AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Exploring SA’s black opera and the unsung heroes at centre stage
Collaboration between SA and US academics unearths a rich history
American academic Naomi André’s interest in SA opera was first sparked in 2010 and her writings on the subject have now been collected and published in a book.
She draws on the experiences of performers and audiences to explore opera’s resonance with contemporary listeners. Interacting with creators and performers and the works, André reveals how black opera unearths suppressed truths.
These truths provoke complex, if uncomfortable, reconsideration of racial, gender, sexual and other oppressive ideologies. Yet opera is a cultural and political force that employs an immense, transformative power to represent or even liberate.
André, an associate professor in the department of Afro-American and African studies and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, first started her collaboration with Prof Brenda Mhlambi, associate professor of African languages and assistant dean of humanities at Wits University, and Dr Donato Somma, senior lecturer in music at Wits, about eight years ago.
"I was interested in learning more about the opera scene in SA, especially after the dismantling of apartheid, and had heard about Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s Winnie: The Opera," André says.
The three academics saw the premiere of Winnie at the State Theatre in Pretoria in 2011 and went on to publish a cluster of articles about it in various African studies journals.
André then began focusing on composer and professor of African languages Mzilikazi Khumalo and continued her SA collaboration. Her book, Black Opera, examines race, gender, and sexuality in opera in the US and SA.
She attended a conference on choral and indigenous music in SA and met conference convener Dr Thomas Pooley of Unisa. André and her local collaborators then decided to organise a symposium that honoured Khumalo’s legacy as a linguist and composer.
Khumalo had been commissioned by Opera Africa in the 1980s and produced Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, an opera about the Zulu princess, musician and poet. It was the first Zulu-language opera. He also played a role in producing an official version of SA’s national anthem, at the request of Nelson Mandela.
"My main goal was [and continues to be] to find a way to have Khumalo’s works become better known, become integrated into [the] school curricula — secondary and tertiary education in SA and abroad — performed more regularly, and generate scholarship on South African music," André says.
"My [SA] colleagues are terrific as they knew that in order to do this, we would need to bring scholars together with members of the Khumalo family, Samro [Southern African Music Rights Organisation] and people close to Khumalo — such as conductors and musicians who had worked with him — as a way to start the process of getting this music out into a wider public," says André. They realise that as SA is moving to decolonise curricula and structures of knowledge, it is fitting to shine more light on Khumalo and his work in many interlocking areas with language, linguistics, choral music and large operatic ventures.
At a recent symposium attended by his family members, friends and colleagues, there was much discussion about Khumalo’s life and his work. The role of music in his life was evident as the speakers regularly broke into song to illustrate a point about the music man.
What stood out was the central role Khumalo played in SA’s vibrant choral tradition, and all the speakers agreed that his work had to be taken to more concert halls and classrooms.
His son, Diliza Khumalo, and sister, Nomavenda Mathiane, captured the essence of a man whose life revolved around music. "He involved us all in his music," said Diliza "and when he was involved with local choirs, his children also became members of his choirs."
He also drew his family into the development of his compositions, and when he had finished a piece, they would listen.
"He was also a dedicated academic, and when he did research we all did research," added Diliza.
His father was passionate about the history and culture of the Zulu nation. "He had one mission and that was to compose music for the people to sing and enjoy."
Mathiane provided insight into their childhood that was always surrounded by music. "We could all play instruments and music was a part of our lives from a very early age."
She believes her brother honed his music skills in choirs.
"He was a teacher," said Themba Madlopha, a former student of Khumalo who is now a choir master. He said his professor was always influenced by the times. "He was not at home with injustice, but he was such a gentleman, he hid it under a religious cloak.
"He found ways of including the truths in his work — like a lament of the black people in apartheid chains," he said.
Madlopha explained that Khumalo was deeply obsessed with folk music traditions and he found a way to marry the melodic directions of the Zulu tones. "He was the most prolific composer of our time," he said.
Poet Themba Msimang was brought on board by Khumalo as his lyricist. They worked together on oratorio Ushaka KaSenzangakhona, which was intended as a rite of reconciliation not only for the Zulus but the entire nation. Msimang said he was initially puzzled about why he was selected, but discovered it was because of his poetry, and his love and understanding of the Zulu nation.
Because he wasn’t steeped in opera, he approached the project with a fresh eye that contributed a unique quality.
André and her collaborators are also planning to publish a collection of essays about Khumalo’s work, which will include materials people can use to learn more about him and prepare syllabi for music classes.
"I strongly believe that the arts and culture of a nation are very important in having that nation develop and thrive," she says. "I hope this work that brings Khumalo’s accomplishment into a brighter spotlight will also help open up other opportunities for other composers and artists.
"SA has a rich heritage in music — both in traditional and folk music — as well as the syncretic musical traditions that reveal rich intersections with the West and music from other cultures. Khumalo’s choral and operatic works are central to this legacy."