Mention South Africa at a dinner party and you’ll probably get through the entire evening without ever having to talk about opera. That is, unless you mention the dynamic Dimpho di Kopane company established by Englishman Mark Dornford-May. In recent years, the 54-year-old and his young all-black company have brought the art-form back into the spotlight (and cocktail conversations) with two vibrant, sexy reinterpretations of opera classics, cementing the country’s status as a growing operatic force.
Dornford-May’s latest effort, an adaptation of Mozart’s popular opera, ‘The Magic Flute’, playing here at the Victoria Theatre, won over London critics with its full-house performances, high energy and ravishing costumes. The production went on to claim the Best Musical Revival prize at the 2008 Laurence Olivier Awards. Its predecessor, Dornford-May’s extraordinary 2005 film debut U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, based on Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, won top prize at Berlin’s prestigious International Film Festival in the same year. ‘The Magic Flute’ isn’t quite your typical opera though. Instead of the original languages, the performers sing in Xhosa, a South African language. And in this version, Mozart’s orchestra is abandoned completely for the joyful sound of the marimba and other percussion instruments.
I spoke to Dornford-May to understand how it all started. The Yorkshire-born director grew up in the ’60s on a diet of tea and theatre, he explains. His first job involved stage direction at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he didn’t begin dabbling in opera until the ’90s, when he started an experimental company in London with conductor Charles Hazlewood.
Director Mark Dornford-May
Then, in 2000, Dornford-May was invited to direct a one-off production of ‘Carmen’ in South Africa. There, he was struck by the poverty of the indigenous South African people, and by a political subtext beyond Bizet’s lovely melodies that seemed to reflect the difficulties suffered by the country’s black people. The opera, set in the cigarette factories of Seville, would work equally well in a poverty-stricken, post-apartheid South African township, he reasoned. There weren’t any bull-fights in Cape Town, but the glamorous Escamillo could certainly be an equally shiny political figure, couldn’t he? A gradual Africanisation of ‘Carmen’ had begun.
To fulfil this vision, Dornford-May auditioned thousands, choosing only 35 for his company. He found church, school and community choirs with, he says, some of the best singers in the world. The amount of talent astounded him then, but as he later found out, singing is an integral part of South Africa’s oppressed indigenous people – their voices reflect every aspect of daily life, feasts and celebrations. In the 20th century, song was also a powerful rallying point against the white apartheid government and discrimination.
‘If a country plays football all the time,’ Dornford-May says, ‘then its football naturally improves, and in South Africa, they sing all the time.’ His wife and leading lady, Pauline Malufane, is perhaps one of the best examples of South African singing talent. Utterly believable and accomplished as ‘Carmen’, a mezzo-soprano role, Malufane’s performance was hailed as definitive, no small deal for someone whose only training came from choir practice. Yet later she stunned everyone by taking on Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’, a demanding high coloratura role, and receiving praise for her performance.
It’s a feat indeed as the types of singing required are so disparate, most people would not dream of singing both roles, Dornford-May explains. After seeing her in the latter role, acclaimed conductor Sir Simon Rattle invited her to sing with his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. But what boggles the mind is Dornford-May’s astonishing claim that, compared to other South Africans, Malufane’s more the norm than the exception.
Dimpho di Kopane company
Having this great wealth of talent didn’t make Dornford-May’s job of adapting ‘The Magic Flute’ any easier. Unlike ‘Carmen’, easily moved from Seville to Cape Town, it needed tweaking to make it believably African. The trouble lay within the story itself – half parable, half children’s fairy tale, replete with a prince and princess, a dragon and a confusing character called the ‘Queen of the Night’ who’s first good, then evil.
In his ‘Magic Flute’, the action moves from Egypt to a rural, tribal African setting, while the Masonic rite of passage undertaken by the hero Tamino becomes a Xhosa coming-of- age ceremony. Mozart’s characters undergo similar transformations; Sarastro, the benevolent ruler, represents reconciliation ‘with elements of the great South African leaders such as Mandela and Tutu’, says Dornford-May, while the Queen of the Night is ‘an embodiment of evil, a colonial force trying to impose order on a different community’.
In the end, he explains, ‘The Magic Flute’ is about ‘reconciliation and trying to bring together opposing, clashing forces’ – an analogy that, with the shadow of apartheid not too far behind, resonates strongly with many South Africans.
I can’t resist asking Dornford- May if his company, brilliant as it is, is open to white people as well. His reply? ‘We don’t have any white members at the moment, but that’s not a company policy! We would take white singers if they were good enough.’
Catch 'The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo' at the Victoria Theatre on 28-30 May as part of the Singapore Arts Festival 2009