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PRINCESS MAGOGO AUTHORS RECLAIM RIGHTS (article first published : 2003-11-13)

There's one show that goes on and on - the opera Princess Magogo. From the theatre to the courts to confidential committee rooms, the saga continues. The latest development is an announcement by the authors of the opera that they are reclaiming their rights in an effort to break the legal logjam.

When the curtain went up in May 2002 in the Playhouse, with South African diva Sibongile Khumalo in the title role, the glitz and excitement already hid backstage problems. Nine months later, the Pietermaritzburg High Court heard an acrimonious dispute between musicians and soloists on one hand and the production company, Opera Africa on the other.

The KZN Philharmonic Orchestra and some of the original cast members - not Khumalo who again took the role of Princess Magogo - claimed that Opera Africa should have given them the right of first refusal for the short Pretoria run of the opera earlier this year, saying their contracts guaranteed this for five years from the date of first staging. However, Opera Africa claimed they had signed those contracts under duress as the performers were threatening to withdraw just hours before the curtain went up on the high profile premiere - the court was told that this was a figurative gun to the company's head.

The matter was referred to trial, but the judge urged the parties to settle. In the hope of persuading them to reach some kind of agreement, Dr Ben Ngubane, the Minister of Arts and Culture, stepped in and set up a commission. The members were Nicola Danby, CEO of Business and Arts South Africa; Doreen Nteta, the now suspended CEO of the National Arts Council, and Professor Andries Oliphant, chairman of the Arts and Culture Trust.

After several extensions to their mandate, Danby said this week that their report has now been handed to the Minister. As the report is confidential, she was unable to say anything about its recommendations. So far, it has not been possible to get any comment from the Arts and Culture ministry as to when there will be a statement.

But in the meantime, the opera's authors, Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo, Michael Hankinson, Professor Themba Msimang, and Prince Zuzifa Buthelezi, grandson of Princess Magogo and the representative of the Buthelezi family who hold copyright in some of her songs, have decided to take back their rights to the opera. Because of the drawn out dispute, no-one can stage the opera at the moment, and the authors claim that this impacts negatively on their intellectual property rights and, obviously, their earnings.

Hankinson, who was reponsible for the orchestrations, explains that the authors have set up a company to hold the rights. "Opera Africa are unable to pay us any money or royalties while the dispute goes on. And we gave up the R180,000 we earned for the one night when the opera was broadcast. Our fee was paid to the members of the orchestra, to ensure that the performance went ahead," he says. "It did not leave a very nice taste in anyone's mouth." Opera Africa CEO Sandra de Villiers confirms she has agreed to relinquish the rights to the authors, as her company is unable to stage the opera or pay royalties while the dispute drags on.

However, the other side - the orchestra and soloists - seem surprised by the latest developements. According to their attorney, Ian Cox of Cox Yeats in Durban: "It is a new ball game. If the authors have taken their rights back, they can pretty much do what they wish." This would mean that if the opera was to be staged by anyone other than Opera Africa, the musicians would have no first refusal claim.

Cox was also surprised to hear that the commission had reported to the Minister as he was under the impression that they were still taking representations. "That's very odd," he said.

And so the saga continues. But if the rights to Princess Magogo do indeed now rest with the authors of the work, and they can negotiate another staging, the current dispute would seem to have run out of steam. The only thing left to decide would be the legal costs, which are likely to be hefty. But it has been a sad episode for what once seemed to be a breakthrough moment in the development of a new culture for a new country. - Margaret von Klemperer




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