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Brett Bailey is reprising his African take on Guiseppe Verdi’s opera, setting it in the Democratic Republic of Congo and drawing on musicians from around Europe to work with South African singers.
SOUTH AFRICAN opera singers and an orchestra from a problematic European war zone tell the story of a play originally set in Scotland, through the lens of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“People coming together and doing something beautiful, it absolutely makes sense,” said conductor Premil Petrovic.
The Berlin-based Serbian was working with South African director Brett Bailey, Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol and American lighting designer Felice Ross, on Macbeth.
For the Cape Town leg at Artscape, they used 12 Capetonian musicians, but only two will travel to Europe for the rest of the tour. The 10 South African opera singers met members of Petrovic’s No Borders Orchestra at the beginning of May.
Petrovic’s job was to interpret Cassol’s arrangement of Verdi’s opera, “to realise the meaning”, and he quoted Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic to explain his frame of reference: “She said, ‘It’s not important what you are doing, it’s important from which state of mind you are doing it.’”
Still, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth holds a particular significance for him because “it is an opera without love”.
“This is very rare. I cannot remember any other opera without love. There is only power, greed, hatred, crime and revenge.
“Between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, there is no love at all. They support each other… strategically.
“And there is a lot of aggression between them.”
This is also a special opera in the musical sense because it is the most non-bel canto of Verdi’s work.
“It’s a really ugly drama, in music.”
Petrovic pointed out that Verdi’s notes suggested he didn’t want the singers to use beautiful voices, but raw, ugly voices “shouting and whispering, rather than singing”.
“It’s not about singing.”
He thinks Cassol’s score and Bailey’s direction are based on this state of mind.
Verdi was, by nature, a much more condensed opera writer than say, Wagner, and composer Cassol has taken a step further to create “one-and-a-half hours of concentrated drama”.
The lead singers never have a chance to relax, so Petrovic is impressed by Owen Metsileng and Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Macbeth and his wife.
“They are some of the best singers I’ve worked with because of their expression.
“They have great voices, but the power of expression they have will be huge in Europe.”
Cassol also condensed the orchestration to 12 musicians, which supports “the idea of something a little bit raw”, which goes hand in hand with Bailey’s presentation of refugee performers.
“There is this sort of directness in the sound, but at the same time, an unbelievable beauty that people still want to make art in the worst periods of their lives.
“This is exactly what is happening on the stage. Refugees from the Congo who want to show Macbeth and the orchestra, in a way, is also a refugee orchestra.”
Musicians remain visible on stage throughout the performance, with the singers moving back and forth between a central dais and seats, stage left.
Now that the musicians and singers had started rehearsing together, they were working on their rapport and timing.
Petrovic found the rehearsal period to be emotionally affecting because Bailey has been channelling the singers’ emotional reaction to the DRC reality of violence, terror and exploitation into their work.
“You can use this energy in art and this is what Brett is provoking. I find it very interesting and this is why I created No Borders Orchestra. This is all, in fact, not about art, it’s about life.
“Brett has made a really great version, pointing out the rawness, directness and ugliness of this opera, but in an unbelievably beautiful way.”
He spent some time with Bailey in Kinshasa last year and was fascinated by the sheer number of artists who find a way to set up galleries and theatres in the slum areas of the third-largest urban area in Africa.
“It is the origin of art, simply wishing to express yourself and to do something together with others.
“It is so different to our European luxurious art, where we say ‘this orchestra is amazing’ or ‘this artist is amazing’ and it’s about technique, perfection and labels. It’s about power and money in the end.
“There you see this rawness and the beauty of people who have discovered what is precious about the meaning of art. This project is based on that, this fundamental wish to create your world.”
• Before moving to Europe, where they will be performing at the Edinburgh Festival, among others, Macbeth was on at Artscape Opera House at the end of April. That’s when these rehearsals took place.
Verdi done Congo style
Brett Bailey has set the drama within an African con-text, much as he did with Medea and Orpheus. He treats Verdi’s opera of witchcraft, tyranny and the quest for power in much the same way as religions, cultural modes and material goods dumped on the shores of Africa are appropriated, infiltrated and modified.
He imagined the opera as a 19th-century monolith lost on the grasslands of central Africa.
A troupe of refugee-performers from the conflict zones of the eastern Congo discover an old trunk of musical scores and costumes from an amateur company that had performed the opera in the region during the colonial period. They use the Macbeth material they find in the trunk to tell the story of the plight of their country today.
While many in South Africa are aware of the human catastrophe playing out in the eastern Congo, few outside the region know about this dark patch in central Africa.
• After the Artscape run, Macbeth travels to Kunsten Festival des Arts KVS in Brussels; Operadagen, Rotterdam; Wiener Festwochen, Vienna; Le Printemps des Comediens, Montpellier; Theaterformen Festival, Braunschweig; The Barbican, London; Festival d’Automn, Paris; and Le Maillon, Strasbourg.