Winnie the Opera premieres with all eyes on Winnie the spectator
Louise Redvers in Johannesburg
The Guardian, Friday 29 April 2011
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela understood to have given Englishand Xhosa-language opera her blessing ahead of Pretoria debut
The opening night of Winnie the Opera, by South African-born composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen, won a standing ovation, but the biggest cheer of the night was for Mrs Madikizela-Mandela herself, as she took to the stage saying the moment had “surpassed all previous accolades”.
The 74-year-old sat among family and friends at the State Theatre in Pretoria to watch last night’s world premiere of the much-anticipated opera which tells the story of her life as the wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, and her role in the country’s anti-apartheid struggle.
As the curtain came down, she was escorted to the stage to beam at the audience, who broke into chants of “amandla” – power. “In all my career of fighting, I’ve never been short of words, but tonight I am,” she said. “This is the first time I have got such accolades from my country, this surpasses anything I have known.”
Praising the young, all-South-African cast, Madikizela-Mandela said: “This reminds us as leaders what we fought for and sacrificed so much. I am glad and proud that this production had its world premiere in our nation’s capital.”
She said it was the first time she had been inside the theatre, which had been a party bomb target long ago
Pulling the actor who played her, Soweto-born Tsakane Maswanganyi, out of the lineup, she joked that she wished she had been so slim herself.
The former social worker has been the subject of a number of retrospectives in the past 18 months, both factual and fictional. She was played by the British actor Sophie Okonedo in the 2010 film Mrs Mandela. A Hollywood film reportedly starring Jennifer
Hudson is said to be in the offing.
The libretto was sung in English and Xhosa, two of the 11 official South African languages. Xhosa is the Mandelas’ Eastern Cape mother tongue. The story centres on Madikizela-Mandela’s appearance before the post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission, and her implication in killing and torture carried out in Soweto in the late 1980s.
Through flashbacks in court, a window is opened on her struggle as a wife and mother separated from her husband and children, and the political persecution she faced – which included internal exile, imprisonment, torture and 13 months of solitary
confinement. “There has certainly been enough drama in her life to justify making her the subject of an opera,” said Brooks Spector, a former US diplomat and now acting head of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. “You have the gap between heights of her successes and the depths of her tragedy, all taking place in the middle of a major historical moment.”
Madikizela-Mandela’s lows include being sentenced to six years in prison for kidnap and accessory to assault over the 1989 murder of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi Seipei by her former bodyguard. This was later reduced to a fine and, despite being convicted of fraud in 2003, she has reascended the ranks of the ANC. In the 2009 election she was fifth on the party’s candidate list.
In January she hit the headlines after allegedly driving 93mph in a 75mph zone, and her bodyguard reportedly accused the police officer who stopped her of victimisation.
Spector added: “Much of South Africa’s history is so contested and works like this are helpful, because it helps people think about what has happened and to think for themselves what it all means. I, for one, am very interested to see how she reacts and also how her family and ANC colleagues react.”
Winnie the Opera mixes classical and African music performed by the KwaZulu-Natal philharmonic orchestra.
The South African-Canadian producer and librettist Warren Wilensky said: “This is such an important story to tell. Winnie is truly an icon of South Africa’s chequered past and her story is as compelling as it is relevant.”
Winnie the Opera runs until 3 May at the State Theatre in Pretoria. An international tour is expected, although no details have been announced.