Singer, actress, chef - and a woman highly talented in all three. Elzabé Catharina Zietsman was born on 20 January 1961 in Bethal. The first song she ever sang in front of an audience was “Zoem zoem bytjie zoem zoem”. She sang and acted in school concerts and operettas but she was never part of a choir. “I think my voice was too loud for a choir,” she laughs.
“I always started to sing with my neighbour in the choir and that didn’t work. My parents must have realized that I was talented, but they were traditional (old-fashioned) and did not try to push me in any direction.”
In her matric year she started taking singing lessons with Sarie Lamprecht in Johannesburg and after school she went to the Pretoria Technicon to study drama. She joined PACT in 1982.
“I was one of a group who took productions to schools (mainly of prescribed works) but I also took part in some of the bigger PACT productions like Matewis and Meraai. Singing was not high on my agenda at that time – I wanted to be an actress.”
In 1982 she got her first role in a TV –series in Die Rooi Komplot which was produced by Reghardt van den Berg. “I drove to the auditions with Arnold Vosloo (who was studying with me at the Pretoria Technicon) and we both did an audition. I got a role and he didn’t.”
At the end of 1982 she took part in the production Let it all hang out with Paul Ditchfield and others. Trudie Taljaard was the director of the production.
In the beginning of 1983, Elzabé and Arnold Vosloo were both lucky enough to obtain parts in Reghardt van den Berg’s next series Meisie van Suidwes. “It was very exciting times in the fledgling TV industry in South Africa. We had no make-up artists or hairdressers – did it all ourselves – and if I remember correctly all the clothes that I wore in the series came from my own wardrobe.”
After the shooting of Meisie van Suidwes had finished in Namibia, Elzabé went to the Cape to play in two productions: Kermis op Koekemoer and Vrede.
“At that stage I thought I was famous and that my future was secured – I then spent the next year waitressing at Pizzaland in Hillbrow. Here I had the dubious honour of receiving a special certificate for my excellent waitressing skills…”
In 1984 her luck changed and she played in a production of Janice Honeyman, True Confusions with Annelize Weiland. “Many of us have worked together for a long time …”
After this followed a whole slew of cabarets and musical productions such as Ekskuus vir die Wals, written by Etienne van Heerden and staged in Windhoek and The long short show with Graeme Clark in the legendary Studio 58 in Hillbrow.
Barney Simon saw Elzabé in The long short show and offered her a part in the David Kramer Jol that he directed. “Jennifer Steyn and I had to provide background voices for David and we also had solos and duets that we performed. It was the first time that I met David and this coupled with the opportunity to work with Barney Simon had me completely bowled over. It was also the first time that I heard David’s song Skipskop. In the show I performed a song called Dry Wine which was a serious protest song. This song as well as the complete album Baboon dogs was banned by the then SAUK.”
There is almost nobody in the entertainment industry that Elzabé has not worked with at one stage or the other. In September 1985 she took part in the production A, my name is Alice which was directed by Dawn Lindberg and her two co-stars were Natalia de Rocha and Mara Louw.
In 1986 Elzabé got a small part in Pieter Toerien’s production Two into one and she spent the whole year touring with the group while also acting as the assistant stage manager.
In order to survive Elzabé also started to work for a company, The Casting Directors, where actors and actresses were placed into productions. “We did the casting for a film in which Peter Fonda played the star part. The producers wanted Joanna Weinberg for the film but she was busy rehearsing for another production Hallo Suid-Afrika, Hello South Africa. The only way that we could get her for the film was if I took over her role. This was the first time that Casper de Vries and I met.”
“At that same time Kevin Feather who was doing the Jo’burg Follies asked me if I would not consider doing a late-night show at the Black Sun. So there I was, working the whole day, then doing Hallo Suid-Afrika in the early evening and finishing my day at the Black Sun with a show of my own. This was also the first time that I sang Skipskop in front of an audience. I think it was at this hectic time that my singing career really took off.” There is a newspaper article of 22 December 1986 in Elzabé’s scrapbook with the title: “Three different jobs keep Elzabé busy.”
Elzabé and Kevin (who accompanied her on piano) then decided to tour the country with a cabaret show: “We raced around the country like demented beings.”
During 1987 and 1988 Elzabé worked for Darrell Roodt (director of the film Yesterday which was nominated for an Oscar) on another film, The Stick.” I played the role of a cabaret artist dancing with a skeleton while singing to the troupes in the opening scenes of the film” she remembers.
After this she played in two TV-series – Dot & kie and Honeyball se toere. She also took part in two cabaret performances Blou Bulle revue and Van Berlyn tot Bapsfontein.
Van Berlyn tot Bapsfontein was a cabaret in which Elzabé toured with Jannie du Toit and the Blou Bulle revue was compiled in honour of the centenary festivities of the Blue Bulls rugby club. Here she played with Amor Tredoux, Eric Nobbs, Casper de Vries and Richard van der Westhuizen. She remembers that her and Amor’s aim with every performance was to get Casper to laugh when he was not supposed to, “and we managed, without fail, to do so.”
During 1989, Elzabé had her first solo performance at After Dark in Pretoria. “This was the most unbelievable venue. Artists like Nataniël, Johannes Kerkorrel, Thandi Klaasen and I were given a platform to perform from. It is really sad that there are no longer venues like this one.”
During this time she also started to work more with Casper de Vries and they produced Ziets en De Vries as well as Sleutelgat revue. ‘At the beginning of my career I had no idea what cabaret really was, as it did not feature in my studies, but when I started working with Casper he taught me about it.”
The first show that Casper and Elzabè did on their own was The drivel and the song. “The show was based on a film The devil and the song made by Bles Bridges. Casper and I worked well together on the stage, he didn’t always stick to the script but he was smart enough to get away with it and I just tried to keep up.”
In between the shows with Casper, Elzabè did a Jacques Brel show for Taubie Kuschlick.
In 1990 Casper and Elzabè toured the country with Ziets en De Vries. Later in that year she and Kevin Feather wrote and produced a cabaret called Cabaret Schmabaret with which they toured the country.
“Cabaret Schmabaret was a parody on the popular views of cabaret. People tended to think that cabaret consisted of a woman in nipple caps and g-string singing Broadway hits. In the first half of the show we gave the audience just that but the second half was real cabaret with political and social commentary.”
At the end of 1990 Elzabè took part in The After Dark Horror Show with Nataniël and Alida White. “The first part of the show was written by Nataniël and the second half was a concert edition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Nataniël playing the role of Frank N Furter. This was a story of its own right.”
In March 1991 Elzabè and Rocco de Villiers started working together. “We had met each other about three years earlier at the Grahamstown Festival and from the start everything felt just right between us.” While Elzabè and Kevin were touring with Cabaret Schmabaret, Rocco wrote a cabaret called Looker On for Elzabè and Pierre Knoesen. In 1992 Elzabè and Rocco also did two other shows called Clichés and Cover Girl and Elzabè also took part in Die waterwyser for PACT.
“I have never found it hard to alternate between singing and acting,” she says, “I equally enjoy working in both genres.”
This was a hectic lifestyle and in 1993 and 1994 Elzabè took off to recharge her batteries. “I went to work at a sawmill in Ermelo and marketed doors for the company. I have been constantly on the road from 1986 to 1992 and I was just tired. I still did performances for corporate functions but for the rest I just rested.”
Then came 1995 and Elzabè got the role of Kaye Knobel in Egoli. “Andrè Schwartzs and I performed at a party to celebrate Frans Marx’s newly acquired helicopter licence. During the party Franz asked me if I would be interested in a part in Egoli and I was ready to jump back into the fray. I really missed performing and this was a secure way of doing so. It was fantastic to be back in acting and I enjoyed being Kaye Knobel so much that I actually returned to the show three times more.”
In 1995 Nataniël wrote the show In Glass for Elzabè. In the show he drew parallels between the life of Marlene Dietrich and a South African woman. “I have always been fascinated with Dietrich. She couldn’t sing but she was unarguably the best cabaret artist that ever lived.”
In 1995 she toured Namibia with In Glass and her performance inadvertently became her passport to Germany. “A German musical director saw me in the show and shortly afterwards he was in Swakopmund where he met up with the director of a German culture festival. He told this Herr Dokter Direktor Intendant Dieter Gerhardts about my performance and that was how I got the role of Evita Peron in the musical Evita in Germany.”
Elzabé performed the role of Evita during the summer cultural festival of 1996 in Ettlingen, Germany. In 1997 she was invited back to Germany for the role of Velma in the musical Chicago and in 2000 she performed the role of the MC in Cabaret.
“Everything was in German – a language that I could not speak or understand – and therefore I learned all my words phonetically off by heart. I didn’t find Evita as difficult as it was only singing, but when we got to Chicago I had to speak and interact quite a lot and I found that really difficult. This was one of the high points of my career and I enjoyed it tremendously, but it taught me one true thing – I am a South African through and through and I don’t want to live and perform anywhere else but here.”
In 1995 Elzabé also wrote and performed Twee van die Beste with music and lyrics of David Kramer and Hennie Aucamp.
“It is as I said in the show: They are not only two of the best in South Africa, they are actually two of the best in the world. They are both masters of the word and their medium.”
Between her regular trips to Germany and her role in Egoli she and André Schwartz wrote and performed in a cabaret called Schwartz and Zietsman in 1998. Lize Beekman was the musical director and accompanist for this show.
“We met in 1986 when I was still working at Casting Directors and we became the best friends right from the start. Through the years we often worked together but this was our first complete performance together. It was a wonderful experience and a real pleasure.”
In October 1999 Elzabé’s first album X111 was released.
“I waited so long because I never wanted to release an album with a record company. I didn’t want to be forced to sing stuff that I didn’t feel comfortable with. Releasing the CD was not about the sales but as proof of what and who I am. I have never been a commercial artist and I didn’t want my album to reflect something untrue. I gave my house as security and financed everything myself. The name of the album was XIII because I had then been thirteen years in the industry. It is written in Roman Letters because it contained songs in English, Afrikaans and German and I wanted every listener to be able to read the title. The album consisted of thirteen of my favourite songs from the previous thirteen years.”
In 2000 Elzabé and Amanda Strydom were together at the KKNK and at Aardklop with their show Strydom en Zietsman in Alfabetiese volgorde.
“It was a fantastic experience and a bonus that we had jam-packed performances everywhere.”
In 2001 Elzabé performed the starring role in Vere, a South African musical. Is she sorry that there are not more musicals in South Africa?
“I think it will come again. Everything works in circles. In the mid eighties there was a huge resurgence of musicals because the time was right for it. It will come again when the time is right. Yes, I love musicals even though I do not have the traditional type of voice suitable to musicals.”
In 2001 Elzabé and Coenie De Villiers were together on the stage at Aardklop with Songs – Ziets Sing Coenie.
“Coenie’s musicality is astonishing and he is an expert at writing. The greatest present that any performer could receive, is to work with excellent material.”
Elzabé’s second album, In My Bloed/In my Blood, was recorded in 2002 and Elzabé worked with Rocco de Villiers again.
“I asked some of my friends in the industry like Richard van der Westhuizen, Amanda Strydom and Lize Beekman to write songs for me with the proviso that the songs should only be for voice and piano. The album was recorded live. None of my albums are top sellers but they sell slowly and consistently which is good enough for me.”
In 2002 Deon Opperman also wrote a show for Elzabé called Kaalgestroop. She took this show to all the big festivals and cities.
“Just like in In Glass the show was mainly about me but also universal in the sense of one’s relationships with one’s parents, lover, friends and all that entails”.
In 2003 one of Elzabé’s dreams came true when she opened her own restaurant called Zietsies.
“I fell in love with cooking in the eighties. At a stage most restaurants turned into cabaret-venues. There were no dressing rooms provided and I used to get dressed and did my make-up in the kitchens. In doing so, I got the opportunity of seeing some of the country’s best chefs in action and that is where my love affair with cooking, started. Food has always played a major role in my survival in the fickle business of entertainment – first as waitress and later as chef.”
During 2003 Elzabé went into a business venture with Sean Else and Theresa du Preez by starting KOOKOO productions. Three of the most successful ventures they had was My Vrou se Man se Vrou in 2003, My Boetie se Sussie se Ou in 2004 and As Die Kat Weg Is in 2005.
In 2004 Wikus du Toit wrote a show, Smallchange, for Elzabé and she was nominated for the Aardvark prize at Aardklop for this show.
In 2006 Frans Marx wrote and produced a drama series, Dit Wat Stom Is, and she had one of the starring roles.
“I was back with my first love, acting. It was doubly wonderful and exciting because in all the years that Trudie Taljaard and I knew each other, it was the first time that we actually performed together. She was truly my mentor and greatest teacher. She had an uncanny ability to put her vast knowledge into words and teachings. Because of the abstract quality of acting, it is very hard to explain to others what is meant – but Trudie had this ability.
In 2006 Elzabé also bought a new house, did all the improvements herself (an ongoing-never-ending process) and started a guest house and restaurant.
“I had to do the improvements myself because the house was far above my price class and I had to do something to be able to hold on to it. Therefore I decided to start a guest house.”
Elzabe is one of those people who do not understand the concept of giving up. She puts everything she has into any project and does not allow things to get the better of her.
“I am an African. This is what we do. When one plan fails, we try another one. We fight for survival. Giving up or in is not an option in my life.”
In 2008, Emma Bekker wrote Elzabé a cabaret called Agter Glas. The show premiered at the KKNK and it won the Kanna for best musical theatre. Later in that year it also became one of the hits at Aardklop.
In 2009 Elzabé returned to TV when she portrayed a cancer sufferer in Binnelanders. At the end of the show she decided to let her hair-which she shaved off on 20 December 2006 - grow again.
“On the same day that we shot my dying sequence, we buried Trudie Taljaard. I originally shaved my hair not to make a statement but because I have been through financial hell and back and I needed something to remind me constantly not to let it happen again. But to stand next to Trudie’s bed in her last days was a very emotional experience and I decided that it was enough. The last time that I shaved my head was 9 February 2009.”
Looking back on her career, Elzabé is amazed by the opportunities which came her way.
“I do what I always wanted to do. I make concert and I keep myself alive. A performing artist cannot ask for more than that.”