What is opera — especially in a South African context, with our rich surfeit of musical styles jostling together from three continents? The question receives a vigorous shake-up in Cape Town Opera’s premiere production of Love and Green Onions, the new ‘jazz opera” by Michael Williams (book and lyrics) and Denzil Weale (score).
Weale’s music, buoyantly rendered by conductor Graham Scott and a hard-driving percussive band, is a rousing blend of many local elements: kwaito backbeats, township kwela and marabi songs, flattened blues and jazz progressions, torch ballads, African gospel song. It’s an intoxicating blend that spectacularly brings Zakes Mda’s award-winning novel Ways of Dying (1995) — a wry take on the ruinous black-on-black violence of the 1980s, welded into an unusual love story — to vivid stage life.
If opera is that brand of musical theatre in which music portrays the emotional heart of the drama, then Love and Green Onions is indeed opera, in a style somewhere between Stephen Sondheim’s intricate musical theatre and the communal stage musical pioneered here by Gibson Kente.
There are wonderful performances: jazz diva Gloria Bosman —whose voice is a supple jazz instrument if ever there was one — as Noria, retired prostitute and grieving mother, who is a dazzling foil for the classically operatic accents of Fikile Mvinjelwa in the role of Toloki, the town pariah and professional mourner, who falls in love with her.
Marcus Desando does his best with the role of Bhut’shaddy, the minibus taxi driver, a rather undeveloped part that does not quite make the transition from book to opera.
The chorus, made up of members of Cape Town Opera’s Vocal Ensemble, forms a major multi-headed character in its own right; Mda’s novel is much concerned with the interplay between individual and community, and the sense of the community as character — thrusting, intrusive, gossipy, by turns horrified, angry or amused — is neatly achieved here.
The inimitable aspects of the book —the odd blend of surreality and quirky humour that pervades Mda’s tale — gets a lost in this retelling.
Michael Mitchell’s hard-working set, in steel and corrugated iron, suggests the magic elements infused with the realistic ones, but in Williams’s text these offbeat elements that give the book its texture are undeveloped.
Yet Love and Green Onions is a rich musical feast enlivened by great performances and some fine, infectious songs. Williams and Weale wrest the essential humanity in Mda’s story and give it a dramatic spin.
Love and Green Onions, with some judicious editing and hard revisiting of an over-extended second half, will be an irresistable addition to our growing local operatic repertoire. And it’s great to see the Baxter Theatre Centre and Artscape cooperating to bring challenging musical theatre to the public.
Love and Green Onions is showing at the Baxter Theatre Centre, Main Road, Rondebosch, until July 28. Tel: (021) 685 7880.