BBC Music Magazine
Writer and journalist
‘When I first saw a production by the South African organisation Umculo, all of my expectations of opera and musical theatre were blown out the window. I was so proud of my South African heritage.’
Hillbrow, Johannesburg. It’s one of the city’s most notorious districts, a densely populated area packed with high-rise buildings. In the postapartheid era, this once affluent and progressive neighbourhood has been beset by poverty and overcrowding. It might be home to the tallest tower in Africa, but Hillbrow has a reputation for drugs and crime. Yet regeneration is underway, and music is playing an important part.
The lights go down in a small theatre. Outlined on the floor is a three-by-three metre square, close to the audience. The space is a metaphorical boxing ring, a place to confront topics that may be taboo outside these walls. Over one hour, five singers and three instrumentalists – a pianist, violinist and another musician playing instruments ranging from oboe to tam-tam – premiere a new chamber opera. The music, by Australian composer Cathy Milliken, is spare and powerful, while the libretto, by Robert
Lehmeier, tells the moving story of a young black man coming out as gay.
The opera Romeo’s Passion was commissioned by Umculo, an organisation that uses musical theatre as a means to explore challenging issues in South Africa. Violence, drugs, poverty, class, gender, sexuality and identity: these themes are universal, but they have a special relevance in a country with a brutal history of apartheid. Complicating matters further, there are 11 official languages here, but Umculo has tailored its productions to this rich line-up, becoming the first South African company to perform Mozart with Tswana surtitles, Bach with Zulu and Schubert with Xhosa. Umculo is itself a Xhosa word meaning both ‘art music’ and ‘reconciliation’. (The ‘c’ in Umculo is pronounced as a soft click.)
There’s nervous laughter and hushed comments between the teenagers watching Romeo’s Passion, many of whom may have been
‘‘If we are not addressing the issue of violence against women in South Africa, we shouldn’t be working here ’’
addressing a topic like this head-on for the first time. After the performance, expert mediators enable conversations between the public and the cast of professional singers. These questionand-answer sessions allow audiences, especially those from local communities and schools, to explore their views. Romeo’s Passion goes down well; Opera magazine writes that the piece is ‘a powerful critique of the crushing consequences of prejudice and discrimination.’ It has a measurable impact. Surveying the audiences, a researcher from the University of Bayreuth finds a clear shift in attitudes towards homosexual relationships as a result of the performances.
Umculo was founded in 2010 by Cape Townborn, Berlin-based music critic Shirley Apthorp (see box, right). On her regular visits to South Africa after the country became democratic in 1994, she noticed a growing passion for opera and singing among young people, a tradition stemming from the longstanding presence of Bach’s music in community churches and school assemblies. Apthorp’s initial idea was to tap into her wealth of contacts in the opera world, using this international network to help local projects. Although Apthorp says Umculo is ‘not and never will be’ an alternative to hugely succesful homegrown organisations like Buskaid or
Cape Town Opera, she felt that it could offer ‘something extra which cannot be provided by local institutions’.
In its first season, Umculo staged a concert performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, with primary school children from Cape Town joined by professional performers, including members of the Trondheim Soloists. Purcell’s King Arthur followed in 2011, bringing together youngsters from the Nyanga township and Kensington in London. As Umculo took root, it explored different avenues. Young singers from disadvantaged communities were involved in creating a new music theatre work, Comfort Ye, for instance, while on another occasion six South African community choirs worked with a period orchestra to stage JS Bach’s St John Passion.
For Umculo’s latest project, Apthorp felt that the logical step was to hand the entire creative process over to local artists. The theme was also obvious to her: ‘I knew that if we were not addressing the issue of violence against women in South Africa, we shouldn’t be working here.’
Gender-based violence – internationally recognised as violent acts against another person, on the basis of their biological sex or gender identity – is an issue that Umculo started to explore in 2012. A production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen allowed young performers to ask themselves questions about gender, diversity, conformity and community. The thread continued in 2017’s Schande!, which presented alternative readings of Schubert Lieder,
including Röslein, Röslein as a story of rape, a rose being plucked against its will. Provisionally titled The Gift, the upcoming project will be based in Cape Town, with a first run planned for December 2019. It will tackle a thorny topic. ‘Corrective’ – or homophobic – rape refers to the widespread practice of men brutally raping lesbians in South Africa. The constitution protects same-sex partnerships, but many people, especially in conservative Christian communities and townships, do not approve.
Librettist Fatima Dike is from Langa, the oldest township in Cape Town, and has an international profile. Using her background in protest theatre, where drama was a compelling tool in the fight against apartheid, Dike met with an NGO that assists the lesbian community. At a workshop to encourage women to speak and write about their lives, Belinda (not her real name) gave Dike her story, which became the basis of The Gift.
When she was 16, Belinda was abducted and raped for four days – because she was a lesbian. But when she escaped and wanted to lay charges, her mother forbade her – because the family name would be ruined. When she found out that she was pregnant, her mother forbade her to abort – because the family is Christian. The entire cycle was repeated two years later. But through a process of transformation, she now lives happily with her life partner and offers support to other lesbians in her community.
The story is hard to hear, and perhaps even harder to tell; such raw and harsh realities are confronting. But Dike insists that it is essential to tell these stories if damaging beliefs are to be challenged and changed. She recalls the time of protest theatre during apartheid. ‘We were not allowed, at all, to write about happy stories. We had to find stories in our communities, in our families, write about them. The impact that had on the world was that people wanted us to tell our stories in their countries, and to ask questions. The same thing can happen with this topic.’
As well as Dike, the creative team includes South African choreographer Thabisa Dinga and composer Lungiswa Plaatjies, also born in Langa. The production will run in the township’s Guga S’thebe Arts and Culture Centre, and Plaatijes wants her music to speak to this specific community. ‘I will be introducing our indigenous instruments,’ she explains, ‘mbira, uhadi umrhubhe, pan pipe, djembe, percussion, mouth percussion.’ Plaatijes is steeped in the Xhosa oral tradition and doesn’t use Western musical notation; she composes by ear and often collaborates with other classical and electronic artists. In The Gift, traditional Xhosa music will blend with Western instruments, dance with acting, improvisation with notation and spoken texts with song. It epitomises Umculo’s ethos of melding the local with the international.
Apthorp sees The Gift ’s themes as having wide relevance. ‘The assumption that Europeans are above, beyond or past violence against women or homophobia is unfortunately incorrect. The message that everybody regardless of their life, gender and identity choices deserves respect, deserves safety, deserves autonomy, is as relevant for Parisians and Berliners and Londoners as it is for people in Langa or Ikageng or Imizamo Yethu. I trust the work we’ll be making will be applicable to any community on some level,’ she says, ‘as any great art should be.’