'Magic Flute' finds its African edge


South African opera company Dimpho Di Kopane's version of 'The Magic Flute' makes elder statesman Sarastro a tribal leader and plays Mozart on marimbas, writes Arminta Wallace

AT FIRST you go, "what?" Then you go, "oh, right - I get it". Then you go: "Wow", Because this is The Magic Flute as you've surely never seen or heard it before. Sarastro is an African tribal leader in flowing embroidered robes. Tamino and Pamina are Xhosa-speaking teenagers. Exuberance is the name of the game as Mozart's music overflows into sequences of township song and dance. And the orchestra?

Well, that would be the massed ranks of marimba players on either side of the stage.

The Dimpho Di Kopane company from Cape Town performs Mozart's most polished score entirely on marimbas, with a couple of steel and oil drums, a series of water-filled glass bottles and a jazz trumpet thrown in for good measure. It ought to be a travesty; instead, it's a glorious outpouring of joy which gets right to the heart of the opera's humanist message. "Really, it's Mozart and Africa put together," says Pauline Malefane.

An experienced operatic soprano who co-wrote the company's previous outing U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (an award-winning feature film based on Bizet's Carmen) as well as performing in the smash hit of the 2002 Dublin Theatre Festival, The Mysteries, Malefane is a central figure in The Magic Flute. Not only does she sing the role of the Queen of the Night, she also plays the marimbas and, together with a team of scriptwriters, took on the tricky task of paring the opera's famously convoluted plot back to its essential elements.

"My first experience of Magic Flute was that I hated the story," she admits. "To me it sounded like it would be good for kids - the humour and everything else - but it didn't make sense for adults. I said, 'Oh, God'. I didn't really like this opera, you know? So I think having that reaction in our minds helped us to actually shape it in a way which audiences could enjoy." Even so, she and her colleagues Mbali Kgosidintsi, Nolufefe Mtshabe and company director Mark Dornford-May - who is also Malefane's husband - found Mozart's masterpiece a tough nut to crack.

"It's a very complex opera," she says. "It took us I don't know how many weeks to find our way. We changed and changed and changed. Every week, really, we had changes that we made to the script. We always laugh about it and say that when Mozart wrote it he was probably hallucinating. A lot of things in the story don't really make sense. The one person who could make sense of them would be Mozart himself - but he's nowhere to be found."

Yet Mozart's anarchic impishness runs like blood in the veins of this production. This was, after all, a composer who gave the part of the eponymous enchanted flute to the humble glockenspiel - so that he could stand at the side of the stage and play it himself. Still, though - Sarastro as a wise old tribal owl? Tamino and Pamina as a pair of teenagers who are initiated into the tribe? How does that fit with Mozart's Masonic fable? In the pause before Malefane answers, I can hear somebody playing scraps of jazz piano in the background.

They began, she says, by asking themselves how they could portray the opera's elder statesman, Sarastro, and his followers in a way that would make sense to contemporary African audiences. "He could have been an African president in a democratic setting; but instead we decided to make him a tribal leader. So we have men singing traditional African songs underneath - or on top of - his arias."

In this context it made complete sense to portray the young lovers, Tamino and Pamina, as teenagers who - instead of going through the opera's enigmatic series of trials by fire and water - are subjected to traditional tribal initiation rituals.

"You know, in the African tradition there's an age where a boy has to go to the mountains and when he comes back he then becomes a man," says Malefane. "When Sarastro has retired, for Tamino to be able to step into his shoes he has to be initiated. They have to make sure that he's ready to become a Sarastro figure, if you like. Our story is a combination of the tests from the opera and this initiation ceremony. We don't want people to think that we have changed Mozart. But, you know, it's a bit different to our traditional initiation ceremony as well, because in Africa you don't get initiated with a woman. You get initiated as a man, on your own. In our story, it's two forces - the man and the woman - who come together and form one unit." Ditto the original opera.

One of its most celebrated numbers, the duet Bei Männern, Welche Liebe Fühlen, proposes - pretty radically for an 18th-century theatre work - that love is our ticket to salvation: male plus female equals divinity. And God, oddly enough, might be said to have had a hand in the matter of the African orchestration.

"I was invited to a nativity play at the United and Methodist Church in Cape Town," Malefane explains, "and they had this group of boys playing marimbas. And this guy from the church - I didn't even know he was a musician - was coaching and conducting them. So when Mark came up with the mad idea of putting the marimbas into The Magic Flute and taking the orchestra away, I said - I know a guy from our church whom I saw by accident who's involved with marimbas. Let's try him."

Enter Mandisi Dyantyis, a 25-year-old jazz trumpeter who had just completed a BMus degree at the University of Cape Town. "He's young, he's vibrant - he's great," says Malefane. "He and Mark get on wonderfully together because they're both very mad. And he brings into this show things that I would have thought would never work." Such as? "I didn't think that taking the orchestra away would work," she says. "I didn't think Mozart would sound well with the marimbas. And I didn't think we would be capable of playing these instruments.

"It takes ages to learn to play piano; it takes ages to learn to play trumpet, or violin, or whatever. So obviously I thought, 'it's going to take us years to learn to play marimbas - and how are we going to play those violin notes? How are they going to sound on the marimbas?' I had all those reservations. But Mark and Mandisi were like: 'You conservative opera person. This is how we're going to do it, and you're in it. So just find a way of coping with it'."

IN THE EVENT, SHE SAYS, she changed her mind at the very first rehearsal. "We started an aria or something, and as soon as I heard it I thought, 'Oh, God - it's lovely'. You know, I was trained as a classical opera singer but I was born with traditional African music inside me. And sometimes that takes over."

To a Western ear, what is most striking about Dimpho Di Kopane's overwhelmingly percussive version of the score is not the absence of melody. Unusually, these marimbas have been customised to provide every note in the chromatic scale and with the ability of such simple instruments to replicate the intricacy of Mozart's composition. Not that the performances are simple; the overture, in particular, is beautifully-textured and awesomely virtuosic. For Malefane and the others, this was itself something of an initiation ritual.

She and the other actors were expected first to create their own scores, then to memorise them. "We had to play by heart, and that was scary at first - nerve-wracking, in fact. But playing this instrument is fun. You use your whole body. It takes away the stiffness of opera - because opera can be stiff - and it brings in the rhythm. You can't stop yourself from dancing and just going away with it."

As Queen of the Night, meanwhile, Malefane is a joy to behold. She's the archetypal bad girl, revelling in a laced-up dominatrix leather bodice and hair that looks as if she has been inadvertently electrocuted. This is a hat-trick for Malefane, the third of a trio of highly-praised performances as very different ladies: the Virgin Mary, Carmen and the Queen of the Night. She laughs. "Yes, well, at least it's ladies," she says. "I'd have a problem if I had to play a man."

On the other hand, with this company anything is possible. "I wasn't supposed to play Carmen. Someone else was, and it didn't work out. That's when I came into the picture. With The Mysteries, someone else was doing Mary and I was doing Noah's wife. But then she got ill halfway through a performance, so I had to quickly strip off and I was in.

"And for The Magic Flute I said, 'No. No. No'. Because it's written for a specific voice, this music, and I'm not a coloratura soprano. So for all three of my roles with this company, there's always something. Either I wasn't supposed to do it, or I'm saying 'No, it's not for me'. But I think I've grown since playing Carmen. I've developed as a performer. When I was fresh from music school, the most important thing for me was singing. To my surprise, when I got into this company I found out that it's 50-50; music and drama go together. You have to convince the audience. "

Irish audiences will be able to decide for themselves when Impempe Yomlingo opens at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin on October 7th. It arrives already garlanded with an Olivier award, a sellout run in London and a fistful of rave reviews; nevertheless, it faces stiff competition here in what has been hailed as the best Dublin Theatre Festival programme in years. But if this uber-feelgood show doesn't turn out to be the Mamma Mia! of the festival, I'll eat my collection of Mozart CDs.

The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo), directed by Mark Dornford-May, runs at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin from October 7-11