Telling Winnie’s story

Time of article published Apr 26, 2011

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is such an iconic figure and now the pursuit to tell her story is gaining momentum with the movie due for release soon and Winnie the Opera premiering at the State Theatre on Thursday.

The controversy that mars her life lent itself to the making of her film with the Jennifer Hudson saga, where South Africans felt a local actress needed to take the lead role, instead of an American.

There is no such controversy with Winnie the Opera, but this is what director Shirley Jo Finney walks into as an American telling Winnie’s story in the opera.

Winnie the Opera is produced by composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Mfundi Vundla, producer of Generations, and filmmaker Warren Wilensky. How did Finney feel about taking on the task?

“Winnie the Opera boasts traditional theatrical qualities as well as elements of multimedia. I’m a female director of colour with the knowledge of both mediums and that’s what the producers were looking for.

“Because black female directors are only starting to emerge in South Africa, they looked outside. When Mfundi Vundla asked around in the US, my name popped and that’s how I got the job. I have always been an activist with a special interest in the African diaspora and how that translates into the African experience. I have always wanted to come to South Africa and Winnie the Opera speaks to who I am as an artist, a spirit, a woman, a mother and as a humanist,” she says.

Finney has won numerous awards for her stage work, which includes her West Coast premier of Yellow Man and a new play based on a children’s book, Alice, written by Whoopi Goldberg at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. She received the International Black Filmmakers Award for her short film, Remember Me.

In telling Winnie’s story, she faces the challenge where the name of the person could be bigger than the story. The libretto in the opera focuses on Winnie as she is subpoenaed to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is confronted by the legal counsel.

“When dissecting the text, I’m not only looking at Winnie, the iconic figure. You have the story and you have the fragile woman/ human being as well. Emotions come into play and those are universal. So you have a fractured and splintered soul and the methodology comes in these two questions: how does one heal a wound of a country, and how does one heal a personal wound? There are three main things humans want: to feel safe, to be nurtured and to be seen. Those are the three things that we’re studying in the opera to help us find completion in Winnie’s inner journey,” she says.

Talking about her own journey with the show, she says, “I feel I’m at an advantage being an outsider telling this story because I have no temptation to be in judgment. This has been a learning curve as I don’t know the rules of opera. I know the rules of storytelling and of a theatrical production.”

After Winnie the Opera, Finney goes back to the US to direct for the Lyceum Theatre For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.

All eyes will be on soprano, Tsakane Maswanganyi as she takes on the role of the indomitable Winnie Mandela. She’s got a petite frame, but the strong voice she projected at the media call easily matches her subject’s spirit.

Based in Italy where she is a student of Mezzo soprano Nadiya Petrenko, Maswanganyi hasn’t performed on home ground in 10 years. And as for how she feels about playing Winnie (who, unlike many operatic characters, is still alive) is something she thinks about carefully.

“I made sure I found everything I could on Winnie when I was doing my research. But what was nice is that I somehow knew who she was because she is a part of our history. My aim is just to focus on the character as guided by the shape of the libretto which touches on certain stages of her life. I’m interested in telling the story rather than mimicking what she would do,” she says.

Maswanganyi was born in Soweto and grew up in Giyani in Limpopo where she started her career singing in choirs conducted by her mother.

She studied at the University of Pretoria and made her professional opera debut with the Roodepoort City Opera appearing as the Gráfin and Manja in Kalman’s Grafin Mariza. Her career bloomed and she went on to play the title role in Carmen Jones with the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. She also helped form the internationally recognised UK-based popera group, Amici Forever.

She’s based overseas due to the fact that there are more opportunities there with a set opera tradition and more enthusiastic audiences. But she is glad to see the industry growing in South Africa.

Talking about the music, she says: “The music is a challenge, but I’m liking it a lot. There’s a mix of English and Xhosa and I can relate to the African instruments used as they speak to our culture. But this is new for me in an operatic scene.”

It’s only natural to wonder what the music for Winnie the Opera will be like, since Winnie’s story is a South African one. But the inclusion of multimedia in the show is already a clue that it is a contemporary piece open to non-traditional opera audiences. And it will probably attract those with an interest in Madikizela-Mandela.

The conductor, Jonas Alber from Germany, describes the music as having a general opera style with African ingredients.

“It’s not a conceptual art piece. It combines techniques of musical languages from other times. It’s easily understood. For a contem-porary piece, it’s not too complex and musically it’s not commercial either,” he says.

Earlier, the composer and producer of the opera, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, spoke of the musical journey that explores the rich heritage in Africa, using both European and indigenous influences. His emphasis was on evoking the resonance of indigenous instruments with Western ones and making musicians learn about African sounds. So it was the score that got Alber interested in this project.

“The music is dramatic and beautiful and ideal for this kind of story. This is not African folk opera as we’re using contemporary instruments. But the unifying structure is the rhythm, and that is found in the special percussive African drum. The rhythmic structure is also complex because of the languages used. There’s English and Xhosa and, therefore, there are various rhythmic styles.”

Alber is working with the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra. The principle cast members include Tsakane Maswanganyi as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as a high soprano, Otto Maidi as Columbus (Winnie’s father) as a baritone, and Pierre du Toit as Winnie’s torturer, Swanepoel, as a tenor.

During the interview, we were presented with the Mothers of the Missing scene – an a cappella dirge showing off African and mournful church singing. This scene is said to represent the ancestral spirit pushing and evoking Winnie’s inner courage.

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