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Saturday, March 11, 2023



(Above: Mapula Sethlako, the show’s director: pic supplied)

William Charlton-Perkins writes a regular feature for the media titled Classical Notes.

This one is titled: A preview to the Playhouse’s “10 South African Sopranos

With just two weeks to go before The Playhouse Company’s 10 South African Sopranos is staged, I went behind the scenes to engage with one of the key creatives involved in this ambitious project. Mapula Sethlako is the show’s director. I spoke about her approach in putting it together. 


WCP: Staging this production takes months of planning, and a multi-tiered creative team to bring it to the stage. You have worked extensively in many sectors of the arts world - as a drama teacher/field worker/facilitator for a variety of institutions, before joining several leading TV production houses as a script supervisor. As a Live Performance lecture with AFDA, you specialised in screen and stage acting. Is this the first time you have applied your skills to the lyric stage, working with classically trained singers? And how have you found the experience?

MS: This is not the first time I have applied my skills to the lyric theatre, I have directed “Tsogo” The Rise of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke the Musical a year ago at SAST. However, this is the first time I’m applying my skills to the classics, let alone working with classically trained singers. It’s been a great experience for me, I have learned so much about this expensive and exquisite music. I watched so many Opera shows on YouTube because I wanted to understand the music. And read translated scores to understand the lyrics. I’m looking forward to the audience response to the work.

WCP:  Managements the world over have to overcome the perception that Opera is an ‘elitist’ art form, which speaks to a minority of people. In this regard it is supremely ironic that South Africa is globally renowned for the ongoing stream of great new stars it sends out into the international arena. Back home, however, making the art form accessible to the broader community is often a challenge, posing a dilemma for producers, who seek to reach wider audiences while staying true to the genre. Has the device of engaging a narrator to introduce each artist onto the stage been part of your strategy to widen the appeal of this project?

MS: My approach is about relatability. The question was how do I bring this “elitist art form” to ordinary South Africans? How do I personally relate to it? Until I got tasked to direct this masterpiece, I never paid much attention to classical music. I use the narrator to connect the story/ journey of a South African woman who has been through a lot, and still conquered against it all. I use Zulu traditional dancers, Maskandi singer, and the narrator to widen the appeal, to bring it home. And in the last act, the sopranos celebrate the chieftaincy of the Zulu nation from King Shaka Zulu to King MsiZulu.

WCP:  Opera purists tend to turn up their noses at the idea of introducing ‘cross-over’ into the mix, to ‘sugar the pill’ for an audiences faced with a programme of hard-core opera. I confess to being guilty of this prissy view in my youth. With time, one comes to accept or reject ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ in all musical genres. Working alongside an acclaimed cross-cultural artist such as Sibongile Mngoma must have been empowering in deciding to include a maskandi artist, for instance, into this production?

MS: My unconventional and controversial approach is using my African perspective on the show, and I suspect this may “turn up noses”. And perhaps it’s about time opera purists open themselves up to experience new perspectives and approaches to the discipline. This “prissy view” is the reason why the art form has always been consumed by the elites. Only the minority could relate to it. My approach is fresh, and I am sure it has never been done before. The aim is to stir up a conversation and introduce a new young black audience to this art form. Relatability and representation is key and imperative as a young black female director. The intention is to change our perspective towards the classic, and the only way we can do that in my view is through relatability and understanding of the classic. Sibongile Mngoma offered me the freedom to bring my creative ideas on board and yet not lose the essence or the core classic element.

WCP: Besides playing up the glitz and glamour - the wow factor - of shows like #10SAS, I gather some educative agendas been elegantly applied to this venture. There’ve been indications that the production’s presentation will touch on social issues that affect women, and minority groups such as our LGBTQ. If so, it deserves the added endorsement of its audience. Yes?

MS: The grand idea will speak back or touch on social issues. I advocate for the minority: my approach has always been about inclusivity. As the show expands, then we can look at added endorsement of its audience.


Headlined by internationally acclaimed divas Sibongile Mngoma and Pumeza Matshikiza, 10 South African Sopranos takes place at the Playhouse in Durban on Sunday March 26 at 14h00. The line-up includes luminaries such as Nozuko Teto, Khumbuzile Dlamini, Siphamandla Moyake, Pumza Mxinwa, Zolina Ngejane, Sasa N Yende, Brenda Thulo and Khayakazi Madlala.

Twenty-four members of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra will provide live backing to the singers as they perform a tantalising selection of the world’s best loved arias. These include the immortal Song to the Moon from Dvorak’s Rusalka; and showstoppers from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; Puccini’s Tosca, La Bohème, and Manon Lescaut; Catalani’s La Wally; and Verdi’s grand-scale masterpiece, La Forza del Destino, along with a number of Zulu gems. Also featured on the roster are narrator Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza and maskandi star, Lungile Ngcobo.

Tickets @ R150 available now through Webtickets. One performance only. Early booking is strongly recommended. - William Charlton-Perkins