In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela had this to say about Robben island: "Green and beautiful, it looked at first more like a resort than a prison." The prison off Cape Town's coast, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of confinement, is now a World Heritage site and museum, the prime attraction being the tiny cell where he was imprisoned with only just enough room to lie down. Everybody queues to take a photo.
"If there's one person who deserves to have an opera in his name, it's Nelson Mandela," says Aubrey Lodewyk, one of the singers portraying him in Cape Town Opera's Mandela Trilogy. Coming to Britain this month (June), it owes its existence to the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa. "It was a chance to showcase Cape Town Opera," says Michael Williams, the show's librettist and director. "We wanted to do something specifically South African."
The piece features three episodes in Mandela's life. First, his traditional Xhosa rite-of-passage ceremony in the rural Transkei area, his refusal of an arranged marriage and his departure for Johannesburg. The second act focuses on a political meeting in Sophiatown in 1955: the inhabitants are being forced out, and Mandela is vacillating between peaceful protest and armed struggle. The final part includes Mandela's speech at the Rivonia treason trials of ANC leaders in 1964, his imprisonment, and his release in 1990. The acts are framed by three duets with a character called "the Whiteman", which help hold the piece together while showing the changing attitude of the apartheid regime.
Each act has a dramatically different setting, a different singer as Mandela, and music by a different composer. Allan Stephenson, a British-born composer resident in South Africa since 1973, provided a sort of oratorio sung entirely in Xhosa incorporating some traditional choral pieces for the opening act. The ceremonial moments, in South African traditional dress, made me think of Aida; Xhosa sounds remarkably like Italian and so suits opera well.
For the second act, Mike Campbell, professor of jazz at the University of Cape Town, has written a piece of musical theatre that uses popular tunes from the period - including Pata Pata, the signature song of Miriam Makeba who became a leading fighter against apartheid in exile. The third act - revised after the 2010 production - is by Peter Louis van Dijk in a contemporary operatic idiom. He brings drama and choral power to the Rivonia courtroom scene - which unites the three Mandelas - and in the final Cape Town speech after his release.
Gloria Bosman, a well-known singer in South Africa, plays Mandela's lover Dolly; she also has the role of Maria in Porgy & Bess, the other piece Cape Town Opera are bringing over, except they've set it in 1970s Soweto. "Although working in the cotton fields or as fishermen isn't what we were doing in Soweto," says Bosman, "we can take that story and own it. There's drug abuse, violence and we've added the tsotsi [gangster] elements, which are very Soweto."
"Although our Porgy & Bess is set in Soweto, it still feels like reading a book," says chorus member Ernestine Stuurman. "But Mandela Trilogy is about us. I was just six when Mandela became president and I'm not a political person. But this forces me to think about political things in South Africa. Growing up, I thought things would get easier, but they haven't. Mandela Trilogy makes me feel not like a coloured person, but a true African."
Musically, the most memorable act in Mandela is the middle one with its township jazz. "For me," says Aubrey Poo, who plays the campaigning Mandela, "the important thing was to decide whether we were going for a caricature of Mandela or for the picture of something within. I preferred to tell an honest story." This act brings together the personal and political, focusing on Mandela's relationships with three women: Evelyn, his first wife; the singer Dolly Rathebe, with whom he had an affair; and Winnie, who he married in 1957. While he flirts with all three, it's the political campaign that preoccupies him. "I didn't want to write a hagiography," explains librettist Williams. "He himself said, 'I'm a saint and a sinner.'" We see Mandela's dilemma in calling for armed struggle, then realising it was too early and going back on his words, infuriating his radical followers.
Aubrey Lodewyk, as the older Mandela, brings a statesman-like authority to the role, especially in Mandela's refusal to compromise as negotiations with "the Whiteman" start. The opera ends with the optimism of Mandela's speech after his release. His words - "We are one country, we are one" - are given to the chorus. "It's a cheesy line," admits Williams, "but that was how it felt then. Now we are anything but."
Note: Mandela Trilogy is at Wales Millennium Centre, 20-21 June.
© Guardian News & Media 2012