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THE BIRTH OF AN AFRICAN OPERA (article first published : 2001-04-19)

Audiences are accustomed to promotions or trailers for movies … but for an opera? Last night, a packed audience in the Playhouse Opera was given a taste of a brand new totally-African opera. High profile members of national as well as local government, music lovers and a major contingent from the Zulu royal household presided over by King Zwelithini were introduced to Opera Africa’s Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu which is due to premiere in April, 2002.

Special guests were representatives of WMTF Radio and Networks in Chicago who were making a live recording of The Birth of an African Opera in collaboration with the SABC.

Hailed as the “precursor of the African Renaissance” by her son Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, minister of Home Affairs, the Mntwana (Princess) Constance Magogo kaDinuzulu is recognised as having been the greatest exponent and custodian of Zulu musical culture.

Her singing voice spanned at least three octaves and her most-favoured instruments were the ugubhu (large musical bow) and the umakhweyana (bow with divided string). A prolific composer herself, her impressive repertoire of traditional Zulu songs stretched back to the 18th century.

One of the objects of the evening’s programme was to introduce some of the influences that have impacted on the opera. These include indigenous music and dancing presented by Nomashizolo Msimang, Umgido Wamanazaretha, Sazi Dlamini and Bergville Vuka. The genre of classical opera was represented in March of the Priests from Mozart’s The Magic Flute sung by the Durban Serenade Choral Society.

South Africa’s diva extraordinaire Sibongile Khumalo was acquainted with Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu as a child. Accompanied by Gerhard Geist on the piano, she gave a beautiful rendering of some of the pieces in Haya, Mntwan’ Omkhulu! (Sing, Princess!), a song cycle based on the Princess’s songs. Arranged by Mzilikazi Khumalo and Peter Klatzow, it was commissioned by the SAMRO Endowment to the National Arts.

Sibongile Khumalo also appeared in the final item of the programme, excerpts from Ushaka, which also featured Michael Mkhize (bass) and Siyabonga Pi Ngcobo (tenor). Ushaka was written by Mzilikazi Khumalo who has based his original score of Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu on the Princess’s own songs.

The programme was narrated by director and writer Duma Ndlovu who co-wrote the libretto for the opera with Professor Themba Msimang.

Carefully researching his designs, artist Andrew Verster has created striking hanging panels and colourful costumes. Among these were strange shaped hats adorned with bobbles which looked more appropriate for a children’s play but he assured me they were an accurate copy of originals.

Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu certainly got a right royal send-off and the completed opera is awaited with interest. All credit to Opera Africa for creating an African operatic first.




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