Mandela opera set for world premiere

19 May 2014

Madiba: The African Opera – a dramatic musical retelling of Nelson Mandela’s life featuring little-known stories from his childhood – will have its world premiere at the State Theatre in Pretoria on Friday, 23 May.

The opera is the brainchild of Mandela’s cousin Unathi Mtirara, a theatre artist and chief executive of Opera South Africa, who wrote the libretto based on history garnered in part from Mandela himself.

The music is composed by Sibusiso Njeza and conducted by Johannesburg Chamber Orchestra conductor Kutlwano Masote.

The opera will run in Pretoria until 1 June before moving to Mandela’s home village Qunu in the Eastern Cape for a special one-off performance at the Nelson Mandela Museum on 18 July, the late statesman’s birthday. Thereafter, it will run at The Opera House in Port Elizabeth – Africa’s oldest opera house – from 19 to 31 July.

Stories of hope

Speaking to SAinfo last week, Mtirara said the opera “all started about two years ago, when I was trying to write a book to document the history about my family and the contribution we have played in today’s South Africa.

“My great-great-grandfather was among the kings who founded the ANC [African National Congress] in 1912; my great-grandfather raised Nelson Mandela; my grandfather was Nelson Mandela’s first hero, but you don’t hear much about them in his history, so I wanted to highlight those forgotten heroes,” Mtirara said.

“The stories I chose of [Mandela’s] life are those that I think should give hope to a young man growing up in a village somewhere. To know that the circumstances of today may not dictate your tomorrow, there was once an icon who grew up in similar conditions to you and he believed that one day the world would be a better place for us all.”

‘It must leave a legacy’

Mtirara remembers the times he spent with Mandela: “I always had the best times with him, he would tell me stories of how mischievous they were with my grandfather Justice and what they got up to as young men.

One of the things he taught me was that If I involve myself in something or if I agree to do something, it must leave a legacy. I always carry those words around with me.”

Mandela was modest, says Mtirara, adding that for him was not about “being related to Mandela – it was always the other way around – he respected tradition and protocol; he is from a [more] junior house than mine, and he always respected that.”

Stealing the king’s cows

Madiba: The African Opera tells the story of Madiba’s clan and how his family lost its seat in the traditional leadership of the kingdom after his father, Chief Gadla Mphakanyiswa, refused to appear before a white magistrate in Mthatha.

After the death of his father, the young Mandela is raised by the Regent King Jongintaba Mtirara along with his cousin, Justice Mtirara.

After attending a Wesleyan college, Mandela goes to Fort Hare but is asked to leave after being involved in a boycott against the university’s policies. Back at home, Mandela and his cousin reject arranged marriages proposed by the king, and agree to steal the king’s cows so they can run away to Johannesburg.

It is in Johannesburg, where he witnesses a system which forbids black people from owning land, travelling, or voting, that Mandela joins the African National Congress.

The story follows the creation of the Freedom Charter, the start of Mandela’s relationship and marriage to Winnie Madikizela, his arrest, the Rivonia trial and the years spent on Robben Island. The opera concludes with his liberation after 27 years in a cell and his inauguration as the country’s first democratically elected president.

The role of Mandela in the opera is played by baritone and professional opera singer Thabang Senekal. Mandela’s father Gadla Mphakanyiswa is played by Mziyanda Zitha, his mother Noqaphi Nosekeni by Nonhlanhla Yende, Chief Justice Mtirara by Sipho Fubesi, Winnie Madikizela by Sbongile Mngoma, Chief Albert Luthuli by well-known actor Sello Maake Ka Ncube, and Adelaide Tambo played by Nomsa Mbatha.

Mtirara hopes to create more job opportunities for young singers in South Africa, and it is his dream for the opera to be seen internationally. “I would definitely love to take this overseas, and have started communicating with a few companies about that.”

SAinfo reporter