Madiba: The African Opera had its world premiere at the State Theatre in Pretoria on Friday, 23 May. Supposedly the retelling of little known stories about Mandela, the opera is the brainchild of Mandela’s cousin, Unathi Mtirara, who wrote the libretto based on history garnered in part from Mandela himself. I found the section on his childhood long winded and dull, despite the fact that the music for this section, composed by Sibusiso Njeza, and orchestrated and conducted by Kutlwano Masote is extremely beautiful. Mtirara’s noble purpose was to give hope to people in villages. The reality was that it alienated the otherwise receptive audience in the theatre and by the end of the first act the audience was noticeably restless.
The opera’s pace picked up in the second half of the first act and in the second act. A lot of people missed the second act because they left at interval. It was a long evening, only ending at 11.45 pm. Overall the opera felt good. Some attention should be paid to the sur-titles where spelling errors and factual inaccuracies marred the perfection. For example, Winnie was not a nurse, but a social worker.
The synopsis of Madiba: The African Opera, is simple. After the death of his father, Mandela is raised by the Regent King Jongintaba Mtirara along with his cousin, Justice Mtrirara. After attending a Wesleyan school, Mandela goes to Fort Hare where he gets expelled for involvement in a boycott again university policies. He rejects an arranged marriage and he and his cousin steal cows from the king to pay for their tickets to Johannesburg.
It is in Johannesburg that he becomes politically aware and joins the ANC, being part of the team that creates the Freedom Charter, marries and divorces Evelyn, marries Winnie Madikizela, is tried (Rivonia trial) and sentenced for life, goes to prison, refuses conditional freedom and then is released unconditionally, going on to be inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. The audience, fittingly, joins in the singing of the National Anthem and one is left with that wonderful brand of patriotic feel goodness that Madiba engenders in everyone everywhere.
Mandela’s role is sung by baritone 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. Some of the singers would benefit from being miked despite the fact that this is classical opera and miking is regarded as a no-no.
Sight lines from the sides are not particularly good and the scene where Mandela returns to the Transkei was lost to everyone on the far left of the theatre. Stage direction changes should be made to bring the action to centre stage.
The opera is running at The State Theatre 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. It is hoped that it will be able to travel overseas for further runs.