Friday, May 6, 2011

"Winnie: The Opera" - a view from the orchestra pit

Unlike most Americans, my exposure to the life-story of Winnie Mandela this year will not come from the upcoming feature film starring Jennifer Hudson, but instead through the production “Winnie: The Opera” which took place last week in Pretoria, South Africa. I sat directly below the highly controversial political icon in the orchestra pit as she gave live feedback about the premiere performance she had just witnessed. But unlike most of the opera’s reviews, I will focus on the musical experience first; politics will come second.

While new operatic productions do occur in South Africa, it would be incorrect to imply that they happen with the frequency that they do in the US and in Europe.  To the chagrin of new music lovers everywhere, I did overhear a few instances of singers uttering the classic notion that “well, it’s contemporary music, nobody will know if I make a mistake”.  While certainly the score was modern sounding to the audience, at the end of the day the music was completely tonal.  The difficulty for some singers in tackling this work simply reflects the need for more contemporary opera and a resurgence of classic opera of the 20th century in this country.

In general, there was a very noticeable determination on everyone’s part to master the challenges that the opera provided.  The conductor, Jonas Alber, showed an excellent knowledge of the material and ability to work with singers of different levels of experience.  For an opera written in both English and Xhose (mother-tongue of the Eastern Cape), Alber managed to give vocal cues in either language with ease to the singers on stage. 

In terms of language, Xhosa (featured in the opera) and the Zulu language (spoken in the province where I now reside), there is a great deal of potential when it comes to new music. The naturally occurring “clicks” of these languages were of course featured in the opera but simply as part of the natural occurring words. The sound that these “clicks” make when a chorus of 15-20 sing in unison is truly fantastic.

A nice moment in the opera was the theme that occurred whenever “Desmond Tutu” sang. I later learned that this theme was a quote from an African lullaby called “Thula, Thula” and was very recognizable to the more musically-inclined members of the audience. As an outsider to the heated world of South African politics, this idea of needing to be South African to catch certain allusions was prevalent throughout the opera.

There was one scene in particular where my lack of personal knowledge about the specific details of Winnie Mandela’s life resulted in my missing a key allusion.  Winnie sings an aria in which she ponders the impact that her imminent militant actions will have on her own political perception. She sings “for what I am about to do…with our rubber tires and boxes of matches, we will liberate this land” and general chaos/rioting immediately follows. Below is a photo (by Thrishni Subramoney) from earlier this month at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where students were setting tires and debris on fire in acts of protest. This was the general association I gave to Winnie’s aria but learned only later that this scene was representing Winnie’s support of the “necklacing” style of execution; the placing of a rubber tire filled with petrol around a person’s chest and arms and then lighting it on fire. As an audience member, it would have been more intriguing to see how the opera dealt with this barbaric practice directly instead of only referencing it. Of course, to an all-South African audience intimately familiar with the story, this was hardly a problem. 

In the US, some of the most anticipated productions are those based on larger-than life figures.  Whether it is out of musical respect or just sheer curiosity, there is something intriguing about controversial productions like “Grey Gardens”, “Anna Nicole Smith”, David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and even the now tame by comparison, “Nixon in China”. While I do not think that this production of “Winnie” was in any way trying to be outrageous or avant-garde, the perception of Winnie Mandela in this country is sharply divided and like any Michael Moor documentary, one probably will not go to see it unless they already fundamentally agree with his viewpoint. When Winnie took the stage immediately after the performance, she revved up the crowd with some protest chants before she gave her glowing praise for a production that was attempting to not take sides. For a grandmother in her 70s, even an outsider like myself could see how her demeanor still connected with the crowd and incited a new level of energy in the theatre. She said that this production was the greatest accolade her country had ever given her. She followed this with a laugh and said that it was her first time in the State Theatre; her militant group had never been successful in bombing it back in the day. 
(Top photo by Themba Hadebe of The Guardian)

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