A close reading of the opera Mandela trilogy, with a special focus on the performance of Mandela's masculinities
This study explores the mediation of socio-political and life realities, and the performance of Nelson Mandela's masculinities in the opera Mandela trilogy, and what that says about the function and nature of contemporary opera in the current socio-political contexts in South Africa. Mandela trilogy is a three-act opera in which events that unfolded in Nelson Mandela's life are portrayed, from the time he went to the traditional initiation school to his speech after his release from prison in 1990. Acts 1 and 3 were composed by Pétter Louis van Dijk and Act 2 by Mike Campbell, and the libretto was written by Michael Williams. The style of the original music in Act 1 is derived from AmaXhosa traditional songs, but it also includes arrangements of existing traditional IsiXhosa songs. The music of Act 2 is predominantly in a jazz style, and Act 3 is in a contemporary classical operatic style. In this close reading, significant technical aspects of the music, musical styles, orchestration, textual content and structure (libretto), staging, costumes, choreography, acting, the locations depicted, and singing are described in detail. In addition to this, a number of important issues, presented as ‘digressions’ from these descriptions, are highlighted. In Act 1, ‘post-blackface’ is presented as a concept that relates to the progressive reconstruction of social relations in South Africa. Stylistic influences are suggested to be symbolic of Mandela as the ‘elder statesman’ and the ‘prosecuted outsider’. In Act 2, jazz is referred to as a symbol of exile and as a space for an emerging, politicized African urbanism. Historical correctness in the depiction of previously-oppressed persons and cultures are related to the use of existing music in this act. In Act 3, more ‘conventional’ operatic devices portray the prosecution and imprisonment of the Rivonia trialists. The separation of men and women takes on musical significance as women become a tool for strength and endurance for the prisoners. In this act, Mandela is first seen as vulnerable, and later as a token of hope. In Act 1, masculinities that come to light include 'militarism', the display of which is reflected in the music through the instrumentation. The influence of the Thembu regent on Mandela's masculine development is presented as being significant, as well as seminal in shaping Mandela's gender performance amongst Thembu people. The self-assertion of Mandela's masculinity comes to light in a number of ways, including his participation in activities that served to strengthen male camaraderie. In Act 2, leadership qualities Mandela acquired are displayed through dance and music. The idea of 'smart-cool/bravado' is linked to womanizing and gender-division as a display of masculinity. In Act 3, militarism, rather than being a symbol of power (like before), is connected to loneliness, weariness, helplessness and endurance; this is especially evident in the military-like routine the prisoners were subjected to, as displayed in this act. In conclusion, I suggest that the combination of musical platforms from which Mandela's story was told in Mandela trilogy was necessary in sketching the almost complete picture of him we encounter in the opera.
- Humanities