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Wednesday, November 18, 2015


(Charlotte Mhlongo as Gaia, goddess Mother Earth in the impressive Prologue. Pic by Val Adamson)

A major achievement in size and scope. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Eight years ago, Durban-based musician and composer Juan Burgers got the idea to create an opera that would be a 21st anniversary salute to South Africa’s struggle for democracy. In his words: “I set out to tell this story of terrible injustice endured by millions of South Africans, through the medium of opera, the noblest of all art forms, in the knowledge it would offer full scope for the stirring cultural background of our country, while allowing me to recreate a birds-eye, or Cosmic, view of these historic happenings.”

Four years later, the core of the opera was complete. It had a title - UbuntuThe Opera - and the focus now moved to acquiring sponsorship under the vigilant eye of the project’s executive producers Raphael Vilakazi, who is better known to Durban audiences as an opera singer himself, and Dr Sipho J Nzimande.

Thanks to funding by the National Lotteries Commission, UbuntuThe Opera moved forward and tonight’s audience in the Playhouse Opera were privileged to attend the world premiere of a major new South African composition.

South African-born dancer and choreographer, David Krugel –now based in the Netherlands – directed, designed and choreographed this impressive work which focuses on key events in the life of Nelson Mandela.

The opera moves from Mandela’s birth in the rural Transkei through the years until he is eventually released from prison and gives his inaugural presidential address at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. This involves a massive range of different settings, costumes and music styles. Burgers deliberately chose a larger female chorus than a male one, reflecting the contribution of the women of South Africa

The prologue of the opera features Gaia, goddess Mother Earth, surrounded by billowing fabric. What followed was a thrilling mix of voice and audiovisual as the background changed from clouds to trees to water to fire. Charlotte Mhlongo has a superb voice and she shone as Gaia.

The major character is Ubuntu – tonight played by tenor Simphiwe Mkhatshwa (who alternates with Thamsanqa Mqaba). He is ever-present on stage as a reminder of the meaning of the word – “one-ness” - ie we are all connected, whatever our race, sex or religion.

Also giving impressive performances were baritone Njabulo Mthimkhulu in the role of Nelson Mandela; soprano Khumbuzile Dlamini (alternating with Nomsa Mpofu) as Winnie Mandela, and Thamsanqa Khaba as Inkosi Albert Luthuli.

Huge credit to conductor Lykele Temmingh who vigorously handled the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra in what is a demanding and expansive score which ranges from full-on all-stops-out power to gentle poignancy.

I must commend the lighting and visual settings which were splendid. My only problem – and I was not alone in this - is that it was often difficult to hear some of the singers as they were set quite a way back upstage and often drowned by the orchestra. Perhaps moving the action more downstage or ambient microphones might help?

Ubuntu – The Opera is presented under the auspices of Esayidi FET College in collaboration with Bravo Africa Entertainment, and congratulations to everyone involved – however large or small a part they played – to pulling off a major achievement of this size and scope. Durban is privileged to host its world premiere.

Performances on Friday and Saturday at 19h30 and Sunday at 14h30 in the Playhouse Opera. Thanks to the support of the NLC, tickets are an extremely affordable R50 for a production of this magnitude. Booking through Computicket outlets at Shoprite Checkers stores, telephonically on 0861 915 8000, via the Playhouse box office on 031 369 9540 (office hours), or online at – Caroline Smart