This land is our land

Coenraad Visser

Love and land. Love that is stolen; land that is stolen. Thirty-five years later, love that is returned; land that is returned. “A promise made, broken, and then restored.” That, according to Michael Williams, librettist and producer, is the simple theme of Roelof Temmingh’s new opera, Buchuland, which opens at the State Theatre in Pretoria on July 22.

Buchuland tells the true story of the Elandskloof community, forcibly removed in 1962 from their land near Citrusdal when the Dutch Reformed Church sold what had once been mission land. In December 1996, the Elandsklowers became the first community to own land restored by the Land Claims Court.

For some in the cast, Buchuland, with its tale of deprivation and forced removal, is the story of their lives. Soprano Virginia Davids and her family were evicted from their Parow home in the early Sixties. Recently, her father lodged a claim to recover what had once been the family home.

But Buchuland is about more than political transformation and justice for those who lost their land during the apartheid years. Equally hopeful, it is the story of the love of Katrina Bantjies and Titus April, a love that triumphs on Katrina’s return to Buchuland, after she had been lured to the city lights by the smooth-talking Johnnie Fortuin.

When Williams wrote his libretto, he knew that for the first time in the history of South African opera a new work would be mounted on the large stage of an opera house. (His previous major collaboration with brother-in-law Temmingh, Enoch, Prophet of God, played on the smaller Nico Malan drama stage.) To sustain audience interest, the libretto is packed with swift action and the portrayal of sweeping emotions.

Written mainly in English, it is spiced judiciously with Afrikaans. Afrikaans appears not only in the hymn As Hy Weer Kom and the traditional song O Nooi van die Velde, but also lends emphasis to key moments in the opera and serves as a reminder that these victims of apartheid were Afrikaners too.

Temmingh, for long one of South Africa’s most prolific and inventive composers, has written a passionate score that matches Williams’s large-scale conception. A far cry from Temmingh’s temple-storming days in the Seventies and early Eighties, Buchuland looks through the musical lenses of the Eighties and the Nineties back at the 17th and 19th centuries.

To match Williams’s uncomplicated libretto, and in line with the land/love dualism of the opera’s main themes, Temmingh often wrote for two voices only. While this more transparent musical texture exposes the composer more cruelly and so poses a far greater challenge, Temmingh believes that it lends greater focus and dramatic weight to the score.

Unlike the traditional musical language of opera, that Buchuland is without the customary leading notes and dominants, except for the rare occasion when Temmingh added them for special effect. An octotonic mode of consecutive half and whole tones replaces the traditional minor and major modes, although, according to Temmingh, the mood is distinctly expressively minor, not “boringly” major.

The combination of the three possible modes which are created by the use of the octotonic mode consists of 12 movable tone centres. Their use cannot be regulated easily. “The act of composition,” says Temmingh, “glides around in music’s most inspiring domain - the great carefree world between the old, distant boundaries of tonality and atonality.”

Like the free-flowing verse of the libretto, which creates its own rhythm, the music consists of a series of building blocks, each with its own melodic and rhythmic structure.

Temmingh and Williams consider themselves fortunate to work in a creative environment with so many stories to tell, and so many of them with happy endings. They note that composers in Europe are casting about for suitable themes; those they find often feed depression only. Temmingh compares the optimistic nature of Buchuland with Schnittke’s The Idiot, a bleak three-hander in which one character does nothing but grunt for the duration of the opera.

The cast assembles the undisputed cream of the local crop - Virginia Davids (Katrina Bantjies), Sibongile Khumalo (Ma Bantjies), Rouel Beukes (Ben Basson), Jannie Moolman (Andries Venter) and Fikile Mvinjelwa (Johnnie Fortuin). Odd one out is American tenor Curtis Rayam as Titus April, a part originally conceived for Sidwell Hartman. Vienna- based David Scarr returns home to conduct the New Arts Philharmonic Orchestra of Pretoria.

Buchuland is on at the State Theatre at 8pm on July 22, 25, 27, 29 and 31.

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