Madiba the African Opera
We caught up with Chief Phathuxolo Unathi Mtirara, founder and CEO of Opera South Africa and grand nephew of the late Nelson Mandela. Mtirara had gone and created an opera about the legendary freedom fighter and statesman’s life. Madiba the African Opera promises to be full of song, art and a more personal perspective of the icon.
Here, Mtirara gives us some insight into what inspired him to create an Opera about his grand uncle’s life and a little bit about his relationship with the father of the nation.
What fond memories do you have of Tat’uMandela?
I always looked forward to Christmas time with him back in the village and knowing that I would get to spend more time with my cousins. But mostly when he would tell stories of how they grew up with my Grandfather Justice and all the mischievous things they used to do as boys.
What prompted you to create an opera about his life?
Growing up as a young boy, I used to spend lots of time with him and some of the elders in the family during holidays. AsI grew older and got exposed to more of his life and reading the books, watching documentaries and movies about him I realised that most of the stories are focused on the politician in him and not the person.
Knowing his background and some of the things he held very close to his heart, his family, his tradition — none of these books or movies seemed to highlight that side of him. They all seemed to be focusing on the well established person, the politician, president, world icon but nothing about the boy who grew up with nothing, who refused to allow the circumstances of his background to determine his future. So I felt there was a story of hope that needed to be told.
How did it feel the moment just before the curtain went up the very first time?
I was very nervous. Myself, Sibusiso (music) and Kutlwano (orchestration) have never done anything on this scale. I had no idea how the audience would react let alone receive this work, but when the first note was sung, I knew there was no turning back.
Do you think appreciation for opera is spreading in South Africa?
Look, South Africa is a country with huge potential. Over the past few years we have seen opera growing more especially with telling our own stories, with choir competitions like the National Choir Festival and others that keep prescribing operatic works. We seem to be growing from strength to strength but we can still do with more support.
The opera showed in May 2014 before. How was it received then?
It was received very well by those who understood the idea behind it and the intention behind its creation.
What message did you want to share about Mandela in this opera?
I wanted to say to a young boy or girl growing up somewhere in Africa that it is possible to be anything in life. Your circumstances of today must not determine your tomorrow. Hopefully it will motivate a young boy growing up in a village somewhere to say, “There once was a boy who had the same background as you but through hard work he became a world icon.”
What can the audience look forward to?
I think they can look forward to great entertainment, great singing and story telling, more and above. They must look forward to a South African Opera, not European story telling.
How do you think operas like this one will influence the art in South Africa?
If one gets to come and see this work at the State Theatre, one will see that art forms across the board and can be infused into one thing. By so doing, we are then creating an art industry not an “Opera” industry or Jazz industry. One will be able to come out of the show with many different ideas.
Tell us a little about your life and background.
I grew up in the same village and household as Madiba, with strong traditional roots. I went to school in Mqhekezweni and high school at Holy Cross in Mthatha. I was raised by my grandmother. I love traveling and challenging myself and am married to Nonhlanhla Yende and we have a 5 year old daughter.
What process did you go through to convert the life of this great man into an opera?
I first needed to understand the structure of the opera; how it would look like on stage, the types of songs and rhythms that I wanted portrayed. Then I thought: ‘Where do I start and where will I end?’ Then I started talking to the elders in the family just to verify some of the facts that I was not sure about and the rest is history.
The opera will happen on the 27th of November at the State Theatre. Go to www.statetheatre.co.za to book.