Gospel opera: The cast of The African Passion, which premieres in Durban over Easter. Photo: Val Adamson

A BRAND new gospel opera/musical, The African Passion, is set to premier in Durban over the Easter period, before moving on to tour the country.

The production – a first for the country and Africa – has been described as a show that brings The Passion of Christ to life “in a South African Gospel style”.

The tour begins in Durban and then moves to Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Soweto, Joburg, Mahikeng, and back to Durban.

The libretto was written by Themi Venturas, and the music was composed by celebrated and award-winning gospel choral composer Phelelani Mnomiya, Antony Govender (of Destiny Music) and the Young Mbazo – the grandchildren of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Under Venturas’s direction, the show features Bonginkhosi “Faca” Kulu (The Lion King in New York) as Jesus, Natalia da Rocha (the original Natasha in Jimbo) as his mother, Mary, Sharon Dee as Mary Magadalene, Grant Jacobs (recently seen in Man of La Mancha, Paper Boy) as Simon Peter, Dewaldt Von Solms (of the popular singing duo Von West) as Pontius Pilate, and Caitlin Kilburn (remembered for her stellar performance as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha) as Pilate’s wife, Blessing.

The show also features Blessing Xaba (seen as Fatty in the movie Spud) as Caiaphas, Aubrey Lodewyk (last seen in Handel’s Messiah and the Mandela Trilogy) as Annas and a host of other superb singers, including the isicathamiya group Young Mbazo.

In an interview with Tonight, Venturas said the cast of 21 are supplemented in each city by a 60-strong local choir.

“The production has been about two years in the making. I’ve been intimately involved in the creation of a few of South Africa’s first Zulu operas (like Princess Magogo), so I have observed how opera is emerging with an African voice.

“I’ve been directing Messiah at The Playhouse for the past three years now, and for a while I’ve though what is the point of doing it over and over, and that we need to do something that has a South African flavour and shows us,” he said.

However, Venturas is quick to clarify that the production is not only operatic. “It is sung through, in the same way that Jesus Christ Superstar was regarded as the first rock opera. But African Passion is a mix of contemporary music, with a few operatic voices. The overall key of the show is the sound of South African Gospel (like Joyous Celebration).”

After city-hopping for four audition tours nationwide, Venturas said they were happy to have a very strong cast. “At this stage, we are busy recording an album in studio that will be released as we tour. And we are busy with rehearsals too.”

In a move considered to be historic, the show will be premiering at the Umlazi Oasis Fellowship Centre Church.

With choreography by Daisy Spencer and vocal direction by Desireé Govender, Venturas said The African Passion plays out against a spectacular audio-visual background using the latest in modern AV techno- logy in costumes designed by Nompumelelo Mkhize.

• The show is at Umlazi Oasis Fellowship Centre, Durban, March 14-17; Port Elizabeth Opera House, March 21-24; Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, March 28-31; Soweto Theatre, April 5-7; Joburg Theatre, April 11-14; Mmabatho Civic Centre, Mafikeng, April 18-21; City Hall, Durban, April 26-28 (to be confirmed). Bookings are at Computicket throughout the country, except for Joburg Theatre run, where booking is through their call centre at 0861 670 670.