WRITER’S NOTE | Mandela Trilogy

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Mandela Trilogy was written to be part of Cape Town Opera’s season, which coincided with South Africa hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Unfortunately Mr Mandela never attended a live performance, though he did receive a recording of the production. If he did indeed watch the show, I wonder what he might have thought of our efforts to create a musical/opera on aspects of his life? He passed away on 5th December 2013 and since then the production has toured to Durban, Cardiff, Johannesburg, Munich, Ravenna, the UK, Ireland, Dubai and Hong Kong. The show goes on; his legacy endures and we pay tribute to him on home soil in Cape Town with the Mandela centenary celebration on 18 July 2018.

Over the past two decades I have created the libretti for numerous operas and musical theatre works with the single purpose of expressing our South Africaness. The writing of most of these libretti took place as a response to the social changes underway during the early years of post-apartheid South Africa (1990 – 2010). Issues of national identity, acknowledgement of history denied, and social acceptance of black people as fellow South Africans were all important concerns. During this period South African society seemed preoccupied with making peace with its troubled past, negotiating its way through the present and attempting to set foundations for a sustainable future. The timing of the creation of these operas, written during this emotionally charged crucible in our history, was both reactive and serendipitous. The existence of exceptional operatic vocal talent among the black community spurred me on. What was lacking, however, was a suitable South African operatic repertoire for these singers, given the sudden transformation of casts from being mostly white to casts being mostly black.

As I read the numerous biographies on Mandela’s life I felt the three-part structure of the work reveal itself. The first part would take place in the Transkei, the second part in Sophiatown and the final part would deal with his incarceration in three prisons: Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster, and end with his release. Each part of the trilogy would highlight a defining moment that would reveal both the character of the man and the struggles of his life.  The conversations Mandela had with various members of the ruling National Party during his incarceration became the glue that joined the three parts together. Conversations with the Whiteman, spaced over a period of twenty seven years, explores the development of Mandela’s philosophy of reconciliation and depicts the changing attitude of white South Africans towards the “terrorist/communist”.

On Mandela’s return from his initiation he was confronted by his regent who suggested that the ‘flowers of the Xhosa’ nation would come to nothing as they would forever be doing the menial work required by white men. The young Nelson was so struck by this speech, and the limiting nature of his rural life, that he turned down the offer of an ‘arranged marriage’, stole two of the regent’s cattle and headed for the city. Reading about life in the 1930’s in Transkei I was struck by Mandela’s hero-worship of Makhanda, the first freedom fighter of the Xhosa people who was also one of the first political prisoners incarcerated on Robben Island. That Mandela should suffer from the same fate as his hero, was an irony I could not resist.

The demolition of Sophiatown in 1955 made Mandela aware that the draconian powers of the National Party government would eventually stifle all protest and the ANC’s mission in South Africa had to be awakened. After listening to the music of Miriam Makeba, the African Inkspots, Hugh Masekela and Todd Matshikiza, I knew that Act Two had to be a jazz musical set in the heart of Sophiatown on the eve of the removals. Mike Campbell arranged a few of the popular folk songs from the 1950s and was able to add several original compositions to an Act that takes place in a movie house, a shebeen and the dusty field at Kliptown. I am indebted to Esme Matshikiza’s impeccable memory and her gentle guidance of my journey back to Sof’town. The third part of the trilogy finds its expression through the form of opera. The act begins with the Rivonia trial and explores Mandela’s twenty-seven year journey through three South African prisons until his release in 1991. At the heart of this act is the deteriorating relationship with his wife Winnie and the battle he had with loneliness. Peter Louis van Dijk’s impressive vocal writing and orchestral accompaniment delivers a suitably powerful climax to the trilogy.

It has been twenty-three years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison and with the success of our short UK season at Wales Millennium Centre, I felt Mandela Trilogy needed to be revised one more time. The inclusion of two narrators – Mandela and the Prison Guard – a rewriting of Act 1 and the pairing down of both cast and orchestral forces meant that work is now less grand opera and more musical theatre.

Mandela said, ‘The purpose of freedom is to create it for others.’ In a world which no longer benefits from his presence, may these words long remind us of his great spirit.

Michael Williams