SA’s diva divine in

3 February 2003

South Africa’s first Zulu opera, Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, is history as spectacle, from a stage crowded with a chorus costumed in artist Andrew Verster’s bizarre versions of traditional gowns, skins and ostrich feathers, to the most authentic and exciting Zulu dancing seen outside the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

At the centre is diva Sibongile Khumalo, singing the role of the much-loved princess whose songs telling of love, life, faith, and the changing fortunes of the Zulu nation live on in the memory of generations of Zulu-speaking South Africans. The opera, launched in Durban last year, arrived in Pretoria at the weekend. It combines a western form – the opera – and African music.

The story in this collection of set pieces offers plenty of scope for extravagance: King Dinuzulu, father of Princess Magogo, returns from exile in St Helena and is welcomed by his ecstatic subjects; a British officer strides into the royal kraal with the head of the rebel leader Bambatha; the young King Solomon is crowned.

From oppression, to love, to humour
In between the pageantry there is the divine Khumalo. In Act I she sings of oppression, of the sad state of the Zulu nation; in Act II she veers from religious songs to love songs to humour, including a wonderful song, sung in a detached and ironic tone, about her lover.

Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, son of Princess Magogo, says he is touched that Khumalo plays the role: “I remember occasions when we sat with her … at the feet of the Princess as she played ugubhu’ – a traditional stringed instrument- “and sang some of the songs that Sibongile sings in the opera’, he writes.

Composer Mzilikazi Khumalo, in his programme note, explains the choral music: he used traditional African rhythms, scales and modes, with the singing style patterned on Zulu inflections. “All the songs … are in the Zulu language, which is a tone language. The gliding speech tones in the language (the rising, falling and rising-falling tones) are represented in the music by grace notes.”

Best-known names in opera
The principals include some of the best-known names in opera in South Africa: in addition to mezzo-soprano Sibongile Khumalo, there is baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa as King Dinuzulu. Baritone Peter Mcebi sings two roles – Bambatha and Ndwandwe, the object of the Princess’s affections; tenor Given Mabena is Prince Solomon; and soprano Sibongile Mngoma is Queen Silomo, the Princess’s mother.

The acting and singing skills – both crucial for opera – among the principals are first-rate. However, the chorus, while in splendid voice, is less at home on a stage. Producers Opera Africa, a Section 21 not-for-profit company, recruited a chorus in September, explains a board member, from among largely unemployed music inspectors, choirmasters and teachers, rehearsed them three times a week for three months, then sent them briefly for training in stagecraft.

Opera clouded by lawsuit
The replacement of the original chorus, some principal singers and the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, which premiered the show in Durban, has given rise to a lawsuit which has affected the opera’s immediate future. Those replaced for the Gauteng run and an expected season in Chicago applied for an urgent interdict earlier this year, claiming that contracts had been signed promising they would have the first option for roles if another production was staged within five years.

The Chicago Heritage Festival, which had booked the opera for a three-night run, cancelled. The judge gave the company the go-ahead to perform in Pretoria; and Opera Africa’s lawyer has confirmed that the company has decided to hand the rights to the opera back to its authors, Mzilikazi Khumalo, librettist Themba Msimang and arranger and conductor Michael Hankinson, in an attempt to put an end to the controversy.

Princess Magogo will be staged at the Spoornet State Theatre on 3, 5, 7 and 9 February 2003.