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Special harmony

Renate Heilmeier / nm
June 6, 2014

Three acts, two composers, many genres - the "Mandela Trilogy" uses music and song to dramatize the extraordinary life of South African icon Nelson Mandela. The work was given its German premiere early June.

Dancers on stage on Munich for Mandela Trilogy
Image: John Snelling

It could be considered an opera, or an African Broadway musical. But the creators of "Mandela Trilogy" have decided to call ther show a folk opera. The performance combines two important ideas - retelling the life story of folk hero Nelson Mandela in an entertaining way, and celebrating the South African music he was known to enjoy.

In this tribute to Mandela, there's a fusion of different musical styles, from jazz to pop, woven together with rhythms from Xhosa and other African tribes.

The libretto about Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who struggled against apartheid and went on to become the first black president of South Africa, can now be seen in Germany. It premiered at the Deutsches Theater in Munich early June.

A tale in three acts

The musical adaptation of Mandela's biography was written by Michael Williamson, head of the Cape Town Opera. It is no accident that the work is divided into three acts. Each focuses on a different part of Mandela's life and is composed in a different style.

Performers on stage for Mandela Trilogy
Larger than life: Mandela's story told onstageImage: Deutsches Theater München

The first chapter incorporates traditional African music to introduce the audience to the title character in the rural Transkei. The story opens with an initiation - a rite of passage to present young men to tribal society - and Mandela's first rebellion against social pressures as a teenager.

Mandela, who died in 2013 at the age of 95, left his rural home as a young man to escape an arranged marriage before studying law in the city and coming into contact with ideas that would shape his career.

The second act takes place in the Johannesburg suburb of Sofiatown in the 1950s and tells a story of repression and protest. In the soundtrack to these city scenes, jazz and big band meet symphony orchestra and hit songs, including "Pata Pata" by Miriam Makeba.

The final act focuses on Mandela's 27 years in prison on Robben Island. Here Péter Louis van Dijk, one half of the Trilogy's composer team, introduces traditional opera elements.

Sheer opera talent

The special harmony of African, European and American musical styles is likely to make the "Mandela Trilogy" a special experience for the German public. The vocal vibrancy of the Cape Town Opera Chorus is also bound to delight audiences with jazz and opera numbers. The ensemble was awarded the International Opera Award for best choir in 2013.

Performers on stage for Mandela Trilogy
Strong voices and musical tradition in three actsImage: Deutsches Theater München

"They have a great timbre, they sing with so much passion and bring a whole new freshness to an opera repertoire with composers like Wagner and Verdi," said Michael Williams. "But what makes this choir special is that they sing as a whole people - it's not just the sound. And that creates the magic."

Dance and drama are also part of the stage performance. Albert Horne, music director of the Cape Town Opera, adds: "In South Africa we have so many great singers who are born with what sounds like an Italian operatic voice."

Cultural exchange

It would have been simply too expensive to fly the whole "Mandela Trilogy" orchestra from Cape Town to Germany. That problem created a unique opportunity for cultural exchange in Munich, with the opera chorus singing with top musicians from the Munich area. Members of the Munich Symphony Orchestra had the difficult task of preparing in a very short space of time in order to perform with the rest of the ensemble.

Performers on stage for Mandela Trilogy
Mandela spent his early years in the rural Transkei, and went on to become South Africa's first black presidentImage: Deutsches Theater München

Several singers represent Mandela during the different stages of his life. His political struggle, which fuelled hope among South Africa's black majority, is only one part of the story. The forces that shaped Mandela as a young man, his relationship to his family and women, and the almost three decades he spent imprisoned on Robben Island are also in the spotlight.

This folk opera ensures the survival of a long tradition. Nelson Mandela inspired many musicians and artists, who incorporated the national hero and his ideas into their music. During apartheid, songs like "Free Nelson Mandela" and "Gimme Hope Jo'anna" spread around the world. The "Mandela Trilogy" brings the celebration of his life beyond South Africa, to Germany.

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