When you think of the idea of celebrating the life of a great political icon in song, Argentina’s Eva Peron and the astonishingly flawless film Evita made by Alan Parker in 1996 comes quickly to mind. It was based on the Rice/Lloyd-Webber stage production of the same name, and a more elegant, meaningful and poignant tribute in the entertainment realm, one would be hard pressed to find.
The 95-year-long trajectory of Nelson Mandela’s life, from his rural roots to his demise of old age in the comfort of his bed at home with his loved ones around him, is rich with story-telling possibilities and caveats that are biblical in proportion. Looked at in retrospect, it is a life which embodies all the values that Joseph Campbell suggests in his outline of what a hero’s story is.
And it is sad that an opera – our first locally produced piece of this size since Mandela’s death –falls horribly short of the critical mark. The work does address all the superficial checks and balances; opening night last week saw the country’s bling-laden glitterati in their magnificent best, but sadly, many packed in their diamante hand-bags and custom made braids and beads, and went home at interval.
A celebration of Madiba certainly should not have chased them away. But chase them away, it did, for a range of reasons.
Firstly, the work lacked the rich appeal that a complex history in the telling should have. Think of Steven Spielberg’s 2013 film Lincoln. Think of Peter Grimes, an opera by Benjamin Britten which debuted in 1945, telling the hard-hitting tale of a suspected child abuser. Think even of the Kander and Ebb musical Chicago. Their common denominator? They’re sexy, classy: not didactic. Information is conveyed through nifty writing and developed sequences, not lots of data and detail. Madiba The African Opera is heavy and wordy and limp with historical detail reaching into his childhood Qunu roots. The linear path that the work follows is also tediously numbing.
And then, there’s the music: most operas have an orchestral overture in which the story of the work is relayed through the music, before the curtain rises. It’s a moment in which you in the audience are allowed to drench yourself in the tunes that will flesh out the different characters and scenarios; a moment which you will remember in themes and sequences as the work unfolds. Madiba The African Opera had no overture to speak of; the rural setting, cast by horrendous rocks made of fabric and a high-kitsch throne of faux elephant tusks, started like a damp squib.
With too much detail and not enough context, the over three-hour long work is slow. The performers’ voices are ignominiously dwarfed by the position of the proscenium arch, in competition with the orchestra, and a whole rash of typographical errors sully the sur-titles – proofreading sins which are particularly unforgivable, given that words like ‘treason’ and Pollsmoor, the prison in Tokai, Cape Town where Mandela was held for six years, are spelled incorrectly.
As the work unfolded, so were there some astonishingly beautiful scenes – including the mining situation in early Johannesburg – and some appallingly poor ones, and it is remarkable how the makers of this work clearly didn’t see the vulgar discrepancy. When poor Bongiwe Nakane, doing her level best in the role of Evelyn Mase, Mandela’s first wife, had to sing before a huge, crude graphic displayed digitally on the backdrop, her stage presence was simply crushed.
But more than that were contextual developments that felt, rather than reverent toward Mandela, blatantly disrespectful. In the same scene involving Evelyn, a young Mandela actually strikes her and knocks her to the floor. Was this based on fact? Do we really want our Mandela in the same framework as a man who knocks a woman to the floor out of temper?
Also, the Madiba that countless people adored and cherished, quoted and jived with, is reflected, in this opera as a man in a suit, from the time he escapes the possibility of an arranged marriage in Qunu until his release from prison, when the work ends. So much is glossed over, from his legal profile to his trial, his 27 years in jail to his life afterwards, to his characteristic loud shirts and his ability to talk to all South Africans, it feels like the point is lost – and it certainly would be to an audience not familiar with the story.
Looking at the years between and the heavyweight professionals behind Evita, it seems fair that you can be consoled: this work won’t ever be The definitive Mandela work. But it’s a sad consolation: the performers here have such beautiful potential – Thabang Senekal in the title role is dignified and articulate as is Sibongile Mngoma in the role of Winnie; and the Kopano Chorus is completely wonderful in most of the crowd scenes, but the work stumbles in the face of a lack of creative direction and directorial freshness.
It’s devastating, also, to consider how the enormous space of the theatre is ignored. There’s an amateur show-and-tell feel to the footage screened against the backdrop instead of a set; given the funding that fueled this work, the absence of a mentioned set designer is glaring.
The space itself, on the opening night was remarkably tatty. With errant wires hanging in tiers all over the walls, which are sorely in need of paint, and one of the theatre doors barring use with a strip of red and white plastic, it felt more like a building site than the country’s flagship theatre and the biggest of its kind in southern Africa. Surely brakes could have been put on the launch of the work until everything was ship-shape enough to show its face to the critical public?
What this work needs is an experienced opera hand – this is librettist Unathi Mtirara’s first attempt at a real opera: he became a member of the Black Tie Opera chorus but ten years ago – to guide and shape the piece rather ruthlessly perhaps, but ultimately to yield something that makes us all proud. We certainly have the calibre of performers in this country who can do it.
Madiba The African Opera is not high opera. It should be.
- Madiba The African Opera is by Unathi Mtirara (librettist); Sibusiso Njeza (composer) and Kutlwano Masote (orchestrator). Featuring Johannesburg’s Chamber Orchestra under Robert Maxym, it is performed by Ayanda Eleki; Sipho Fubesi; Zandile Gwebityala-Mzazi; Lawrence Joffe; Kabelo Lebyana; Sello Maake Ka-Ncube; Xolani Madalane; Tshepo Matlala; Sibongile Mngoma; Bongiwe Nakane; Matthew Ramsey Short; Thabang Senekal; Nonhlanhla Yende; Mziyanda Zitha; and the Pretoria-based Kopano Chorus. It performs at the Opera, State Theatre, Pretoria until June 1.