Winnie a triumph in African style

Beeld newspaper
Thys Odendaal

Winnie (Ndodana-Breen)
State Theatre (opera), Pretoria

Caption: Tsakane Maswanganyi in the title role of Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s opera Winnie: under house arrest in the Free State town of Brandfort

The African style opera gained momentum in the early 1990’s with Roelof Temmingh and Michael Williams’ Enoch, Prophet of God; the most successful thus far was Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu from Opera Africa which was performed just after the centenary in Durban, at Speir near Stellenbosch and in Gauteng.

Thsese operas and already a small group of others, have established a specific African idiom and this genre finds resonance in Bongani Ndodana- Breen’s opera Winnie which had a triumphant premiere in Pretoria on Thursday.

Bongani Ndodana-Breen is a composer of stature.

This is confirmed by outstanding Winnie portraiture which, in contrast to most of the superficial local musicals, depicts the drama of the political activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s stormy life amidst the heady resistance to apartheid.

For example in Magogo, Khumalo’s original music for the Zulu princess is orchestrated by Michael Hankinson and the impression of a true African opera derived more from the production than the orchestra pit.

In Winnie, Ndodana-Breen’s mix of European music with the traditional African idiom is a foundation which can be built upon. In the programme notes he gives an indication of how he worked, and the result is excellently realized by the KZN Philharmonic and the German conductor Jonas Alber.

The secret lies in the relationship between the strings and percussion, the dramatic impact in the dance-inspired performance. Dance is an integral element in African music making,

The multi-award winning director Shirley Jo Finney’s production also deserves high praise, accompanied by the three experienced designers who each make a significant contribution to the visual success of the performance – Peter Harrison (set design), Penny Simpson (costumes) and Declan Randall (lighting).

The opera begins with an impressive prologue – soft lighting and a group of women dressed in white are “the mothers of the missing”
This becomes a leitmotif that is woven through the opera and becomes a measure of the influence of women during the freedom struggle. As well as their heartache in their search and uncertainty for the victims, amongst whom were children.
It is also a motivation for a Winnie Mandela who unhesitatingly took on the mantle of leadership as “mother of the nation”

The opera begins and ends at the gymnasium hall in Johannesburg in 1998 where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established – on the day that Winnie Mandela was questioned.

Thereafter the opera skips back to segments in Winnie’s life, that of young girl, a woman lonely in her incarceration, to that of leading activist with her husband Nelson Mandela who is hidden away for life on a prison island.

The Stompie Sepei and Mandela United Football Club activities are raised and brought to vivid life in scenes of music and dance.
The soprano Tsakane Maswanganyi met the high expectations that were held of her with a praiseworthy performance in the title role.

Her voice is built around a string middle register allowing her to highlight the many and varying elements of the challenging Winnie role. She ensures moments of beauty – that of a young woman in love with Nelson Mandela, through the shocking phases of a socio-political maelstrom.

Otto Maidi is her father, Columbus Madikizela.

He presents a believable character through his performance and bass voice: soft in his concern over his daughter and particularly stubbornly outspoken against her marriage with the “trouble maker” Nelson.

The three other main characters also offer strong performances.

The baritone Linda Zitha is the sympathetic Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Then there are two contrasting characters, completely irreconcilable – Pierre du Toit is brutal as Major Theunis Swanepoel in a violent scene against Winnie where she is in solitary confinement in 1969; and Mlamli Lalapantsi as the radical Jerry Richardson, member of the soccer/thug club.

This also applies to Monika Voysey (Baroness Nicholson) and Yollandi Nortjie (Zindzi).

The chorus’s contribution is also a factor, as solidly present as the orchestra throughout the scenes, to the stirring final scene supporting a triumphant Winnie Mandela.

Alfred Pakhathi’s choreography was initially unremarkable as classical ballet positions that had little to do with the setting and atmosphere. Thankfully the dancers were skillfully incorporated into the township and other scenes.

This opera provides an overview of an important day in the country’s reconciliation. It finds even more appropriate resonance in the artistic collaboration between Ndodana-Breen in the orchestra pit and the director’s production, with her three talented lieutenants for set design, costume and lighting.

A dramatic woman, musically illustrated in a highly dramatic opera: an artistic product with local roots that will richly enhance the repertoires of the foremost opera houses overseas.