Gospel-fired African opera

Brett Adkins

SOUTH Africa’s proud gospel tradition was bound to be a catalyst for a musical version of the passion of Christ and this is what drove Port Elizabeth raised director Themi Venturas to make that dream a reality.

Now an original gospel opera-musical he has penned, The African Passion, is on a national tour over the Easter period, and will be coming to the Port Elizabeth Opera House next week where it will feature dozens of Nelson Mandela Bay choristers.

“It has been simmering for years as an idea,” Venturas said yesterday.

“South Africa has such a proud gospel tradition it was only a matter of time until someone took the initiative to do a musical version of the passion of Christ.

“I have tried to do a version that sticks to the traditional passion according to the gospel of St John, opting for a version that is sung through, making it an opera rather than simply a musical with spoken scenes and songs.

“Our version sweeps along and is completely sung. Obviously there is some poetic licence within the various characters and their moods and feelings, but all are biblically correct.”

Venturas said that, in this version, Simon Peter – whose guilt at denying Christ is getting to him – is the protagonist and narrative figure.

“It begins with Palm Sunday and leads us all the way to the resurrection.”

With the libretto written by Venturas, the music has been composed by award-winning gospel choral composer Phelelani Mnomiya, Anthony Govender and the Young Mbazo band, comprising the grandchildren of world-acclaimed Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Of the challenges in putting together such a multi-faceted and sweeping opera-musical, Venturas said all major productions of this nature were a logistical nightmare.

This ranged from completing the libretto, getting the music composed, casting, making the myriad of tour arrangements and organising the design and manufacture of costumes and props, to rehearsals, technical challenges and finally opening on stage.

“All of these challenges make this special project the spectacle that it has now become.”

So what can audiences expect?

“A moving version of the passion of Christ with 60 choristers from the PE region, 21 professional singers, on a spectacular audio-visual backdrop that moves along seamlessly,” said Venturas.

“The music is a fair reflection of the vast variety of gospel styles that make up the South African genre. There are great choral numbers in an almost classical style, some in a mbaqanga style, duets, solos and a group of isicathamiya disciples. This is a truly African Passion.”

Cast members are from all over the country, with three performers from Port Elizabeth – Sisanda Jacobs, Edward Lungu and Wongeka Mbeki.

It features Bonginkhosi “Faca” Kulu (The Lion King in New York) as Jesus, Natalia da Rocha as his mother Mary, Sharon Dee as Mary Magdalene, Grant Jacobs as Simon Peter, Dewaldt von Solms as Pontius Pilate, Caitlin Kilburn as Pilate’s wife, Blessing Xaba (seen as Fatty in the movie of John van de Ruit’s Spud) as Caiaphas, Aubrey Lodewyk as Annas and Young Mbazo.

“It has been a privilege to work with professionals at the top of their game and most encouraging to also be giving debut opportunities to some of SA’s future stars, some of whom hail from PE,” said Venturas.

He said the libretto was the culmination of the path that he had been leading to date.

“I have been very involved in classical opera over the last 10 years and was instrumental in the making of Princess Magogo and Ziyankomo – the acclaimed Zulu operas – and have been dreaming of creating an opera using a more contemporary South African style. The African Passion is it!”

The production is being staged at the Opera House next Thursday and Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 2pm and 7pm, and Sunday at 2pm. Booking is at Computicket.

Charities, churches and fund-raisers interested in using the show to raise funds should contact Ailsa Windsor on 083-250-2690 or editor.goingplacessa@gmail.com

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