This Queen of the Night wants her high notes to bring South Africa’s black communities and young people to the opera.
The first time Pauline Malefane went to the opera on a school excursion in Cape Town, she was completely bewildered. “We went to see Don Giovanni, and no-one really explained to us what opera was and what we were going to see, what the story was about,” the singer recalls. “So we went there as schoolkids from a poor township and listened to these foreign stories with all these costumes and these people singing instead of talking to each other and we thought, ‘my goodness, this is so boring.’
“We’d never been into a theatre before, and we were bombarded by these big glass chandeliers – I mean, you live in a shack, you don’t even have electricity, so the first 20 minutes you’re not looking on stage; you’re looking around you at all this extravagance.”
Two decades later, Malefane has taken on some of the most complex female leads in opera. She’s sung Gershwin’s Summertime with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle, toured the world as a sultry Carmen, and now brings her acclaimed Queen of the Night to Australia. But there’s a twist: in her Mozartian guise she is accompanied not by a symphony orchestra but by marimbas, drums and a vibrant gospel choir. This Magic Flute is the work of South Africa’s intrepid Isango Ensemble, of which Malefane is the music director and which she founded with her husband, artistic director Mark Dornford-May.
“Mark’s vision was to take South Africa out of its nest and flourish and go out into the world”, she explains, “because at this time South Africa was only known internationally as what you see in the news: people dying, whether it’s people killing each other or through illnesses, AIDS, malaria, whatever. Those were the stories that were coming out of Africa, so we wanted to show people that South Africa is not just about what they see on television – there’s so much culture, so much talent.
“We mainly focus on stories that, in the end, when adapted would relate to South Africa. It has to be authentic, we have to bring it closer to us. So our first story was Carmen, about a woman who is in prison, inside herself. And also who is dominated by a very male society, which is something that a lot of women in South Africa cry about.”
After U-Carmen opened in Cape Town, the colourful re-telling of Bizet’s grand opera translated into Xhosa language became a hit in London and Perth, as well as an award-winning film shot in South Africa with the original cast.
Similarly, The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo) transforms a masterpiece from the Western canon into what Malefane describes as “an African fairytale”, as a means of addressing important social and political issues and raising awareness of them globally through familiar stories. “We were divided nations, but now we’re trying to be one. We wanted to portray Sarastro as a leader who listens to the community and his followers and doesn’t just do whatever he likes. And so there’s that kind of democracy.”
She might have thought opera was boring as a teenager on that school outing, but Malefane has unearthed the essence of the artform as a powerful tool inspiring social change. “Isango”, afterall, means “gateway” or “port” in Zulu and Xhosa language.
“When you go to the theatre, the people that you see are the people who are – let me just say, white. It is white people who dominate opera. And that could be because black people cannot afford to go to the opera, but that is not a strong point, because there are a lot of black people now who can afford to see these things. So that takes us to the fact that people do not relate to it. Hence this style we’ve adopted. When you want someone to come and see something, you don’t make it impossible for your audience to understand.
“Our main goal is to try and get the black people to come into the theatre, to go into the theatre, to enjoy themselves as they did before the Apartheid in 1948, and say to them, theatre is not just for white people or people who are rich. For some performances we have a system where you just pay what you can for a ticket.”
It’s surprising that such a passionate, outspoken woman at first shied away from playing the great empowered women of opera. Malefane describes the steep learning curve and seemingly insurmountable challenges that came with the territory. “Neither of these roles are roles that I would have chosen myself. And I’m saying, ‘No, I can’t,’ especially with The Magic Flute because vocally I didn’t go beyond a top C.
“I’m no queen of the night!” she laughs. “But as soon as I saw that I had to do it, I had to change my way of thinking. Every day that year, before the first performance, I sang it. I had to convince myself and I have to train my muscles to do it. It was really hard work! Even now I still think about my performance and what I want to achieve, and it has to be better every night.”
She also had doubts about the rebirth of Mozart’s score in bright, African garb. “I thought, ‘this is not going to work. How can you sing Mozart without the orchestra?’ But I was definitely proven wrong. Because the day we started using the marimbas, it was just fantastic, I thought it was just beautiful. Most of us in the company had never played instruments, so we had to change the score because some of us don’t read music.”
The troupe of 30-40 performers Australian audiences will see at the Melbourne Festival is a mixture of actors, singers, dancers and combinations thereof – only a few professionally trained – that “captures the colour of South Africa,” in particular the rich choral tradition that was so proudly on show during the World Cup. “I think all of us at some point went through choral singing and some still do sing in choirs, and that’s the most powerful force that we have. Most people that come to audition are from choirs.”
What’s the next opera to receive the Isango treatment? “We’re actually doing La bohème next. We are in partnership with The Global Fund in Switzerland, which fights against AIDS, tuburculosis and malaria. In La bohème Mimì dies of TB, but there are all sorts of things around the issue of disease, like poverty and lack of access to medical treatment. It’s a great concept.”
In the meantime, Papageno keeps playing that magic flute. “To be honest with you, I thought by now we would have forgotten about The Magic Flute,” Malefane confesses. “It is amazing that we are still doing it because it is a beautiful story, and I think the whole world deserves to see it.”