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PRINCESS MAGOGO (article first published : 2002-05-5)

Princess Magogo, Opera Africa’s long-awaited first African-styled opera premiered in Durban last night, represented an astounding achievement from this Durban-based opera company. With no previous productions of this magnitude to use as comparison, the opera was as much of an unknown experience for the audience as it was for the producers, director and cast.

What is an opera? The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives as one description “dramatic performance or composition of which music is an essential part.” In most cases the storyline involves a fair amount of action and large group scenes, a device to utilise a multi-voiced chorus to create a full-bodied stirring sound.

Princess Magogo relies fairly heavily on narration. It’s a complicated story about the legendary musician and composer, the royal Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu. Acknowledged by three major posthumous awards, which have been accepted by her son iNkozi Mangosuthu Buthelezi, she produced a vast repertoire of songs and hymns - a massive contribution to the music of the Zulu nation.

The opera goes through her life from her birth to her death. The child of King Dinuzulu and Queen Silomo she grew up at a time when the Zulu nation was in disarray as a result of the war with the British. After the Bambatha rebellion is quelled, her father charges her to bear witness to the events of the past and to the destruction of the Zulu nation. She must strive to unify the people through her voice and music.

The success of the opera can be laid directly at the feet of Sibongile Khumalo whose considerable vocal capabilities allow her to interpret the nuances of the complex score. In splendid voice as always, she opens the opera as the dying Princess Magogo who informs the spirit of her father that she wishes to recall important moments of her life before she will go with him to join the ancestors. One of the most beautiful scenes sees her playing her famed musical bow (ugubhu) with her lover Ndwandwe who is enacted by Bongani Vilakazi, a singer I would dearly like to see more of in KZN.

A recent Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner, Fikile Mvinjelwa has a stirring and powerful voice and makes a proud and commanding King Dinuzulu. Bringing a dramatic touch to the role of Queen Silomo is Linda Bukhosini while Bongani Tembe’s true clear lyricism made for an upright Prince Solomon.

Mhlonishwa Dlamini was consistently impressive as Mankulumana as was Siphiwe Blose as Mathole, the man Princess Magogo is pressured into marrying in order to unite the Buthelezi and Usuthu tribes. The principals were ably supported by the Durban Serenade Choral Society with Tiki Nxumalo on drums.

Visually dramatic through Andrew Verster’s design with tight and disciplined choreography by Thulebona Mzizi Princess Magogo is composed by Mzilikazi Khumalo with orchestration, arrangements and additional music by Michael Hankinson. The fusion of Western and traditional African rhythms and harmonies took a little getting used to but by the second half, my ear was better attuned to appreciate them.

The opera features a libretto by Themba Msimang (who also plays the praise singer) and a stage adaptation by director Themi Venturas. Gerhard Geist conducted the KZN Philharmonic.

The premiere was broadcast live to the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and New Zealand. It was announced at a function after the performance that the opera will be presented in Chicago next year in March, sponsorship having been received for the airfares.

Let us hope that Princess Magogo generates further operas in the African traditional style, thereby allowing the genre to build and encourage the thousands of fine singers we have in South Africa to remain in the country and not seek work elsewhere.

There will be two more performances – on May 6 and 8 at 20h00. Book at Computicket. – Caroline Smart




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