Sunday Times STLive By Karen Rutter, 2010-11-21

The struggle continues

It is almost two decades ago that Chris Hani was assassinated. A new opera tells his story, writes Karen Rutter

Writing an opera about assassinated leader Chris Hani sounds a bit like creating a musical about Anne Frank. You know how it's going to end, and it's not pretty. And how the hell do you create a soundtrack for the Third Reich - or apartheid, in this case?

But it turns out, we are in good hands. Composer Bongani Ndondana-Breen and librettist Mfundi Vundla have partnered on a production that steers away from the literal, and instead provides a "meditative excursion", as Vundla puts it. Hani forms part of Five:20, a unique collaboration between the University of Cape Town Opera School, Cape Town Opera and the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts.

The work consists of five 20-minute operas written, composed and directed by local opera heavyweights to celebrate the South African College of Music's centenary. Other topics tackled are Saartjie Baartman, Lucy Lloyd and the San Bushmen, xenophobia, and Breyten Breytenbach's prison poetry.

"Hani moves into the world of the unconscious," explains Vundla. "It calls upon the spirit of Chris Hani to help us navigate in this new South Africa."

He explains that in African culture, the spirits of the ancestors play an important part in the guidance of those who are still living on earth.

"In my family, every year on December 16, we all go to my parents' graves, and clean them up, and sing, and tell them about what's going on - who's done matric, whose business is doing well, and so on. We talk to them," says Vundla.

So in his opera, directed by Marcus Desando, Vundla summons the charismatic leader to come back from the dead.

"We ask him to 'plug the hole in the nation's bucket'," he says. "There are some citizens who are very concerned about the moral compass of this country - how we treat foreigners and women, the corruption in our society. That's the hole in the bucket," he explains.

Vundla has drawn on an array of references, from the famadihana ceremonies of Madagascar to the writings of Rilke. But essentially, the piece has a very personal tone.

"It's based on my meeting with Hani in the US, before the end of apartheid. I was very moved by his passion," he says simply. So the core of the opera revolves around a writer, who communicates with Hani.

"It also resonates with previous struggles I have had with writing - when I was stuck, I thought of Miles Davis. I felt the spirit, and it did away with my writer's block," he smiles.

Vundla admits that writing for an opera was a particular type of challenge. It's a little different from the work he has been doing up until now. A former Fort Hare student, Vundla went into political exile in 1970, moving to the US, where he attained a master's degree in education from Boston University. He and his wife then moved to California to work as television writers for David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and a writer for Hill Street Blues. Vundla helped found the African Arts Fund, which raised money to bring South Africans to the US to study fine arts.

He returned to South Africa in 1993, and went on to create the hugely popular soapie Generations, as well as the series Backstage, while other credits included producing the Antjie Krog-based movie Country of my Skull, and founding TV and film company Morula Pictures.

Collaborating with Ndondana-Breen, an internationally acclaimed composer whose work has been performed around the world, was a "stimulating experience", he says. "We got to be friends. He introduced me to minimalist composers - Philip Glass, Steve Reich. We went back and forth, exchanging ideas. He helped me with the form."

Vundla says his first foray into opera was challenging, but "the character is well-suited to the genre".

"Hani was a Che Guevara-type figure, he was dramatic, he was a figure of action. He's perfect for this," he says.

Desando agrees. "It's about calling on a strong political figure, someone who touched a lot of people, and asking him to guide us to become a better society. When you leave this opera, what you will feel is the need to be together, to pull together."

Watching the opera in rehearsal, I can understand. A group of youths sway rhythmically to the beat before peeling off into two groups, singing powerfully as they leave. Behind them, the lone voice of an imbhongi can be heard calling to the heavens. It is a stirring moment.

Among the composers are Peter Klatzow, Hendrik Hofmeyr, Bongani Ndondana-Breen, Peter Louis van Dijk and Martin Watt. On at the Baxter Theatre from November 21 to 27