Michael Williams Discusses Mandela Opera

Michael Williams, managing director of the Cape Town Opera and author of the original opera, The Mandela Trilogy, has spoken to Classic FM about the attraction of the anti-apartheid hero’s life as subject matter for his new work.

Cape Town Opera's Mandela Trilogy

“I think because every opera is based on the notion of freedom - and this is a real story of freedom. I think this is one of the key issues around why this is such a great opera,” says Williams. 

He continues: “Opera is about conflict and the story of Nelson Mandela is riven with conflict. Good operas are about relationships with people – good and bad relationships – and Nelson Mandela had many of those within his life. 

“Good operas have an epic quality to them where they stand on a different mountain to other works and Mandela stands on his own mountain and is epic in his own right. That’s why the subject calls for the grandeur and the intimacy that the opera can bring.” 

However, such an epic tale can bring problems in the telling. Given the sheer sweep and scale of Mandela’s life, Williams had to employ heavyweight editorial skills. 

“One of the toughest jobs was who to leave out and who to put in,” says Williams. 

He explains: “What helped me in that was that the earlier part of his life in the Transkei is not that well known. What people don’t realize about Mr Mandela is that he comes from a very traditional, rural background. 

“He lived, literally, in a mud hut. He was the surrogate son of chief and he went through the initiation rights of every Khoisan man and that meant isolation in the bush, circumcision in the raw and he was also given a bride which was part of the tradition. He also turned down the arranged marriage, stole two of the chief’s cattle and hived off to Johannesburg. 

“That aspect of his earlier life really intrigued me. And so the first act is about the young man who is at once traditional but is at the same time aware that beyond those green hills is the giant that is stirring and he needs to be a part of that; his destiny does not lie in the hills of the Transkai.” 

The second act deals with Mandela’s life in the environs of the city and it’s here that different types of music come into play. 

“When he gets to Johannesburg, it’s the 1950s. It’s the music of Miriam Makeba, it’s the music of Hugh Masakela, it’s the jive, it’s the American influence of jazz and blues coming in to the townships,” elaborates Williams. 

“It just seemed to me that the second act would become a jazz musical that looks at his life as a lawyer and his relationships with three different women.” 

The final act focuses on Mandela’s imprisonment by the apartheid regime. 

“The third act has to be about the major part of his life – his incarceration. He was in three different prisons and the third act looks at what happened to him in prison and his final release.” 

Williams is under no illusions that such a huge story will prove attractive to other writers of opera and be subject to individual interpretation – but for him, The Mandela Trilogy is how he sees the story in its best light. 

“I think there will be other operas based on Nelson Mandela,” he states. 

“There will be other choices that will be made but these are the choices that I made and I hope that people will enjoy them.” 

Williams is no stranger to making interesting and powerful choices. The Cape Town Opera’s production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – currently touring the UK – has been relocated to the ravaged township of Soweto in the 1970s. 

Cape Town Opera will perform the European premiere of Mandela Trilogy at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on June 20 and 21.

Listen to the full interview below

Michael Williams

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