Winnie faces the music

Composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen was in two minds about returning to South Africa a few years ago.

He had been based first in Chicago and then in Toronto and spoke of ‘spending more time” in his native land, perhaps six months every year. After all, when he left in the 1990s, it was because of the general indifference of the local ­classical music fraternity.

‘There was simply no interest in listening to new classical music, especially if it was remotely African,” says Ndodana-Breen. Although the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music was bestowed on him in 1997 when he was only 22, his artistic idiom was seen as a cultural paradox.

People found his music ‘weird”.

Acknowledged abroad

It is a depressingly common pattern. Many of our artists, writers and performers, especially ones with Ndodana’s ambition, have had to be acknowledged abroad before enjoying belated recognition in their own country.

Ndodana, now an urbane 35-year-old, has had his work performed by orchestras on four continents and at many impressive venues. He is now based back in South Africa and seems to be rediscovering his country. As he forges ahead with a unique artistic style, his recent works, including an opera about Chris Hani, respond to and interpret South Africa’s turbulent 20th century.

In 20 years’ time one suspects Ndodana will be regarded as a seminal composer for a new, home-grown movement in classical music.

The opera for which he has written the music, based on the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, opens at the State Theatre on April 28.

Winnie originated in Toronto as the ­Passion of Winnie. It was a bit of a disaster, wasn’t it?
It started from a catastrophe. We had told the festival this is a workshop and suddenly it was billed as a fully staged event, much to our horror. People’s expectations were unrealistically raised … The orchestra was a student orchestra … This is a new script, a much more thought-through work, and we have workshopped the music with the KwaZulu-Natal Phil for the last two years.

Part of the reaction though was political.
The tinfoil-hat brigade! The crazies came out the woodwork … Then there were people who had legitimate political concerns, who were of right-wing persuasion; they had reasonable arguments to the politics of Winnie Mandela. On the other hand we had a leftist student organisation which wanted to protest. But we didn’t encourage any of that. We are not interested in the politics of this, but in the story and in making a piece of art.

But how do you separate the politics from the art?
She [Winnie] is a woman who married a guy, who had kids, stuff happened to her and she made some terrible mistakes, and she was dragged before the TRC for those mistakes. It’s that human story that interests me, the story of the woman — what was Brandfort like for her psychologically? The separation from her husband, from her children?

Do you see her as a tragic figure?

She is. Some people disagree with me on that, including my collaborators, my librettists [Warren Wilensky and Mfundi Vundla] don’t agree. I think she is a tragic heroine and that is why she is the perfect subject for opera.

Does real life get in the way of the story? Have you kept closely to the facts?

Some poetic licence of course … for effect … The most difficult is the 1980s in Soweto, which is the major chunk of our second act, trying to choreograph that relationship she had with Jerry Richardson. We try to imagine what kind of relationship she had with the Mandela United Football Club. We can only guess …

Have you spoken to her about the opera?

I have to tell you she insisted not even to see one costume. We had all this stuff ready for her. She didn’t want to see a script. She said: ‘Surprise me.” She just wants to come and watch. People are coming up with all these stories. At one stage we were [apparently] being sued, which was a lie.

She has much more integrity than people give her the benefit of the doubt for. We haven’t talked to her about the story … Out of courtesy and respect we went to her and [Desmond] Tutu and we said we are doing this. None of them wanted to censor us. This is a media thing. People are scared of the truth.

What truth are people scared of?

We have had a certain amnesia here … trying to bury a lot of what happened in the 1980s and it’s not healthy. We have to talk about it. A lot of bad things happened and a lot of people were sitting on their hands not doing anything … Where were some of our political leaders who have very loud mouths now?

Nelson Mandela, I understand, doesn’t appear in the opera.
Yes, Mandela in real life wasn’t there.

Mandela was imprisoned at least within a system, but Winnie had no protection; she was like someone under rendition.
I don’t want to compare the trials faced by these two icons. But 200 days of solitary confinement? I mean Brandfort — she thought that was just another police raid and they take you in lorries and dump you in a place where you don’t speak the local language. Essentially a hut. It had no floors. She had to put her fridge in the police station. Imagine having to go to the police station to go get your milk! … And if you are a woman being tortured by men to find yourself in that position … the fear of sexual violence.

Where do you begin the opera?
Our story begins on the ninth and final day of the TRC hearings into the human rights abuses by the Mandela Football Club. That is where we start.

Yet at one stage she was a world heroine.
Yes, she was like Aung San Suu Kyi. The media bias was towards her and her struggle and she was a cause of every lefty on the planet … The sad thing of the story of Winnie is that she was surrounded by people who did a great deal of harm to her.

What are you hoping to achieve?
A dialogue … All of us need to realise we cannot sweep under the carpet what happened, the 1980s especially.

And musically?
It is the first full-length opera to be written and orchestrated by a black South African. I do not orchestrate the European way … it is sparse. I use African sounds, the brass band, the church, the village … We adopted things from a traditional context … [The music] is about us reclaiming and not being ashamed of the musical patrimony we have here.

How do you respond to charges one hears that opera is Eurocentric?
We have to be truly honest about what a South African opera is. I put it to you that we have had very few.

Who put the money up?

All the doors were closed. We had to self-produce. Nobody was interested. [Producer] Mfundi wrote the first cheque when we had nothing. Then DAC [department of arts and culture] and NAC [National Arts Council], but it wasn’t easy, I’m telling you. It was an uphill struggle. There were many times when we thought this was not going to happen and we had to rally a lot of troops … The partner here, Bongani Tembe, and the KZN orchestra went out of their way … I wish we had more people who want to take risks, who are not interested in preserving a certain cultural identity.

As opposed to people who see change as concession?
I think you have actually just put it there. The classical music community in South Africa is scared of change and of embracing Africa.

Winnie the Opera is showing at the State Theatre in Pretoria until May 3

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Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman is a political novelist Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak. He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and in his Friday column, Once Bitten food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website:

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