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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

LOVE AND GREEN ONIONS (article first published : 2001-07-4)

This year’s winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for music is Fikile Mvinjelwa. The Festival programme reports this talented tenor as stating that “People always say that opera is a Eurocentric art form. I’m trying to make them understand that everyone can do opera. … Opera is a story … We’ve got our own stories here.”

For budding singers who may be considering taking up a classical style such as opera, Fikile Mvinjelwa makes a good role model. He’s successful, in command of his future and has a trained and disciplined baritone that can cut like a rasp or flow like liquid velvet. He has a riveting stage presence and a good flair for comedy but can handle a love scene with sensitivity.

Also, he appeared in the world premiere and first performances of a truly African opera, Love and Green Onions which opened at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last week. And he got to play opposite the sublime Gloria Bosman. In my book, that’s a good example to follow.

Love and Green Onions - the title alone should sell the opera – is a jazz opera based on Zakes Mda’s novel Ways of Dying. The music is by Denzil Weale with orchestration by Peter McLea. Michael Williams directed and produced the lyrics while Graham Scott was the conductor.

The opera starts with the funeral of the eight year-old son of Noria (Gloria Bosman) who died under mysterious circumstances. Enter Toloki (Fikile Mvinjelwa), a professional mourner with a taste for green onions, who recognises Gloria as a “home girl” from his youthful days. The reunion is tender and loving and as the opera progresses, the scenes between these two are memorable not simply because of the quality of the music but because the two singers complement each other and generate an exciting interaction.

The music is pleasing and accessible. Some of the numbers could easily turn into jazz classics. Particularly pleasing were Hills Empty of Grass (Toloki), The Many Ways of Dying (Bhut’shaddy), Sunshine Girl (Ensemble) and Wonderland (Noria and Toloki). One of the most moving numbers of the opera was Two Hands that wash each other sung by Noria and Toloki as they ceremoniously bathe each other. Gloria Bosman is a world class performer completely in command of her excellent voice. She is delightful in her schoolday scenes.

The third member of the love triangle is Bhut’shaddy, who has designs on Noria. This character is played with much verve and vigour - and he’s a pretty nifty dancer, too – by Marcus Desando. His When I bought this kombi is a show-stopper.

The few niggles I had included a troublesome microphone for Fikile Mvinjelwa during the first half, sopranos that tended to be fairly strident, occasional uncertain entries from the ensemble and sound imbalances when the orchestra overpowered the singers. The chorus of children was well-disciplined and the young lady who played Noria as a young girl is a talent to watch.

An unpleasant surprise came when one of the members of the cast decided to take it into his own head to change his character for the evening and become a Nelson Mandela prototype. Not only was this highly unprofessional, self-indulgent and disrespectful to his leading lady and the rest of the cast, it was also illogical - at the time in which the opera was set, the former president would have been serving his long-term prison sentence.

Designer Michael Mitchell set is a curved rostrum with pieces of corrugated iron standing on the sides and hanging from the flies along with a horse on a ladder and a windmill – the stuff of which dreams are made. There are other items, such as rubber tyres but their deadly connotations are only discovered later. Penny Simpson’s costumes and Pieter de Swardt’s lighting all go towards making this a memorable production and kickstarts the entrenchment of a new opera genre in South Africa today.

With this initiative and the work of Opera Afrika in Durban which is due to produce Princess Magogo in 2002 with Sibongile Khumalo in the title role, the future of opera looks fine and flourishing! – Caroline Smart




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