Winnie in full song

2011-04-29 15:31

Believe it or not, the woman known to us as the indomitable Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was once an impressionable girl and an ordinary social worker. Then she fell in love with a rising political figure – the effusive Nelson Mandela – and her life was never the same again.

Winnie’s turbulent life is the subject of a new opera currently running at the South African State Theatre in Tshwane. The production is the work of one Mfundi Vundla, the man famous for creating television shows such as Generations and Backstage.

His involvement in such a project may seem odd, but he previously produced a 20-minute opera about Chris Hani and says that he had an interest in tackling the subject of Winnie’s life.

The new opera’s libretto has a simple focus. It presents us with the figure of Winnie Mandela as she faces the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for allegations of human rights violations from the struggle days.

She is singled out as the tragic heroic figure in a nation at war with itself – depicted both as mother of the nation and vindictive matriarch in charge of a murderous gang, the Mandela 11 Football Club that allegedly doubled as her personal bodyguard.

Here then is the central mission of the opera – to explain the processes that created the apparition of a woman witnessed by the world at the TRC’s
“Winnie Hearings”.

The audience is taken on an operatic journey back through the pivotal moments in her life leading up to that very moment. The closing is also addressed within the redemptive resolution of the TRC.

Enlisted to bring Winnie to life on stage is Tsakane Maswanganyi, a classical soprano with a sizeable international footprint.

She was born in Soweto, grew up in Giyani, Limpopo, and studied at Technikon Pretoria, now Tshwane University of Technology.
Maswanganyi sang the role of Maria in West Side Story for Spier Opera Company and has also appeared at venues including the Royal Albert Hall, Windsor Castle, Sydney Opera House and the National Opera House in Kiev.

However, she seems overwhelmed by her current role as Mother of the Nation.

Maswanganyi lacks the commanding presence of the real Winnie. She is a bit too young and her frame perhaps too slim. But she can clearly sing, and has the accolades to prove it.

Speaking to her in the dressing room ahead of her performance, Maswanganyi claims to not have an opinion of the woman she is playing. “To me, it’s just like any other role,” she says.

Perhaps she might have missed the gravity of the job at hand or is it that capturing the essence of a living character is fraught
with difficulties?

The opera employs traditional theatrical devices and incorporates elements of multimedia to tell its sweeping tale. One of the drawcards is the fresh musical composition.

The production’s composer, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, has allowed vernacular idioms to influence the music to good effect. For instance, choral music is introduced into the lobola scene and a smattering of toyi-toyiing is brought into the township protest scene.

However, perhaps the most poignant scene in every way is when Winnie’s father, Columbus, arrives at her house on Soweto’s Vilakazi Street to beg her to return home to her people.

Played by Otto Maidi, the old man is first met by his daughter’s personal guard, the Mandela 11. Then a short altercation between him and the boys is defused by his now-transformed daughter in military combat uniform.
The sequence comes to creative fruition with one of the show’s shimmering solo performances – that of Maidi.

Unfortunately, the underwhelming figure of the lead role let down this scene too.

Vundla explains the production thus: “We use cinematic techniques like flashbacks to learn who this person is. Who is her father .?.?. what happened to her after she got married to Nelson Mandela?”

He adds that Winnie was “perhaps naive and in love with this guy, like any woman attracted to a powerful charismatic guy. He gives her two children, but is always on the run. The next thing, he is arrested and is on Robben Island for 27 years.”

However, that former naive social worker emerges as a political activist in her own right. And there are consequences to that decision – like torture and house arrest, and, of course, appearing before the TRC.

So Vundla et al are trying to explain Winnie’s triumphs and mistakes, public and private, by reminding the audience of her personal losses and wounds.

As he puts it: “We trust when you walk out of the theatre, you will reconsider some of your assumptions about her ... and make up your own mind.”

» Winnie – The Opera runs at the State Theatre in Tshwane until May 3

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