A mishmash of emotion, I shifted nervously in my chair, an opera virgin awaiting deflowering by The Cape Town Opera Company. Zakes Mda’s novel, Heart of Redness, is one of my favourite books, and I was excited to witness this story of the infamous Cattle Killing that led to the starvation and death of more than a third of the Xhosa people. But to see it recounted in this unlikely format, with such a respected billing as composer/musical director Neo Muyanga and stage director Mark Fleishman, I was painfully aware that I might be out of my depth.
The play flits from past to present, beginning with students in a classroom, reading and roleplaying Mda’s Heart of Redness – the vessel that takes us to the tragic events that occurred on the Wild Coast in 1856. Although primarily spoken in English, there are smatterings of Xhosa to portray authenticity. The play is a marriage of music, movement, sight and sound, narrated in unfaltering soprano by Tina Mene, her story emphasised by lyrics and images projected above the stage. Several actors play more than one character and even perform vocal percussion; making verbal sounds in perfect synchronicity with actions performed on stage.
My initial nerves were blissfully bludgeoned into submission by the energy, talent and enthusiasm of the performers, confidently led by Lubabalo Nontwana as Camagu as well as the absorbing Indalo Stofile who brings a raw fearlessness to the flirtatious, free-spirited Qukezwa. Mfundo Tshazibane perfectly performs much of the latter narration and his delivery as Lefa Lebalo and Teacher had me in guffaws. A slightly deflating moment was the infamous prophecy of Nongqawuse – awkwardly delivered in Received Pronunciation and not nearly as dramatic as I had anticipated. But my disappointment was quickly supplanted by awe as I fell a willing victim to the phenomenal scene-stealer – the music.
Neo Muyanga describes the score of the production as “based on the choral modes and harmonies of the old apostolic church playing in call-and-response against songs of ‘redness’ – the music of the Nguni tradition” and I, a descendant of both of these musical traditions became frenzied: singing along and clapping uncontrollably to familiar songs from the classic kwaito tune Thathi’ Isgubhu to the bewitching drumbeat of the folk song We Majola Phum’etilongweni. What an unexpected enjoyment!
Heart of Redness is beautiful to watch but overall it is a show to be experienced by anyone who loves sound. This is far more than a great story reworked as an opera: it is a historical tipping point, described in layers upon layers of music from the surge of the surf to the most refined of operatic harmonies. It is a sonic time machine, hurling between the rage and superstition of the past and the weariness, disillusionment and scepticism of the present age. I can’t wait to relive it.
Heart of Redness runs at the Fugard Theatre, 19 to 22 August 2015.