Music and Reconciliation

Financial Times – Richard Fairman – 8 April 2013

Only a couple of months after former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith was portrayed flaunting her assets at the Royal Opera House, another real-life figure of our times is about to find herself the subject of a new opera. Following Richard Nixon, Jacqueline Onassis, Muammar Gaddafi and San Francisco gay politician Harvey Milk, the latest to be personified on the opera stage is Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – South Africa’s “mother of the nation”, a figure lauded and reviled in equal measure at different times in her highly controversial life.

The occasion will be the premiere of Winnie the Opera at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria. Composed by Bongani Ndodana-Breen, with a libretto in English and Xhosa written jointly by Mfundi Vundla and Warren Wilensky, the opera marks an important step forwards, both in the portrayal of Winnie Mandela’s chequered public life and in the advancement of South African opera generally.

As far as the country’s arts are concerned, 2011 looks like being Winnie Mandela year. A South African film, Winnie, starring Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson in the title role, is also due for release later in the year. Ndodana-Breen’s opera has a libretto penned by a pair of writers from the film world, and film and opera alike declare that they will be making no attempts to gloss over the dark corners in Winnie Mandela’s life. Winnie the Opera promises a “fully-rounded story” – its highs and lows are on a scale that surely call out for the grand opera treatment.

Unlike most of the real-life figures who have turned up in operas, Winnie Mandela is still very much with us. Having achieved popular rehabilitation after her alleged involvement in human rights abuses and her conviction for fraud in 2003, she is again a senior figure within the ANC and was ranked fifth on the party’s electoral list for the 2009 general election. For those who want to tell her story on the big screen or in opera, that would seem to involve an obvious risk.

“Why Winnie Mandela?” is an obvious question to ask Ndodana-Breen, the opera’s composer. “Why not?”, he shoots back. “In this country we are constantly trying to put a rosy tint on our history, especially the 1980s. We want to sweep under the carpet issues like how people lived in the townships, the lawlessness, the cruelty, the way a government made war on its people. But it really is time for us to be realistic about all that. The story in this opera tells both the sweet and the sour. At every seminal point in our recent history Winnie Mandela has been at the centre of events. She is an icon who symbolises both the hopes we had and the future that we have to negotiate. I understand why she will never disappear in the minds of the majority. She was the voice of those who could not speak, the witness of all that happened, and the people who went through the trauma of the 1980s will always revere her.”

Wisely, he says, the opera’s creators made a point of meeting Winnie Mandela personally. Though they asked if she would like to take a closer interest in the opera, such as seeing some of the costumes, she declined. She will simply come to the opening night and wants that to be a surprise. “It’s a powerful experience to meet the subject of your own work,” he says. “You have researched everything about this life, right down to the cadences of her voice, and suddenly you are sitting there thinking, ‘My God, we even have her saying that in the script’. She is a very glamorous lady and has enormous presence. I don’t think any medium can capture that better than opera, where you can do such grand and tragic things.”

The opera opens on day nine of Winnie Mandela’s testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the lowest point of her fortunes, when she was implicated in the charges of killing and torture made against the Mandela United Football Club. From there the piece moves on to her earlier period in solitary confinement, including her torture at the hands of one of her security guards – “We asked her about that when we met her,” says Ndodana-Breen, “and she just said, ‘Well, that happened’” – and ends with the difficult years when “everything went horribly wrong for her” in Soweto.

The opera will not hand down a verdict. Its creators emphasise that for long years through this period Winnie Mandela was largely alone in her struggle, while Nelson Mandela (who does not appear in the opera) was in prison. Wilensky, co-librettist, says: “We, who have not walked in her footsteps, who have not had a husband taken away, who have not been in solitary confinement, who have not had our children taken away, who have not had to fight for our own lives and for the lives of a nation – who are we to judge?”

Extracts from the beginning and end of the opera have already been posted on the web in the lead-up to the premiere. They reveal an opera imbued with traditional South African music. Ndodana-Breen says that he has always wanted the world to see a South African composer writing a full-scale opera from start to finish, rather than leaving some aspects, like orchestration, for others to finish off, as has invariably happened in the past. “Most of the operas in South Africa are written along European lines and don’t represent 85 per cent of the people in this country. We have just been rehearsing act two and everybody was saying ‘How authentic this is!’, because the melodies and rhythms are modelled on what I used to hear as a child when I went into the village.”

The premiere production will bring together an impressive roll-call of South African talent. The title role will be sung by the Soweto-born Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, a highly acclaimed mezzo who has made her career largely outside her home country and has starred in London, Norway and Germany. The director, Shirley Jo Finney, and conductor, Jonas Alber, are respected figures in their respective worlds of drama and music, and there will be more of the stunning young voices that South Africa is producing among the other solo roles and chorus.

What does Ndodana-Breen hope audiences will take away from his opera? “From my point of view what is most striking is that people keep saying they never hear anything about these events. Some very bad things happened here on both sides and, when I look back at the 1980s, we reached the brink of self-destruction. But somehow, thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of those acts of genius of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, we came through it. The opera is about reclaiming that past, not denying it. With that knowledge we can become a better people and I truly believe [this opera] should be therapeutic for our country, therapeutic for its audience.”

‘Winnie the Opera’ will have its premiere on April 28 at the South African State Theatre, Pretoria,