Opera’s long road to Bullhoek

South Africa has produced its first full-length opera — about the life of enigmatic `prophet’ Enoch Mgijima. Justin Pearce spoke to librettist Michael Williams

THE old government liked opera. Or so it seemed, since they subsidised the building of opera houses and the staging of lavish performances of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. But, for all those years of official approval, South Africa never managed to produce an opera of its own.

Now, in these days when discussions about future cultural policy frequently hold up opera as the glaring example of a cultural form which is extravagant, inaccessible and alien, there is at last a full-length South African opera that’s almost ready to go on stage.

It’s an irony that is not lost on Michael Williams, who wrote the libretto for Roelof Temmingh’s opera Enoch, Prophet of God, which opens on the Cape Town Opera Festival at the desperately-seeking-a-new-name Nico Opera House in January.

A further irony is that it took a journey far away from South Africa — to Nepal — to suggest the possibility of a South African opera. Williams spent a year in Kathmandu where he wrote a musical about the life of Buddha which, he recalls, was hugely successful even among people for whom Buddha was common currency but who knew little of the language and the musical tradition within which Williams was working.

“It was bizarre — why was I doing it so far away? I came away with the idea for a full-length African opera.”

Williams created four one-act operas for Capab before embarking on the libretto for Enoch. For a story, he turned to the Bullhoek massacre of 1921, picking up a bloody thread in South African history which continued with Sharpeville, Soweto and Bisho. The massacre was a response by the colonial government to the presence of the self- styled “Israelites”: the members of a cult who gathered around the enigmatic figure of Enoch Mgijima, regarded by his followers as a prophet as well as a liberator.

“I was struck by the story of a man who changed so many people’s destinies,” Williams recalls. “This was operatic stuff.”

He points out how much of the story virtually told itself in song: the hymns, praise songs and work songs of the Israelites make the opera in many ways a choral work. In this way, Williams and Temmingh were able to tap into a well-established South African musical tradition, that of choral singing.

Temmingh describes his music as being based in a “new tonality” which draws on the heritage of Western, African and Asian music, and which abandons the esoteric nature of much late 20th century “serious” music in favour off a more readily accessible style.

While there is room for soloists to take the story forward — Williams points out how Mgijima’s sermons translated readily into arias — there are no solo pyrotechnics to eclipse what is essentially an oral narrative. Another formal innovation is the improvised section at the beginning of the opera’s second act: Temmingh has sketched in the barest musical details, from which chorus, soloists and orchestra are to create their own harmony.

Though Williams speaks with animated conviction about the ideas behind the opera, he looks worried when he speculates on whether people will come and see it. The Cape Town Opera Festival has been advertised internationally, with Verdi, Rossini and Bizet on the programme to draw in opera-loving tourists from around the world — but to Williams it is far more important that Enoch attracts local audiences.

This will mean changing a few perceptions. For as long as opera has been performed in South Africa, it has been marketed to a white audience, and as a foreign medium which is meant for awe-struck admiration rather than for participation. Williams has toyed with the idea of throwing out the stigmatised label of “opera” altogether, “but what else can you call it?” he asks. “You can’t call it a musical, because there is no spoken dialogue.”

So Williams, Temmingh, their cast and anyone else who is fired up with the mission of creating a South African opera are left with the task of reinventing a genre and marketing it.

Williams believes that star appeal is one way to go: the pop-style marketing of Luciano Pavarotti changed Europe’s outlook on opera, and in South Africa Sibongile Khumalo is turning into our first classically-trained singer with mass appeal.

Williams holds similar hopes for Abel Motsoadi, the 23- year-old University of Cape Town opera student who makes his professional debut in the title role of Enoch.

He is also hoping to take the opera back to its musical roots, inviting choral groups from Cape townships to come along and see what they think; Williams is optimistic that once they get there, the musical idiom, the language and the opera’s foundation in relatively recent South African history will be enough to overcome any prejudiced notions of what opera is all about.

While he says discounted tickets will be available, he is blunt in his refusal to take the tokenistic route of busing in a ready-made black audience for the sake of political credibility: “If I don’t have a representative audience I feel I’ve failed in some way.”

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