One of the highlights of the 2013 Tollwood Winter Festival is a South African production of Mozart's Magic Flute, complete with marimbas and a Xhosa-speaking cast. Opera fans have given it a rousing reception.
An African setting, characters speaking African languages and the marimba as the main musical instrument - that was not what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had in mind when he composed "Die Zauberflöte" (The Magic Flute). At this year's Winter Tollwood Festival in Munich, a South African music theater company, the Isango Ensemble, presents Mozart's masterpiece from a perspective which includes South African music, dance and culture.
The Tollwood cultural tent festival is held twice a year in Munich to reflect a multicultural society.
British-born theater and film director Mark Dornford-May, 58, is the founder of the Isango Ensemble. He says the story of the Magic Flute has gone back to its origins - to Africa.
"I believe that all stories, or most stories, come from Africa originally so in a way it's an African story that Mozart took and adapted it in a European way," Dornford-May told DW.
He believes interpreting the story from an African perspective redresses the imbalance, especially since "Mozart's story itself is based on a southern African legend of a storm bird who arrives and the only way the storm bird can be driven away is by a brave man playing the flute." Dornford-May also sees links with South Africa " because it is about being prepared to struggle, being prepared to sacrifice for the good of a community and that's an important message."
From violins to marimbas
As in the original, the music is a central element but in Munich the audience hears Mozart's score transcribed for the South African marimba, a percussion instrument consisting of a set of wooden bars with resonators, played with a mallet.
Music Director Mandisi Dyantyis, 30, is on stage during the performance of "Impempe Yomlingo", wearing camouflage pants and a white t-shirt. The other artists dress in costumes made from bold prints and brightly colored African fabrics instead of traditional Western opera costumes. They speak English and the South African language Xhosa on stage and the Masonic inductions of the original become African boyhood initiation rites.
For Dyantis, the plot is a producer's dream. "It's got crying, smiling, it's got laughing, it's got dancing, it's got everything."
No formal voice training
The cast deliver an excellent blend of western European orchestral music and South African traditional songs. Thirty-six-year old Pauline Malefane joined the company over ten years ago. Malefane and most of her colleagues were born in townships in Cape Town. She had never heard about this African interpretation of the opera until a friend informed her about the auditions.
"Singing is part of our culture all the time. Boys go to the mountains for initiation singing. And it's not just singing, it's singing like opera telling a story," she told DW.
In many African cultures, singing is a central part of rituals and ceremonies. "Opera was not really something that was foreign to us. The style of singing was foreign but telling a story through music or song is part of our culture," Malefane said.
In this production she plays the Queen of the Night, a dramatic and strong character. Malefane studied music at the University of Cape Town, unlike other members of the company who didn't have the opportunity to benefit from formal training.
"They didn't have formal training in a Western European sense but they had training through the African choir system and actually that's a far better training," according to director Dornford-May. "It means the voice quality and the way people are able to use their voices is phenomenal. It's deeper and more profound," he said.
Many members of the audience in Munich were familiar with Mozart's Magic Flute. For them, the new version provided a fresh insight. "I am used to listening to classical music in the normal European way and it was great fun and a pleasure to look at a classical European work through other eyes," said 51 year-old Stefan Volk.
Gertrude Rumeln, 54, also enjoyed the experience. "I have never heard Mozart like this before but I like it very much," she said.
In addition to music productions, the Isango Ensemble also produce movies. They have won several awards, including a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The company wants to continue giving an African touch to western classical theater.