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The music of Fugard

How many stories are there actually out there? Myth critics insist, at base, on a mere handful — and these mainly boil down to one (‘the move from darkness into light”). Yet there are a few tales that insist on retelling themselves every generation or two. Of these Athol Fugard’s Valley Song is one.A sparse two-hander, which debuted a year after our first democratic election, the play’s setting is a remote Karoo town experiencing the first tremors of political change. Veronica is a talented coloured teenager determined to fly her parochial confines and become a singer in far-off Johannesburg; her protagonist is Buks, her grandfather, doggedly determined to shield her from the dangers of the city. Youth and age, ambition and conservatism, art and orthodoxy, the gifted individual and her uncomprehending society … the thematic polarities are as old as Aesop or Esther. Yet Fugard gives them a contemporary spin, and in the confluence of ancient emotions and topical social forces, I espied an opportunity for opera.As an enthusiastic reviewer of Valley Song, I’d thought in 1995 that the story was of music, about music, and thus insistently cried out for music — and that its simplicity lent itself to the deep, elemental emotions that opera invites. Opera is much more than sung dialogue: through turning speech into music — the most abstract, and thus affective, of art forms — opera allows a plunge into greater reaches of feeling than other stage genres. Meanwhile, I embarked on my own musical journey — composing and singing cabaret songs, and in conjunction with the gifted pianist Andrew Ford creating the eclectic music for my experimental musical African Star! (1999-2000). I was prompted to put my hunch about Valley Song into practice when in 2000 I met Fugard by happy chance in Nieu-Bethesda — unnamed locale of Valley Song — and began a fruitful dialogue about our theatre. I discovered Fugard is a devotee of classical music and opera; a year later — while Fugard was directing Sorrows and Rejoicings — during an intense discussion about polyphonic form in his latest play, I popped the question. How would he feel about Valley Song transposed into music?Fugard’s response was heartfelt: ‘Do it!” Sealing the deal with a smacking kiss, he insisted I had his ‘blessing, not just permission” — the first time in his career he has allowed a musical adaptation of his work. He’s been a keen and generous supporter ever since.I then approached composer Thomas Rajna, whose opera Amarantha I’d seen shortly after meeting Furgard, and had excitedly reviewed for Opera News in New York. Would Rajna agree to compose the music? I’d loved in Amarantha the way Rajna recast the human voice as an orchestral instrument and how he’d animated the unusual emotional content of the story on which the opera is based.Happily, Rajna also saw the possible emotional riches in Valley Song, and so a partnership was born — wholeheartedly endorsed by Delecia Forbes of the Spier Arts Trust, at whose next summer season the full orchestral version will have its world premiere. As librettist, it’s been a fascinating creative journey, recasting Fugard’s play and recreating its emotional spaces. Aesthetic and ideological problems persisted: should we give voice in the opera to the dirt-poor Karoo community that witnesses Veronica and Buks’s conflict? What of rural land ownership, a theme raised but enigmatically resolved by Fugard, and a now a more critical issue in our country than in 1995?Writing for a composer of Rajna’s rich musical references has been instructive. I’ve seen my job as providing a merest scaffolding for the composer’s musical exploration, and while I’ve redrafted the shape of the story, his views on the balance of speech, song and recitative have been decisive. Rajna’s music — among other influences is David Kramer’s Karoo Gitaar Blues concerts, which, with untutored country musicians, were inspirational — reflects a gamut of styles and signatures: Italian operatic parody, catchy Kaapse rhythms, Dutch Reformed hymnal, post-atonal European art music, insistent pop tunes — it’s all here, in a racy indigenous blend that cheerily declaims the local grounding of this tale. In our scaled-down concert version over the next two weekends — starring marvellous local principals Angela Kerrison, Ronnie Theys and Brad Liebl, with myself narrating and Rajna at the piano — audiences will hear for themselves how a topical play becomes a timeous meditation for instruments and voices. Thanks to a gifted composer, Fugard’s simple tale bursts the bounds of the music I heard in my head — spectacularly

Valley Song — The Opera: A Lecture-Demonstration is presented on February 23 and March 2 at the Spier Conference Centre.Tel: (021) 809 1177/78/79/49 or Computicket. For more information visit

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Guy Willoughby
Guest Author

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