We must constantly create new operas. There are so many exciting new singers being discovered in South Africa, but what will they sing? They should be able to sing their own stories.” Kamal Khan, Cape Town Opera Company conductor.
South Africa is steeped in fascinating, convoluted and mysterious stories, many of which were buried by Apartheid and still lie forgotten during times of democracy. However, the Cape Town Opera Company, in collaboration with the National Lottery Fund, presents a platform of artistic revival whereby South Africans can lay claim to their identities through artistic expression.
The audience was seated on the stage for a more immersive theatre experience. Initially this was exciting, as it was more intimate and literally put the viewer at centre stage. It lost its novelty fairly quickly as I soon forgot that I was seated on a stage closer to the performance, but my awareness of the seating arrangements was revived during violent scenes. Suddenly, it was clear that you were no longer safe in the comfort of your red velvet chair but thrust into the centre of the drama.
The two-hour show began with Bessie: The Blue Eyed Xhosa, the true story of, a seven-year-old English girl who was shipwrecked on the Wild Coast at Lambasi Bay and later became queen of the Xhosa. The premise of this tale was what I found most alluring, especially as a Xhosa person myself. I was delighted to witness the story of how a little stranger from nowhere reigned supreme in a royal dynasty that still lives on to this day. Unfortunately, the climax of the opera was at the beginning when young Bessie (Denira Coleman) met the Xhosas for the first time. Thereafter, the storyline was thin with little more conflict other than the questions of whether the prince should marry older Bessie (Leah Gunter) – who the Xhosa still regarded as a stranger – rather than one of them.
Blood of Mine tells the tragic story of Sethunya (Goitsemang Lehonye), who is shamed by the people of her village in Botswana for not having children. Her hypermasculine husband, Ntsimande (Martin Mkhize), boasts about his impressive virility that supposedly runs in his blood as his forefathers bred only men. He becomes increasingly frustrated with his wife and her village condemns her. The overbearing village women constantly watch her, circling her like sharks, literally as their seats rotate threateningly around Sethunya, their headscarves sharp as shark fins. Desperate, Sethunya eventually commits adultery and falls pregnant, but it becomes apparent to the family that the child does not belong to Ntsimande. This daring, poignant play examines and challenges traditional beliefs and the burden on both women and men to fulfill impossible but socially ingrained ideals of gender roles.
In The Application, Mrs Makaleni (Bongiwe Nakani) needs to attain a passport at Home Affairs in order to meet her grandson in the UK for the first time and attend his wedding. Her resentment grows each day she is turned away because of administrative requirements, such as proof of residence and recent photograph. The Application showcases the struggles everyday people have to endure when the answers to their dreams are at the end of a queue and on the pages of a form. The dehumanising aspects of the experience are evoked by zombie-like figures who lament that they had been queuing since dawn, reduced to numbers as as they stand for hours.
The most haunting story of the night was Anti-Laius, a spine-tingling visual and audio treat, with an eerily candlelit choir in blood-stained clothing. This Afrikaans opera examines the pervasiveness of violence in society, referencing the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. Footage of France’s history of violence appear onscreen in black and white while a writer (Frances du Plessis) converses with a defence lawyer (Makdupyane Senaoana) on helping the man who murdered his child escape imprisonment. Scenes change as the mythical figure of Laius (Garth Delport), who was killed by his own son (Johannes Slabbert), confronts Oedipus in hell. This stands in contrast with the tragic local story of renowned tenor Deon van der Walt who was killed by his father. Although I was perplexed at the focus on France rather than South Africa, Anti-Laius made extensive use of the senses, creating tension with the unnerving, sombre choir in white bloodstained clothes, creative use of lighting and the sounds of gunshots. True to the theme of the story, I constantly felt under the threat of violence.
The score told its own story: the orchestra built up anticipation as the ship battled to stay afloat in the Cape of Storms in Bessie: The Blue Eyed Xhosa; the ominous tick of a clock counted down to the dreaded closing time at Home Affairs in The Application; and gunshots roared as a father murdered his son in a fit of jealousy in Anti-Laius.
Four 30 is ideal for those like me who are new to theatre and longtime opera lovers as it fills the gaping hole of originality in opera as well as catering to an audience that has been craving new stories told by young creators and guided by the masters to nurture new classics.
Four 30 runs at the Artscape Theatre Centre until 28 November 2015