Music-lovers can look forward to a momentous event in November when the world premiere production of a major new South African composition is unveiled on Durban’s Playhouse Opera stage. Entitled Ubuntu – The Opera, the work is the magnum opus of multi-talented Durban-based musician and composer, Juan Burgers, who for many years has played a leading role in this country’s classical music environment.
Funded by the National Lotteries Commission and presented under the auspices of Esayidi FET College in collaboration with Bravo Africa Entertainment, Burgers’ creation will be staged as a 21st anniversary salute to South Africa’s Struggle for Democracy, offering a grand-scale showcase of some of the country’s finest operatic talent.
Following nationwide auditions, rehearsals for this fully-fledged opera production will begin at Durban Music School on August 24, in preparation for the new opera’s run of five performances, to be given between November 17 and 22.
Set to a powerfully distinctive score underpinned by the composer’s melodic inspiration and his unfailingly original ear for richly conceived vocal and orchestral writing - making the work accessible to first-time listeners - Ubuntu is written in two acts with a Prologue. Burgers’ libretto is constructed around cornerstone events which historically delineate the years of struggle against apartheid.
Heading the list of persona included in the work’s cast list are the roles of Nelson Rolihlaha Mandela and Winnie Madikizela Mandela, whose marriage as seen in the context of the opera proves to be the catalyst against which the broader backdrop of the struggle is depicted. They share the stage with other great struggle icons such as Nkosi Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, among others.
Says Burgers, who has spent most of his career furthering the phenomenal Black vocal talent in this country, long before it became vogue to do so: “I set out to tell this story of terrible injustice endured by millions of South Africans, through the medium of opera, the noblest of all art forms, in the knowledge it would offer full scope for the stirring cultural background of our country, while allowing me to recreate a birds-eye, or Cosmic, view of these historic happenings.”
“The opera is one of the few in the history of its repertoire that has larger female chorus than male chorus. The women of South Africa had a great deal to offer for the struggle, as they showed in their defiance of the pass laws in 1956. In this regard, one of the most important figures who appears onstage in my work is Winnie Mandela, who epitomised untold courage and endurance during the bleak years of isolation she was subjected to.”
“The other key principal female character in the cast is Gaia, goddess Mother Earth. She is the first character to appear onstage. The title role character, Ubuntu, is sung by a tenor who remains onstage throughout the duration of the show. This character embraces the ancient Vedic concept of Purusha, the innermost essence of being – proclaiming that all which exists in the Universe is interconnected. This concept, translated in African terms, is equated with that of ‘One-ness’ epitomised by the term ‘Ubuntu’, which derives from the notion, ‘I am because you are’ ”.
Burgers began writing Ubuntu in 2007, and the core of his composition occurred between September and December 2008. Funding initiatives began in earnest in 2011, and spearheaded by the project’s executive producer, Raphael Vilakazi, finally came through in May this year.
Steeped in Opera all his life, Burgers’ dual musical training was also as a concert pianist, both at Pretoria University and subsequently at the University of Cape Town. A formative influence was his piano teacher during his teens, the renowned Durban pedagogue, Ethel Kerkin, who encouraged her pupils in approaching the music she set before them to ‘get into the mind of the composer’.
Burgers says a major breakthrough in unlocking his creative process happened in 2003 in Cape Town, while preparing singers for a production of one of the greatest works of the 19th century repertoire – Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. This, along with the opportunity throughout his career to build an extraordinary repertoire of other giant operatic and choral works (Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Handel’s Messiah, Wagner’s Lohengrin, Puccini’s Turandot, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and many other masterworks), gave him the capacity of bringing to the stage these hugely demanding pieces, while in the process attaining the trade-mark level of performance excellence for which he is known.
The action of Ubuntu – The Opera unfolds against key events in the life of Nelson Mandela, from his birth in a rural Transkei homeland, to scenarios such as the notorious Rivonia Trial, Winnie’s years of isolation, Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island, culminating with his eventual release from prison.
Staged under the artistic directorship of Burgers himself, Ubuntu – The Opera will be directed, designed and choreographed by the gifted Netherlands-based, South African-born dancer, David Krugel (Spartacus of Africa). Principal casting includes the rising young soprano Charlotte Mhlongo as Gaia, with Thamsanqa Mqaba and Simphiwe Mkhatshwa alternating in the pivotal tenor role of Ubuntu (who remains onstage throughout the opera). Baritones Raphael Vilakazi and Njabulo Mthimkhulu will share the role of Nelson Mandela.
Sopranos Nomsa Mpofu and Khumbuzile Dlamini will alternate as Winnie Mandela; baritones Musa Ndadane and Tamsanqa Khaba will share the role of Albert Luthuli, Richard Salmon is slated to play Judge Quartus de Wet; Riaan Hunter appears as Colonel Swanepoel, Raimondo van Staden as Braam Fischer, and tenor Cobus Venter will sing the role of the public prosecutor, Percy Yutar.
The large handpicked body of choristers will bring gravitas to the vitally important role played by the Chorus in this ground-breaking work, which will see conductor Lykele Temmingh at the helm of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Tickets are R120, R180 and R250 per person (R90 for students and pensioners). Booking opens shortly through Computicket outlets at Shoprite Checkers stores, telephonically on 0861 915 8000, or via the Playhouse box office on 031-369 9540 (office hours), or online at www.computicket.com.