New opera tells the story of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

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New opera tells the story of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

PRETORIA, South Africa - The Soweto-born soprano who plays Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in a new opera says the story of the “mother of the nation,” accused of brutality in her fight against apartheid, is deeply familiar.

“It’s something that I grew up knowing. It’s part of my history,” Tsakane Maswanganyi said in an interview ahead of Thursday’s premiere of “Winnie the Opera” at the State Theatre, South Africa’s equivalent of America’s Lincoln Center or Britain’s National Theatre.

But Maswanganyi added she can’t dwell on what it means to play such a formidable figure before an audience that on opening night is expected to include Madikizela-Mandela.

For two hours, during which she appears in nearly every scene, Maswanganyi works to combine powerful singing and acting to portray a character who is at one moment imperious and in control, the next vulnerable under an apartheid jailer’s whip. She is a giddy young girl in love, singing, “His smile is daylight that never ends.” And she is an anguished woman, singing, “Nelson, where are you?”

Nelson Mandela, who divorced Madikizela-Mandela in 1996, appears in the production only as an offstage voice and a silhouette on a large screen that is the main scenic element. A few years after the iconic couple married in 1958, Mandela was found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was to remain in prison until 1990.

During their long years apart, Madikizela-Mandela, 17 years younger than Mandela, grew into a sophisticated political leader in her own right who was repeatedly arrested, jailed and placed under house arrest. But she also was accused of embracing the most radical, violent ideology of the broad anti-apartheid movement and of turning that violence on her fellow blacks.

In 1969, Madikizela-Mandela was among 21 activists detained in nationwide dawn raids, accused of terrorism. They all were eventually acquitted but Madikizela-Mandela spent 491 days in detention, most of it in solitary confinement. She writes in a 1984 memoir, “Part of my soul went with him,” of being interrogated for five days and five nights, growing so exhausted she periodically fainted.

Before that ordeal, she writes, she was incapable of violence. After it, “if a man I’m dealing with appeared carrying a gun - in defense of my principles I know I would fire. That is what they have taught me. I could never have achieved that alone.”

“That is the bitterness they create in us.”

In the opera, that transformation is portrayed with a gesture: Maswanganyi as Madikizela-Mandela rejects a hand outstretched in reconciliation and raises her fist.

Opera has been used to tell the stories of other complex contemporary figures. “Winnie” producer Mfundi Vundla, who is more familiar with television than opera, said he studied the work of John Adams, composer of “Nixon in China” to prepare for “Winnie,” for which he shares librettist credits with Warren Wilensky. The composer is another South African, Bongani Ndodana-Breen.

Madikizela-Mandela “is a central figure in our evolution, in the history of our struggle,” Vundla said. “She is reviled by many, hero-worshipped by many and she is a charismatic person. She’s got sex appeal and she makes for an exciting figure to treat operatically.”

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