In Conversation with Zakes Mda: "The full story must be told."
Since the mid-1990s black opera singers have dominated South African opera stages, with many singers going on to successful careers abroad. In South Africa however, these singers continue to perform to audiences that remain predominantly white. Where then, one wonders, are the audiences out of which these singers will continue to flow into the local opera schools? In a European setting one finds them attending opera performances, in South Africa the case is much different. Talking about these and other opera related things to the writer, poet, painter and all-round artist, Zakes Mda, was an engaging experience. Not only does he love opera in its European format, he also collects operatic voices and his literary works have inspired the creation of new indigenous operas.
Hilde Roos: The reason I wanted to speak with you is because you are a lover of opera and a librettist, well read in African literature and cultural theory.
Zakes Mda: You put it properly, when you say I am a lover of opera, it is different from an expert of opera. A lover of opera as a consumer, not as a scholar.
HR: But you write librettos and you have been part of creating operas and that is the part that I am interested in.
HR: It is difficult to get information. There are some snippets on the internet on the opera Heart of Redness,Accessed 25 May 2022. See also William Fourie (2015), ‘Heart of Redness by Neo Muyanga’, Muziki, 12:2, 99-103. but not much scholarly information. Has anybody every interviewed you about your relation to opera and the libretti that you have written?
ZM: No one has interviewed me on this specific topic. I have been interviewed on many other topics and theses and dissertations have been written on my work that include my novels and my paintings.
HR: First I want to get my facts right on the librettos that you have done. In 2015 there was Heart of Redness which you did with Neo Muyanga and Mark Fleishman. You did the libretto for that. Do I have that correct?
ZM: No, you don’t have that correct. On the program they might have said I did the libretto because I wrote the novel and then the opera followed the novel, but I did not write the play on which their performance was based. They took a scene from the novel and performed it ‘as is’ without rewriting it. That is why they said I wrote the libretto. But I did not make the selection of the texts, and decide ‘let’s have this chunk here and that chunk there’ and so on.
HR: Who made those selections?
ZM: That was Mark Fleishman. Why I say that I did not write the libretto is that at no time did I write any formal libretto.
HR: Apart from writing the novel, were you involved in the production?
ZM: No, I was not involved. I saw it for the first time when I went to the Fugard Theatre where it was performed. I was very impressed with the opera and how they used my words and my story.
HR: Operas are often based on novels and then there is a librettist who adjusts the original novel to singing text, so this is unusual that they have not made any adjustments but have used your text as you have written it.
ZM: In fact, the presentation was very unusual in that it did not make an adaptation but took the novel ‘as is’. There were characters in the play who were talking about the novel and then the novel itself came to life, chapter by chapter, skipping perhaps those chapters that were not crucial to the core of the story. I think that if anybody were to claim that they were the librettist, it would not be quite truthful because the novel had not been adapted in a manner that a librettist or playwright or filmmaker would have adapted it.
HR: Before Heart of Redness, there was also Ways of Dying which was converted into a jazz opera in 2001.The opera was titled Love of Green Onions. Accessed 4 May 2022. On that production I couldn’t find much information either.
ZM: The librettist, his last name is Williams.
HR: Michael Williams? From Cape Town Opera at the time?Accessed 25 May 2022.
ZM: Yes, that’s him. The composer was Denzil Weale, he is well known as a jazz composer. The lead was sung by Gloria Bosman. But I was not part of the production either.
HR: Did you attend the production?
ZM: O yes, I liked a few things about it. I remember not liking some things about it, but that is not important. Heart of Redness I suspect, I liked everything about it.
HR: And now you have written a libretto, King Mamani.
ZM: Yes, this is the first libretto in the true sense of the word.
HR: You haven’t written it as a novel or as a play, but as a libretto?
ZM: Yes. However, the story exists in history, but it also exists in my autobiography titled Sometimes there is a Void because it is part of my family story. I am related to the people I am writing about there, the lesbian woman King Mamani. But it also exists in a few pages in my novel titled Little Suns, where I mention it briefly on a few pages. It is the story of my own ancestors. King Mamani is my great-great-grandmother. Other historians have also written about it. I know a famous historian, Harold Scheub, who wrote mostly on the oral tradition of the people of the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa people.Harold Scheub. 1996. The Tongue Is Fire: South African Storytellers and Apartheid. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
ZM: He has interviewed some of my family about the story many years ago and wrote the story before I wrote it down myself. So, this is the first libretto that I have written with the intention of it being an opera. I have written another work which could pass for a libretto, for instance, The Bells of Amersfoort‘The Bells of Amersfoort’ is short story that forms part of the book Fools, Bells and the Habit of Eating: Three Satires, published by Wits University Press in 2002. which I wrote in Holland for a Dutch group there called De Nieuwe Amsterdam Theater Groep who commissioned me to write it. But why I don’t really count it as a libretto is because it is a musical play, in other words, it is not opera in the true sense. I composed all the music for that as well.
HR: You say you are a composer?
ZM: It is not me who is saying that, it is my work who is saying that.
HR: In what kind of style do you compose?
ZM: Mine is really contemporary music that draws from traditional Xhosa music. In other words, traditional Xhosa music that is more jazzified in a contemporary South African idiom.
HR: What instruments do you play?
ZM: I play the flute.
HR: Oh, I was a fluteplayer too.
ZM: That is wonderful. I play the flute and the piccolo.
HR: Do you play indigenous instruments as well?
ZM: Unfortunately, not. I did not grow up in an environment where I was exposed to those instruments. But I played in an orchestra when I was at high school. I played in Michael Mosoeu Moerane’s orchestra. I don’t know if you have heard of MM Moerane?
HR: Yes, I have. The Moerane Critical Edition has been part of the work that has been done here at the Africa Open Institute where I work.
ZM: Oh, that is great. That Moerane that you are talking about was my teacher at high school. He was a Latin teacher. He taught me Latin, but he also taught me music. That was my first formal training in music. He had a small orchestra, slightly bigger than what you would call a chamber orchestra but smaller than a full orchestra.
ZM: It was a mostly woodwind and string orchestra. I used to play in that orchestra or with him on the piano and I on the flute, we played together a lot. And we played Humoresques, the Barcarolles, a few of the Menuettos and so on. That was part of the formal training that I had in music. I did not have any other training besides that. And therefore, throughout the time when I became a playwright, I was doing a lot of musical plays where I would write the script and also compose the music even when I was at high school and in many instances then Moerane’s orchestra would play that music.
HR: How did you come to know opera in the Western sense? The Verdis and so on?
ZM: It is a development that happened. First, from home. My father loved music, listened to a lot of music, some of which was opera. He was also a choral music conductor which is the route to opera that a lot of black Eastern Cape South African people who ended up loving opera, took. They came via the choral music route. My father was a choral music conductor and choral music involved a lot of our African composers such as Mohapeloa and Moerane. He loved oratorios a lot, mostly Handel’s oratorios, and you might know that one chorus from the very famous oratorio by Handel The Messiah, is well beloved in the Eastern Cape among the Xhosa people, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. It is so popular that it was even translated into Xhosa and other languages. And from choruses from oratorios and cantatas, the next step would be choruses from opera. That is the route.
HR: Do you have a first memory of an opera?
ZM: It will be Verdi because those classical operas were the operas that we were introduced to. That very famous chorus, the ‘Anvil Chorus’ from Il Trovatore.
ZM: But our love for choral music primarily comes via hymnody and the four-part harmony that was introduced by the missionaries. Later we learned secular music, some of which would tell stories, that would have a conversation in song. There where the different parts would be responding to each other, e.g., the sopranos as a group would be making a particular complaint and then the tenors would respond to that and then the basses would also come into that conversation. There were many songs of that nature where you find at the end of it a story has been told. I remember one, for instance, it was on gender-based violence where the women (the sopranos) were saying ‘now I am leaving, I am sick and tired of what has been happening in this family’ and then the father (sung by the basses) would respond in a very violent manner trying to stop her, and then the tenors would come and intervene. There were many songs like that which would show the possibilities of storytelling within this choral music where there is dialogue between the different parts.
HR: One of the issues that I am curious about and would like to explore is why is it that opera is so popular, this very European, Euro-centric format.
ZM: It resonates precisely because of this journey that I have just described to you, and it is mostly the people of the Eastern Cape. There are of course divas from elsewhere, of instance, Pretty Yende who is from Piet Retief in Mpumalanga who is Swati, but those are exceptions. When you look, the bulk of the black opera community is either from the Eastern Cape or has its roots in the Eastern Cape. This also has to do then with the kind of choral music that came from there and the hymnody that came before that. The African composers, who, after being converted by the missionaries, became composers of hymns in four-part harmony. It all started in the Eastern Cape.
HR: I have been reading other cultural theorists from Africa, for example, Wole SoyinkaAccessed 25 May 2022. from Nigeria, who is also a lover of opera, or Praise ZenengaPraise Zenenga (2015). ‘The Total Theater Aesthetic Paradigm in African Theater’, in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater, edited by Nadine George-Graves. from Zimbabwe. There is this concept which I haven’t heard much in South Africa, they call it ‘Total African Theatre’ or the ‘Total Arts Concept’. It refers to the pre-colonial practice existing in African cultures where singing, storytelling, dancing, movement and so on, all the elements that are today associated with opera, were put together all along. Are you familiar with the term?
ZM: It all depends on the name that you decide to give to whatever phenomenon you are talking about – you name it yourself. That’s why it is important to define what you mean when you talk about Total African Theatre. What you are talking about here is the fact that our art has always been part of the Common Festival. In other words, in its creation and its consumption there was no division of labour. That is a very Western concept that one person is a soprano and another is to sing bass and yet someone else is to listen and then applaud afterwards. We are all artists, we all are participants in its production and its enjoyment and its consumption. That does not mean that there won’t be those who are better than others, there will be those who have more beautiful voices than the rest but that doesn’t stop the rest from being participants. That is why, even today, if you go to rural areas and listen to performances, there is no line of demarcation to say some are the audience and others have no right to participate. You are participating, you sing along, you are clapping hands, even while you are watching those who are dancing, and that also encompasses all the other traditions that in a Western sense have been classified as different art forms. We sing, we dance, it is all part of performance.
What you would call sculpture, for us it is part of performance. The sculpture itself was created to be part of a performance, song is part of a performance, poetry is part of a performance and dancing is part of that same performance.
So, for us, it encompasses all those other arts that in the Western sense are separated and classified separately. You say this is a painting, therefore it stands on its own and must be enjoyed on its own. This is dance, this is a dancer, and he must only dance. In African art all those are done together, and they are part of one performance.See also: Zakes Mda (2018). ‘Parody, Satire and the Carnivalesque in Interactive African Theatre’, in Justify the Enemy, edited by J.U. Jacobs.
HR: I hear what you say, but I am also well acquainted with how Europeans talk about opera. It is about the language that is used for these two phenomena, that are actually quite close to each other. You yourself are a composer, a writer, a librettist, and an artist and you do all those different arts yourself. In your own head, how do you balance wanting to pull them apart or all of it being one thing?
ZM: Well, unfortunately I grew up in a Western education where I was taught that in fact, my art is not part of the Common Festival. You are a specialist, yours is to paint and your cousin, hers is to sing, and not just sing any part, but sing only the soprano. That one is a composer, and he must not even try to dabble in singing or doing anything else. But the fortunate thing was that when I went to high school and university I had a connection with the rural areas. There I learnt that art is art is art. I am always shocked when people here in America are so surprised that I also paint and compose music. Now, to me it is one thing, it is just being an artist.
HR: Is there a word for that?
ZM: In Sesotho we talk of ‘bonunu’ which is art, but we do have the difference in Sesotho for those who can sing which is ‘wa bina’. But sometimes the word for sing and dance, for instance in Setswana, would be the same word. In a number of African languages singing and dancing would be the same word, because the two are interrelated, they are the same thing in our culture. Even though we are educated in the Western sense we also try to separate them, and we search for words, what can we call them now? That never used to be the problem. But it has become a problem, because we are separating it in the Western sense, whereas it used to be just one art, ‘bonunu’.
HR: I want to return to opera as a Western art form. I picked up from following you on Facebook that you have a favourite soprano, Pumeza Matshikiza. What is it about her as a performer, or as an artist that is so attractive to you? Are there words for things like that?
ZM: No, it is just the voice, the voice itself. Not all sopranos have the same voice. For instance, I like Pumeza’s voice more than I like Pretty Yende’s voice even though Pretty Yende is the more famous one and the most recognized. Pretty Yende is the one you are most likely to see at the Met in New York. Of course, the voice that I like more than any other voice, including more than Pumeza’s voice, is Dame Kiri te Kanawa. That is a voice I collect, a voice I listen too.
HR: Is it the timbre of the voice?
HR: Do you have descriptive terms for how it sounds to you?
ZM: No, no… Unfortunately, I have never even tried. But Dame Kiri te Kanawa’s voice is much more full-bodied than Pumeza’s or Pretty Yende’s. Some sopranos may be a little bit airy. Airy rather than full bodied like Dame Kiri te Kanawa.
HR: And do you enjoy Anna Netrebko?
ZM: No. Oh, it’s not that I don’t enjoy her, but she’s not somebody that I would go out of my way to collect. It is not a criticism on the particular singer, it is just that there are singers that I am still yet to discover. And there are many others that I like very much, like Leontyne Price and so on. I did even like Mimi Coertse’s voice for instance.
HR: Did you?
ZM: I did yes.
HR: Even back then in the bad old days?
ZM: Well, a voice is a voice is a voice. You do recognize that Gary Player was a great golfer even though he was a supporter in fact of the Apartheid government. But it is difficult to say he was a supporter of the Apartheid government and therefore he was a lousy player.
HR: I want to get back to the idea of voice and timbre. Do you think there is such a thing as an African voice in terms of timbre?
ZM: Well, I think so. Why? You take a song and give it to an African choir, and you give the same song to a European choir – note, I am stressing, I did not say white choir, I am saying European choir – you will find that you can tell just by listening that it is a different choir. For instance, the Stellenbosch University Choir, when they sing African songs, they have tried very hard to catch the African voice.
ZM: Don’t ask me how they do that, I don’t know, you can ask their conductor. But even they, especially when it comes to those solo parts, you’ll hear that actually there is a white woman singing. You will get that trace, even though the articulation of words in Xhosa or in Sesotho or whatever is quite correct. In other words, you can’t fault them by saying I heard the mispronunciation of the word, no, the word was pronounced quite correctly, but you can hear that. So, much as the Stellenbosch University Choir has managed to catch or master the African voice when they sing African songs, there are instances when you listen carefully where you can say, aha, there it is, that is a white women’s voice, right there, I can get the traces of that.A critique of the racialization of voice has been posed by Nina Eidsheim in her 2019 publication The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Durham: Duke University Press). Eidsheim states that ‘we are conditioned to hear what we listen for and to assume that what we hear is indisputable, and this conditioning acts like planted evidence’ (p.50) and asserts that we have been entrained and socialized to hear difference based on essentialist opinions of racial identity articulation. An application of Eidsheim’s ideas has yet to done within the African context as different modes or techniques of singing may be required depending on the repertoire.
HR: When it comes to the two operas where your texts were set to music did you have an ideal for the kind of timbre you would have wanted from the voices that sing those operas?
ZM: No, not really, but for this libretto that I have written, I do, which is also what I wanted to talk with you about because you know quite a few composers over there in Stellenbosch.
HR: You don’t have a composer yet?
ZM: I am coming to that but let me first give you some context. This story is set in the Eastern Cape many years ago, or even centuries before the coming of the white man, it is very much a pre-colonial story. I wrote it as opera in the Western sense and therefore I wanted a composer who is going to compose opera in the Western sense, but one who is able to inject the Xhosa idiom into his music. I don’t know if I am describing it in a manner that makes sense to you who is a music scholar? You can have opera that a Western person listens to who says that is opera, but it is not Mozart or Verdi or whoever, it has in it that idiom of Xhosa music. It is something that we mastered in jazz, we took that American idiom and put into it various South African musics and now it is heard as South African jazz which is still recognizable as jazz even by an American jazzophile who says ‘oh, this is jazz, but it is not American jazz’. I want that thing with opera. Where a Western opera fundi would say, ‘hey, this is opera, but of a different idiom’. And I had just the right composer for that sort of thing. He is a well-known black composer called Bongani Ndodana-Breen.
HR: Yes, I know him, and he has done quite a few operasHe composed five operas to date of which Winnie, the Opera (2011) is the most famous. A full list of his operas can be consulted on his website. already.
ZM: Yes. So, I had a soprano in mindThe libretto is dedicated to the soprano Pumeza Matshikiza. when I was writing it, and I had a composer in mind when I was writing it, but I wanted a composer who would be willing for me to inject something of Xhosa music in there.
HR: Is Bongani from the Eastern Cape?
ZM: Oh yes, he is from the Eastern Cape and his whole education, his high school years, is from the Eastern Cape. He later lived in Canada, and he has composed music based on my poetry when he was a student.
HR: He was a student at Stellenbosch University where he studied composition with Roelof Temmingh.
ZM: But now, when we discussed and looked at things, where I think we will not see eye to eye, and where I will very seriously think of a different composer. But let me first tell you that my intention with this opera is educational in that many people do not know this history that I am talking about. They don’t know that in fact, many years before white people came there was a lesbian marriage that was recognized by the community as a marriage. Today you do hear people say, oh no, this homosexuality came with white people.
In a lot of my work, in The Sculptors of Mapungubve, for instance, I am talking about different traditions of homosexuality that existed as part of African culture, with some African groups. I talk of the Azande people, how part of their tradition involved homosexuality. I talk about many groups in South Africa where homosexuality was actually regarded a sacred and was reserved for the priestly class and which continues to be so today for the shamans, the sangomas and so on of a particular order. For further reading see, among others, Busangokwakhe Dlamini (2006), ‘Homosexuality in the African Context’, Agenda: Empowering for Gender Equity, Volume 2,3 (pp.128-136); Mohammed Elnaiem (2021); Leah Buckle (2019).
This story of my great-great-grandmother has always fascinated me which is the same reason why it has embarrassed my people. They were Christianized and because of Christian values homosexuality is a sin and therefore they are ashamed of that part of their history. Now they blame me and say, ‘why do you keep on digging out stories about this shameful past of us, where in the 1700s this woman was allowed to marry another woman?’ At present, my traditional people look back at the episode in history and they are actually ashamed of it. They are using a new yardstick now, the Christian yardstick, but to them that is an African yardstick. Those Christian values which are in fact Victorian values because they were brought to us by the European colonizers.
HR: In music we have the parallel in the tonic solfa system. It has become the new yard stick that was brought in by the English.
ZM: Yes, the tonic solfa system, is now our system.
HR: Were you taught in tonic solfa?
ZM: Yes, primary school and high school. But in Moerane’s orchestra I was taught staff notation. But coming back to the opera, I think the story works very effectively as opera because of its dramatic-ness, and those exaggerated gestures and its emphatic nature. The story told me right from the beginning, this should be opera, but it should be the kind of opera that draws and is informed by Xhosa traditional music. Now why I am saying that Bongani and I might not see eye to eye, is that a modern contemporary composer, he is much more interested in the kind of opera that is very much Avant Garde and very contemporary. Because he is a modern contemporary composer. Whereas I, on the other hand, am more interested in a grand, almost classical tradition of the past, which will capture the story in its grandness.
HR: I can suggest to you the composer Hans Huyssen, his style might be a better fit in the way that you have described what you are looking for. He composed an opera called Masque in 2005 where he combined different instrumental groups such as classical instruments and then a group of indigenous instruments that included the uhadi and the umrhubhe.
ZM: That’s my guy. But I don’t know him. You know, it is fine to be experimental, but I am keen that the whole story as I have it written down should come out. You must not say, for instance, cut off all this text because this piece of music already says that, or this instrumentalization has already been told to us and the audience will read it between the lines. I am writing this story for an audience who want to hear and see all of it and then they understand the story. The full story must be told. That is where I have a different perspective from Bongani who is more interested in a much smaller kind of opera which is very abstract, where for example you have a poem, a very rich poem, where you read what you would like to read in it. I want the story to come out as it actually happened.
HR: Coming back to Hans Huyssen’s opera, he also wanted the singers to sing in a timbre that would resemble an African tone. It was a kind of experiment, and the notion was problematic also because he didn’t really know how to explain it, but is that what you are interested in?
ZM: I would like to talk to him.
HR: Of course, I will put you into contact with him.Nothing came of the contact with Hans Huyssen. Instead, Mda went on to work with Cape Town Opera and two young composers, Monthati Masebe and Ongama Mhlontlo, to create the opera. I am going to call it a day for now Prof Mda. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me. There is much to absorb and to think about, especially about the issue of timbre, your own relationship with opera and the way how you describe that opera as a Western form of art has come to sit so comfortably in the music practices of the people of the Eastern Cape. I appreciate it very much.
This conversation took place on 4 February 2021, via Zoom.
|1.||↑||Accessed 25 May 2022. See also William Fourie (2015), ‘Heart of Redness by Neo Muyanga’, Muziki, 12:2, 99-103.|
|2.||↑||The opera was titled Love of Green Onions. Accessed 4 May 2022.|
|3.||↑||Accessed 25 May 2022.|
|4.||↑||Harold Scheub. 1996. The Tongue Is Fire: South African Storytellers and Apartheid. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.|
|5.||↑||‘The Bells of Amersfoort’ is short story that forms part of the book Fools, Bells and the Habit of Eating: Three Satires, published by Wits University Press in 2002.|
|6.||↑||Accessed 25 May 2022.|
|7.||↑||Praise Zenenga (2015). ‘The Total Theater Aesthetic Paradigm in African Theater’, in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater, edited by Nadine George-Graves.|
|8.||↑||See also: Zakes Mda (2018). ‘Parody, Satire and the Carnivalesque in Interactive African Theatre’, in Justify the Enemy, edited by J.U. Jacobs.|
|9.||↑||A critique of the racialization of voice has been posed by Nina Eidsheim in her 2019 publication The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Durham: Duke University Press). Eidsheim states that ‘we are conditioned to hear what we listen for and to assume that what we hear is indisputable, and this conditioning acts like planted evidence’ (p.50) and asserts that we have been entrained and socialized to hear difference based on essentialist opinions of racial identity articulation. An application of Eidsheim’s ideas has yet to done within the African context as different modes or techniques of singing may be required depending on the repertoire.|
|10.||↑||He composed five operas to date of which Winnie, the Opera (2011) is the most famous. A full list of his operas can be consulted on his website.|
|11.||↑||The libretto is dedicated to the soprano Pumeza Matshikiza.|
|12.||↑||For further reading see, among others, Busangokwakhe Dlamini (2006), ‘Homosexuality in the African Context’, Agenda: Empowering for Gender Equity, Volume 2,3 (pp.128-136); Mohammed Elnaiem (2021); Leah Buckle (2019).|
|13.||↑||Nothing came of the contact with Hans Huyssen. Instead, Mda went on to work with Cape Town Opera and two young composers, Monthati Masebe and Ongama Mhlontlo, to create the opera.|