Resonant Politics, Opera and Music Theatre out of Africa
Review of African Theatre: Opera & Music Theatre
Editors: Christine Matzke, Lena van der Hoven, Christopher Odhiambo, and Hilde Roos | Published by James Currey, 2020
This is an interesting and somewhat hybrid text about an extremely odd and fascinatingly hybrid topic: opera/music theatre. Published as No. 19 in the book series, African Theatre, the naming of the text as a ‘volume’ and the chapters as ‘articles’ as well as the presence of book reviews, suggests a reprint of a journal volume; but it is a book. Aside from 10 articles and 10 book reviews (one of which is an article review) it includes Contents, Illustrations, Notes on Contributors, Obituaries of Victor Ukaegbu (1954-2019), Sidwill Hartman (1956-2019), and George Stevens (1966-2018), Acknowledgments, an Introduction, and last but not least, a 27-page play script by Swiss-Nigerian playwright, Zainabu Jallo. The book is published in hard and electronic format by James Currey (an imprint of Boydell and Brewer).
One of its most refreshing and yet puzzling aspects is where the book ‘comes from’. This is not your average (yet another) book about opera, of which there must have been hundreds if not thousands published over the past few centuries. These have always been aimed at a wide readership including opera buffs, serious scholars, lovers of music and theatre, people interested it the sex lives of composers or singers, feminists, people who want to know what a particular opera is ‘about’, and so on. Books range from libretti to monographs, from vast to potted histories and plot summaries, to historical and musicological analyses – and every other aspect you can think of.
African Theatre: Opera & Music Theatre presents a new view of opera, dragging it out of this debris and situating it in Africa. This is a book on African musical theatre or opera/musical theatre in Africa. Its contributors are not the usual suspects, drawn from the well-established scholarly field of ‘opera studies’, which is itself admittedly already very broad because the genre is so complex. They are drawn, rather, from the fields of literary studies, postcolonial studies, creative writing, composition, performance, choreography, theatre direction, musicology, anthropology, visual arts and film studies. At first glance, this is a highly eclectic book, but the approaches of all the authors, once one looks closer, are rooted in work emanating from the continent of Africa as well as literature from the global north. The book takes an African perspective, and it is decidedly inter-disciplinary.
The four editors have quite a difficult task, therefore in explaining what the book is about, in the ‘Introduction’. Their ‘collective’ approach, as one might call it – the book feels refreshingly as if it were the product of a collective rather than an academic mafia – is its principal virtue, to this reader. I like the fact that it draws on a number of fields, and that in so doing, helps to establish a new one. It is a pioneering work, and like most such work, is fragile, uneven, and possibly confusing to people who come from established music or theatre disciplines, or (especially) to the general public. I do not want to second-guess what readership it was aimed at, but most people, I think, will find a great deal of it thought-provoking and horizon-broadening.
The most important questions the editors ask in the ‘Introduction’, which are also the questions they posed to contributors ‘asked to critically engage with’ them (5), are not entirely new ones, but you will not find them assembled in this form in any other book on opera/music theatre:
What does ‘opera’ mean in African and African diasporic contexts? How do scholars and practitioners approach and utilise these terms? Where, in terms of place and space, is opera happening today? Who watches and interprets the productions, and do audiences have any influence on aesthetic transformation processes? What are the genre’s practices and legacies – colonial, postcolonial and decolonial; what is its relation to the intersectionalities of race and class? How do opera and music theatre reflect, change or obscure social, political and economic realities? How is opera connected to educational and cultural institutions and non-profit organisations? And why is opera contradictorily, at various times, perceived as both ‘grand’ and ‘elitist’, ‘folk’ and ‘quotidian’, ‘Eurocentric’ and ‘indigenous’? (1-2).
The literature that the editors turn to in order to begin answering these questions and to describe how the contributors approach them, comes from a diversity of sources including music journals from South Africa and African literary texts.
The editors make it clear that all terminology is up for grabs including existing notions of opera and music theatre as ‘genres’.
Genres are sedimented by scholars, as is well known, rather than practitioners, and this book takes very serious cognizance of the world of practice as well as the world of theory and history. Opera in this volume becomes a fluid notion, a creative discourse of adaptation and survival; and perhaps by preferring the term ‘music theatre’ to ‘opera’, the editors (and some of the authors) are even at risk of moving out of the frying-pan into the fire. For music theatre, too, is quite a sedimented genre in musicological writing in the global north. There is no suitable word or term, really, to cover the range of topics and ideas about music and theatre in Africa that this book covers, but as a starting point, ‘music theatre’ has to suffice. There is a danger, as hinted at in the Introduction, that by trying to define too narrowly the debate about what opera or music theatre constitute, in the African context, the scholarly boundaries become so loose that one loses a grip on what the book does and does not do; or, alternatively, that one gets lost in a maze of (re)definitions.
One thing that this book does very well is present the voices of female, black and early career scholars whose work is not overburdened by the usual trail of literary references going back years if not decades. I am not suggesting they haven’t paid their scholarly dues: I know some of these authors and they are extremely well read, but each writer draws on quite an eclectic choice of literature to form her or his theoretical perspective. Aside from addressing the questions above and being located already in an identifiable scholarly space, the contributors’ methodological underpinnings of research they present in this book are similarly diverse. The editors did not have an overarching theme, clearly, and no single overarching theme emerges in the contributions, although the editors did actively seek contributors, a task that they admitted, ‘proved a challenge’ (9). It would be interesting to know what (or whom) they had in mind, or who declined an invitation to contribute. (I can think of a couple of people who should have been in this book but I won’t embarrass them or the editors by naming them.) The book is more a sum of diverse parts, in any case, than a themed volume. There is something both refreshing and puzzling about the effect this has, and figuring out why, made writing the review a perverse kind of pleasure.
One thing that the book does not do (for example) is explain whether or not the intention was to represent African music theatre primarily as a creative product (composition), or as a performative space (presentation with audience reception), or as a historical genre or institution, or even an ‘industry’, as Roger Parker (2002, 87) calls it.
Is this book about ‘the voice’ as a vehicle for the expression of a particular cultural moment or text, or is it about ‘voicing’ Africa through a dramatic means of communication?
‘Music theatre in Africa’ is a potentially enormous subject and I can imagine that some readers will want to know which of these perspective the book mainly addresses. I accept that the book offers ‘a limited number of case studies and contexts’ (9), but can all readers accept that while some authors are talking about making what Neo Muyunga calls ‘world opera or new music theatre’ (17), others, such as Paula Fourie, Nora Amin, Bode Omojola and Tobias Klein are talking historically. Fourie’s article is not only a history but a historiography, tracing ‘a 50-year tradition of District Six musical theatre’ (Fourie 30). Lena van der Hoven and Liani Maasdorp are concerned not so much with disappearance as with re-appearance: how Western classical opera has been remade through a process of transculturation, as an indigenous text (53). Lena van der Hoven presents interviews with Black South African singers Pauline Malefane and Musa Ngqungwana (77-89) while Nora Amin shows how the Cairo opera house has attempted ‘to re-root operatic art within an Egyptian cultural frame’ (94). Bode Omojola ‘examines how two modern Yorùbá composers have represented and sought to define the African operatic voice’ through a fairly conventional musical and dramatic analysis (108), while Tobias Klein explores the ‘marginal position’ opera carved out for itself in Anglophone West Africa as vaudeville, concert party or folk opera (137). Fabian Lehman, Wilfried Zoungrana and Andrea Reikat recall how German theatre and film director Christoph Schlingensief, controversially, ‘aimed at creating a space for local artistic expressions in whichever form and genre they took, as part of his extended opera concept’ in Burkina Faso in 2008 (160). Samue Kasule shows ‘how early Ugandan folk opera or “musical plays” challenged and generally displaced Western opera’ (184).
The contributions, despite their divergent epistemologies, float into two categories: those related to music of the Western Cape Province of South Africa and especially its provincial capital, Cape Town, and those located in Egypt, Uganda, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, or Burkina Faso. Of these seven African countries, only the latter was not a British colony or protectorate and several other British colonies that have adapted opera/musical theatre to post-colonial contexts (Gambia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania) are not represented here. The first theatre big enough to perform large-scale Western operatic works in South Africa (or rather, as it then was, the Cape Colony) was Cape Town’s ‘New Theatre’, built in 1893 on the Grand Parade.
Soon afterwards, ‘the name “Opera House” became general’ (Malan 1986, 332) – for this hall and many others like it in Pretoria, Durban and indeed throughout Africa. These were often multi-purpose theatres rather than grand colonial opera houses like the Opera Nacional de México in Mexico City, the Theatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Imperial Theatre of Algiers, or the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo. South Africa never quite reached this level of colonial operatic opulence and has never had a full-time professional opera company. All the more amazing, therefore, is the wealth of opera singers that it has produced for the world stage (as Neo Muyanga and others point out).
In the African Cape: Paula Fourie’s ‘”It was here, you must remember, our children played their games”: A Historiography of District Six Musical Theatre’ (29-51) is a poignant account of a lost archive that persists in cultural memory. Lena van der Hoven’s ‘We can’t let politics define the arts’ (77-89) gives space for two Black South African opera singers to express their very mixed experiences of training and performing at home and abroad. Lena van der Hoven & Liani Maasdorp’s ‘”Opera is an art form for everyone”: Black Empowerment in the South African Opera Adaptations’ (52-76) affords a fascinating glimpse into the transculturation of opera in the Cape. All three articles build to some extent upon previous work on the politics of ‘Coloured’ opera by Hilde Roos (2010, 2014a, 2014b, 2015, 2018) and Juliana Pistorius (2017a, 2017b, 2018, 2019). Neo Muyanga’s ‘A Revolt in (more than just) Four Parts’ is a first-hand account, based largely on his own experience as a practitioner and adjudicator, of the re-casting of the notion of ‘singing’ and ‘composition’ – and especially ‘music theatre’ composition – in South Africa in the pre- and post-apartheid eras. It brings Cape/New York musician Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1980s phrase, ‘A revolution in four-part harmony’ into the present and onto the stage, by examining and appraising new work. Taking their analyses ‘a step further’ from a purely ‘postcolonial reading’ as the editors put it (5), Fourie, van der Hoven, Maasdorp and Muyanga all tread a fine line between the clamour of voices from the past and the present.
In the other countries in Africa: Black empowerment and decolonizing strategies are the main themes of Nora Amin’s fascinating article, ‘Aida’s Legacy or De-/Colonising Music Theatre in Egypt: The Example of the Cairo Opera House’ (90-106). She gives us a concrete example of how transformation was actually effected, in this case in a British colonial opera house (the Khedivial) that famously presented the premiere of Verdi’s Aida in 1871.
Tobias Klein’s ‘The Phantom of the West African Opera: A tour d’horizon’ explores several theatrical works from West Africa that at last have a well-deserved detailed analysis, works that occurred in West Africa ‘naturally’ (as it were) and have been presented on ‘the global stage’ (151). Fabian Lehman, Wilfried Zoungrana & Andrew Reikat’s ‘The “African Opera Village” Turns Ten: Three Perspectives on a Controversial Project in Burkina Faso’ (159-82), by contrast, recounts the well-meant but somewhat ‘unnatural’ experiment by German director Christoph Schlingensief to create ‘a space for local artistic expressions in whichever form and genre they took, as part of his extended opera concept’ (160).
Samuel Kasule’s ‘“I smoked them out”: Perspectives on the Emergence of Folk Opera or ‘Musical Plays’ in Uganda (183-193) is written with such beautiful clarity that I want to quote the opening paragraph in full here, because it is a model of writing for music students everywhere and because it also, unwittingly, encapsulates what most of the other articles say:
Opera, as it is discussed in Western academic contexts, still focuses on Western forms of composition and performance; to the ordinary Ugandan, it is for the elites, academics and students of Western art music and does not make sense. Their musical matrix is usually rooted in indigenous performances. Folk operas and musical plays in Uganda incorporate these local forms. Therefore, European and Asian artists based in the local cultural industry who could neither speak local languages nor understand the metalanguage of the people have been unable to estimate and appreciate the aesthetic complexity of these indigenous performances, including local folk operas and musical plays (183).
Bode Omojola’s ‘Towards an African Operatic Voice: Composition, Dramaturgy and Identity Strategies in New Yorùbá Opera’ (107-35) is one of two articles that examines one of the most celebrated operas to come out of Africa: Akin Euba’s Chaka, which Omojola compares and contrasts musically and dramatically with his own Ìrìn Àjò.
The magnificent play script by Zainabu Jallo follows these 10 articles. She pits three ‘first-generation immigrants from Africa, The Balkans and South Korea’ against each other as they ‘find themselves’ at the ages of 87, 89 and 91 after long and distinguished careers in Europe, living together ‘in a nursing home’ (204). Her narrative style is gripping and humorous as she probes painful themes in a painful setting. In her introduction to the play, Christine Matzke describes the dramatic situation as ‘a Viking-themed birthday party at a plush retirement home’ (194). Jallo’s play is a damning portrayal of the displacing effects of migration; and Matzke’s description of the three characters also stands, perhaps, as a descriptor for this book: ‘They have a deep “sense of placelessness”’, and yet they belong everywhere’ (197). It is a moot point, however, how Jallo’s writing fits into the rest of the book, because music does not feature in her play.
Nor does it feature in all of the short reviews that end of the book, which cover a wide range of texts loosely related to theatre, writing, or opera, including academic books and articles, memoirs, a(nother) play script, and a penetrating article on ‘New Voices in Black South African Opera’. These reviews give an added sense of where the book is ‘coming from’, some of them indebted to (and one of them reviewing) the most important genetic origin of this new book: Naomi André’s Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (2018).
Given such divergent methodological and intellectual views on ‘opera’ and such varied pieces of writing, what makes the book hang together? Is it this common origin in Naomi André? Is ‘Race’ the common factor? Race is far from being the only political issue dealt with in the book (and one must remember that opera was historically always a politically charged genre), but it is the most present. Neo Muyanga makes us realise that there is not all that much difference in intention between what he calls the ‘resonant politics’ (20) of Black South African protest songs and the resonant politics of many operatic arias and (especially) choruses. He also, by the way, alerts us to the adaptability of ‘song’ before, during and after colonization. The idea of ‘remaking the song’, as Roger Parker (2006) puts it, in relation to ‘operatic visions and revisions’ of staging in modern (Western) settings, is taken much further in this book, marvellously laying out the terrain of what I hope will be followed by many more in-depth explorations and wide sweeps of musical theatre in and ‘out of’ Africa.
What I suspect unites the editors of this book if not the book itself is the Black Opera Research Network. BORN was born out of the interest of a group of scholars in the United States and South Africa who work in similar fields and were inspired by Naomi André’s Black Opera. The BORN team state on their website:
We use as a starting point a construction of Blackness that comes out of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (2018, 6). Black opera is meant to chart a terrain in interdisciplinary opera studies that attends to the racialised politics of contemporary and historical cultural formations. In addition to Black composers and singers, it can also include a historical context and political directive for having Black voices tell their own stories and become full participants in a genre that had been closed through segregation (https://blackoperaresearch.net/).
This genesis could have been more clearly stated in the ‘Introduction’ to the book, because the BORN team comprises most of the people who contributed to the book and its existence gives a raison d’etre for the book that it does not otherwise have. I know about BORN through knowing Hilde Roos, but most people do not. This is one small criticism.
Finally: there is one small, awkward moment around race, arising (I suspect) from the discontinuity of understanding about the word ‘Colored/Coloured’ in north America and South Africa. Most of the music theatre research in this book concerns Black communities – and it is (interestingly) the white writers who use the term ‘black’ (lower case) in this book; the African writers mostly avoid it. The moment is this: Sidwill James Hartman, late Professor of vocal studies at the South African College of Music, is described in his obituary (twice) as ‘coloured African’, but on the same page, he is shown to have ‘helped pave the way [for] coloured and black African singers to pursue a career in opera today’ (xix). It feels like a sleight of hand, merging coloured with African and then delinking them, and I only mention it in the context of hoping that some of the contributors to this book, and the editors, will continue their pioneering work and establish this a field of study to which many more people will be attracted in the future, thrashing out more openly and rigorously not only this kind of disconnect, but the many thousands more that divide and unite us.
November | 2020 288 Pages, Illustrations | The hardcover book (ISBN 9781847012579) is £60/$99, the EPDF (9781787449503) and EPUB (9781800100275) are both £19.99/$24.99 and the book is available from various online sources: boydellandbrewer.com, jstor.org, and doi.org.
Malan, J.P. 1986. Theatres and Concert Halls. In South African Music Encyclopaedia Volume IV, 330-42. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
Parker, Roger. 2002. ‘The opera industry.’ In The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music, ed. Jim Samson, 87-117. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2006. Remaking the Song: Operatic Visions and Revisions from Handel to Berio. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pistorius, Juliana. 2017a. ‘The Eoan Group and the Politics of Coloured Opera in Apartheid South Africa.’ Oxford University: PhD thesis. https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:4e697096-1328-416e-964c-28438d992102.
2017b. ‘Coloured opera as subversive forgetting.’ Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies 43(2), 230-42.
2018. ‘Eoan, Assimilation and the Charge of “Coloured Culture”.’ SAMUS: South African Music Studies 33/37 (1), 389-415.
2019. ‘Predicaments of Coloniality, or, Opera Studies Goes Ethno.’ Music and Letters 100(3), 529-39.
Roos, Hilde. 2010. ‘Opera Production in the Western Cape: Strategies in Search of Indigenization.’ Stellenbosch University: PhD thesis.
2014a. ‘Remembering to Forget the Eoan Group: The Legacy of an Opera Company from the Apartheid Era.’ South African Theatre Journal 27(1), 1-18.
2014b. ‘Viva Verdi: Ringing the Changes at Cape Town Opera.’ Acta Musicologica 8(2), 249-66.
2015. ‘Eoan-Our Story: Treading new methodological paths in music historiography.’ Historia 60(2), 185-200.
2018. The La Traviata Affair: Opera in the age of Apartheid. Oakland, California: University of California Press.