From opera to “politopera”? New developments in South African opera composition and reception

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Opera composition in South Africa has been on the increase, especially since 2010. A general observable trend in these compositions is the connection, through dramatic and thematic material, to topics and concerns relevant to the current South African historical moment. In this sense, these works may be connected to a model suggested by Richard Taruskin (2003), who posits that emergent American audiences for opera in the 1980s and 1990s were likely to support opera that had social and political relevance and the capacity to “monumentalise” historical experience. This is offered as a possible explanation for the increase during those decades in opera composition that dealt with topical political concerns (John Adams’s Nixon in China and The death of Klinghoffer, for example) and American history (such as The voyage by Philip Glass, composed to commemorate the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s journey to the “New World”).

This article begins with a short overview of opera composition, performance and reception in South Africa, especially in the years preceding the dawn of democracy in 1994. It is noted that in the early years of South Africa’s democracy Western art music generally, and opera specifically, went through a period of anxiety, where criticism of government support for Western cultural practices was commonplace and support for opera and other Western art music forms decreased dramatically.

The article continues to provide overviews and critiques of eight South African operas composed and performed since 2010: Five: 20 – Operas made in South Africa by Bongani Ndodana-Breen (Hani); Martin Watt (Tronkvoël); Peter Klatzow (Words from a broken string); Hendrik Hofmeyr (Saartjie); Peter Louis van Dijk (Out of time); Winnie, the opera by Bongani Ndodana-Breen; The Mandela trilogy by Allan Stephenson, Mike Campbell and Peter Louis van Dijk; and Die poskantoor by Braam du Toit. These works may be connected to Taruskin’s model in that they deal with topics and concerns relevant to contemporary South Africa, depicting the lives of political figures significant to the anti-apartheid struggle, historical figures as well as contemporary South African life.

The descriptions of these operas provided in the article are based mainly on audio-visual material, either available in the public domain or provided to the author. The analyses proffered are therefore not score-based, and are meant to be read as the author’s opinion and not statements of fact. In addition to my own insights and opinions on the operas, I draw on criticisms and comments published by others in the public domain. The critique presented in this article engages with the musical and dramatic material of these operas in order to offer perspectives as to the effectiveness of the works in portraying significant political and cultural material relevant to present-day South Africans. It also explores the effectiveness of these works in portraying the gravitas of South African politics, history and contemporary life through musical and dramatic means. The use by some composers of African musical elements and influences in their operas is highlighted and critiqued, as are instances where the author feels that a significant disconnect is palpable between the subject matter and musical means employed to portray the dramatic content.

The notion of musical accessibility is explored and problematised as a potential tactic employed by composers to increase support for operatic works: many of the operas under discussion here were marketed specifically as musically accessible, arguably in an endeavour to convince audiences not usually supportive of so-called high art to attend the performances. It is also posited, however, that inaccessibility of musical material does not necessarily have to negatively influence the impact of an operatic work or its capacity to portray serious subject matter. This notion of access is further related to the thematic content of these works referred to above: it is posited that accessible, relevant topics are purposefully chosen by composers in order to increase support for the operatic genre among South African audiences.

As a cultural practice inherited from the West, opera does not maintain an uncomplicated position in Africa. A further aim of the article is to theorise a context for opera composition in present-day South Africa, especially in terms of how this genre may be conceptualised as a cultural practice with strong connectability to African cultural traditions, such as storytelling through music, singing, dance and acting. Ndodana-Breen, two of whose works are discussed in this article, has stated that he views opera as by definition relevant to African cultural practices, such as storytelling through music. Neo Muyanga, another South African composer who has composed opera in recent years, has made strong arguments to the same effect, and agitates for a reconceptualisation of opera in present-day South Africa to align it with the popular mainstream. The conclusions reached in this article support Muyanga’s invitation to South African composers to rethink the role of opera as South African cultural artefact, and to explore ways in which this artefact may be developed into a medium accessible to and significant for all South Africans.

Keywords: opera; composition; culture; politics; South Africa; African music.


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Van opera tot “politopera”? Nuwe strominge in Suid-Afrikaanse operakomposisie en -resepsie

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