Friday 23 August 2019

Theatre: Music from the heart of Mandela's life

It's hard to put the life of a legend on stage, yet Michael Williams is confident he has captured the real Nelson Mandela, he tells our reporter

From left: Lukhanyo Moyake (Justice), Siphamandla Yakupa (Winnie), Candida Mosoma (Dollie) and Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri (Mandela 2) photographed at the Mandela Statue Southbank
From left: Lukhanyo Moyake (Justice), Siphamandla Yakupa (Winnie), Candida Mosoma (Dollie) and Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri (Mandela 2) photographed at the Mandela Statue Southbank

Anna Coogan

Opera is the telling of an inspiring story on an epic scale, so where's the surprise in the news that Nelson Mandela is the subject of an original opera which is about to make its Dublin debut.

Mandela Trilogy, which tells the life of Mandela in three acts, is written and directed by Michael Williams, the managing director of Cape Town Opera.

Earlier this summer, Williams travelled to the National Opera House in Wexford where members of Cape Town Opera performed, including a teaser of songs from Mandela Trilogy, which were joyous and uplifting, and received a standing ovation.

So how incredibly difficult was it to take a global icon of Mandela's stature, and envelop his trials, tribulations and triumphs into an evening's entertainment?

"I think taking a subject like Mandela, you need to think how you are going to transform that into a work of art, and how you are going to be presenting to an audience only a small part of the man's life," Williams says.

He's the prize-winning author of 12 novels, as well as being an accomplished opera director and lyricist. Mandela Trilogy was first produced when South Africa staged the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

"This is not a documentary, it's not a four-hour film and it's not a series," Williams says of his tribute to Mandela. "This is two hours of musical theatre that is going to move people, that is going to make them think about Mandela's life, and it is not going to give you the complete picture."

Capturing Mandela's enormous spirit has demanded a degree of ingenuity. "How I give you a flavour is by taking the three different phases of Mandela's life," Williams says of his opera. "When he was growing up in the Transkei as a young man, and we have a young singer sing that role. Then I have him as the suave, sophisticated 40-year-old at the peak of his prowess as a lawyer in the jazz era of the 1950s and have a different singer sing that role.

"Then the third act has his years of incarceration in prison, and I have a different singer sing that."

Williams uses a different composer for each act - Allan Stephenson's traditional Xhosa songs for the first act when Mandela is growing up, and Mike Campbell's vibrant jazz and blues numbers for Mandela's legal years, and the second act.

Peter Louis van Dijk's contemporary opera numbers are the backdrop to Mandela's prison years and his release - and all the acts combined represent the diversity of opera and life and music in modern South Africa. Williams says we can also expect an insight into Mandela, the real man behind the legend when it opens at the BGE in Dublin.

"I couldn't be working a hagiography," says Williams, who was in the Grand Parade in front of the City Hall in Cape Town to welcome Mandela on the day he was released after 27 years in prison. "To come to a piece like this with undue respect would be a mistake," he says. "You have to show the man if it is going to be meaningful. He himself said he was more of a sinner than a saint," Williams says of Mandela.

"The part of the man, he loved women, he had affairs left, right and centre," Williams goes on. "He had infidelity with his first wife. He had an affair with a songstress which is in the piece.

"He was not clear on armed struggle. He was very much into armed struggle in the beginning years. He very much called for violence. He said we must stand and fight the apartheid government, and of course he changed that point of view as he got older. The years in jail mellowed him, they gave him more maturity."

Mandela Trilogy will run at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from September 14 to 17.

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