New opera tells Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s story

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The Soweto-born soprano who plays Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in a new opera says the story of the “mother of the nation” accused of brutality in her fight against apartheid is deeply familiar.

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — The Soweto-born soprano who plays Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in a new opera says the story of the "mother of the nation" accused of brutality in her fight against apartheid is deeply familiar.

"It’s something that I grew up knowing. It’s part of my history," Tsakane Maswanganyi said in an interview ahead of Thursday’s premiere of "Winnie the Opera" at the State Theatre, South Africa’s equivalent of America’s Lincoln Center or Britain’s National Theatre.

But Maswanganyi added she can’t dwell on what it means to play such a formidable figure before an audience that on opening night is expected to include Madikizela-Mandela.

For two hours during which she appears in nearly every scene, Maswanganyi works to combine powerful singing and acting to portray a character who is at one moment imperious and in control, the next vulnerable under an apartheid jailer’s whip. She is a giddy young girl in love, singing, "His smile is daylight that never ends." And she is an anguished woman, singing, "Nelson, where are you?"

Nelson Mandela, who divorced Madikizela-Mandela in 1996, appears in the production only as an offstage voice and a silhouette on a large screen that is the main scenic element. A few years after the iconic couple married in 1958, Mandela was found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was to remain in prison until 1990.

During their long years apart, Madikizela-Mandela, 17 years younger than Mandela, grew into a sophisticated political leader in her own right who was repeatedly arrested, jailed and placed under house arrest. But she also was accused of embracing the most radical, violent ideology of the broad anti-apartheid movement, and of turning the violence on fellow blacks.

In 1969, Madikizela-Mandela was among 21 activists detained in nationwide dawn raids, accused of terrorism. They all were eventually acquitted, but Madikizela-Mandela spent 491 days in detention, most of it in solitary confinement. She writes in a 1984 memoir, "Part of my soul went with him," of being interrogated continuously for five days and five nights, growing so exhausted she periodically fainted.

Before that ordeal, she writes, she was incapable of violence. After it, "if a man I’m dealing with appeared carrying a gun — in defense of my principles I know I would fire. That is what they have taught me. I could never have achieved that alone."

"That is the bitterness they create in us."

In the opera, that transformation is portrayed with a gesture: Maswanganyi as Madikizela-Mandela rejects a hand outstretched in reconciliation, and raises her fist.

If the opera’s creative team lays the overall blame on apartheid, they also hold Madikizela-Mandela responsible for what she has done and what she has inspired. Maswanganyi sings chilling lines from a speech Madikizela-Mandela gave:

"With the rubber tire and our boxes of matches, we shall liberate this land." Violence descends, and the Madikizela-Mandela character is anguished, seemingly unable to believe the impact of her words. Swanepol, a character introduced earlier as her torturer and a symbol of apartheid, strides across the stage, satisfied.

The Mandelas separated in 1992 after Madikizela-Mandela was convicted and fined in the kidnapping in the 1980s of four young black men, among them one who was beaten to death. Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, nonetheless named her to his Cabinet, as a deputy arts and culture minister in 1994. A year later, following police investigations into influence peddling, Mandela fired his wife, labeling her undisciplined.

Mandela asked for a divorce in 1995, accusing his wife of infidelity. The collapse of their marriage was finalized in 1996.

Madikizela-Mandela’s career waned, though many South Africans still revered her for the role she played in the anti-apartheid struggle. In 2009, she was again elected to parliament.

Opera has been used to tell the stories of other complex contemporary figures. "Winnie" producer Mfundi Vundla, who is more familiar with television than opera, said he studied the work of John Adams, composer of "Nixon in China" to prepare for "Winnie," for which he shares librettist credits with Warren Wilensky. The composer is another South African, Bongani Ndodana-Breen.

Madikizela-Mandela "is a central figure in our evolution, in the history of our struggle," Vundla said. "She is reviled by many, hero-worshipped by many and she is a charismatic person. She’s got sex appeal, and she makes for an exciting figure to treat operatically."

South Africans have a rich choral tradition of folk, religious and protest songs, and they have won international plaudits when they turn their voices to opera. A South African "Carmen" opened in New York in 2004 and a film version won an award at the Berlin Film Festival the next year. A South African "Magic Flute" played London’s West End in 2008, with an all marimba orchestra.

The 65-piece "Winnie" orchestra is a conventional Western ensemble, but the music, sung in English and Xhosa, borrows themes from protest and other South African songs. Soprano Maswanganyi said singing new music can be a challenge, but also has its advantages.

"Even if I make a thousand mistakes, no one will know," she said, and laughed.

"Winnie" opens and ends at hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa’s attempt to deal with the brutal divisions of the past by offering victims or their survivors a chance to confront perpetrators, and perpetrators a chance at amnesty if they made full confessions. South Africans still debate whether the commission was adequate substitute for justice, and whether those who fought apartheid should have been judged by the same rules as those who implemented it.

Special truth commission hearings in late 1997 and early 1998 focused on allegations Madikizela-Mandela led a group of thugs known as the Mandela United Football Club who terrorized Soweto in the 1980s.

In life and in the opera, Madikizela-Mandela dismisses as "lunacy" accusations she ordered killings of suspected informants. She acknowledges mistakes were made, and expresses sorrow.

On stage, the character sings she could have been a different person. But, in a final note of defiance, concludes:

"This is who I am."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

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