann Nel Award from the Cape Town Players’ Club for her substantial contribution to the arts in the Western Cape. In 1979, she moved to Johannesburg and currently lives in Eldorado Park where she continues to pursue her career as a Social Worker.
Gow still sings at local community events, and it remains a historical injustice that Vera Gow’s achievements, and those of the seminal Eoan Group, have not yet been given the appropriate consideration by cultural historians.
For her excellent contribution to the development of arts and culture in South Africa and sterling performance in the field of operatic music, the South African Government bestowed Vera Gow (Adams) with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver at the National Orders awards on 19 October 2004.
- Presidency Communications Research Document: The National Orders Awards, October 2004 [online] Available at: info.gov.za [Accessed 30 March 2009]