News / Africa

    South Africans Remake 'Porgy and Bess' Musical

    Otto Maidi, who plays Porgy in the Cape Town Opera Company's production of Porgy and Bess, sings a solo during rehearsals in June, Cape Town, South Africa. (Peter Cox/VOA)Otto Maidi, who plays Porgy in the Cape Town Opera Company's production of Porgy and Bess, sings a solo during rehearsals in June, Cape Town, South Africa. (Peter Cox/VOA)
    x
    Otto Maidi, who plays Porgy in the Cape Town Opera Company's production of Porgy and Bess, sings a solo during rehearsals in June, Cape Town, South Africa. (Peter Cox/VOA)
    Otto Maidi, who plays Porgy in the Cape Town Opera Company's production of Porgy and Bess, sings a solo during rehearsals in June, Cape Town, South Africa. (Peter Cox/VOA)
    CAPE TOWN – South Africa’s Cape Town Opera Company is showing that the story of oppression translates across borders and time. 

    The 1930s American musical Porgy and Bess tells the story of oppressed black Americans struggling with the pains of poverty in the 1930s. George Gerswhin wrote the work as an American Folk Opera.
     
    But producers at the Cape Town Opera company couldn’t help but hear familiar themes in the piece.
     
    “I think Porgy and Bess has unique characteristics in its musical score which really speak to our singers lives,” explained Michael Williams, the director of the Cape Town Opera company.
     
     “And so the singers on the stage can identify with a) the community that Porgy and Bess is about b) the issues between Sportin Life [a dope-peddling character in the musical] and his community with regards to the drugs that are put in the community - that is a major problem in South African townships," he added. "And also I think the violence that Crown [a tough stevedore character] personifies in terms of the way he treats women. Is something that perhaps we are bit ashamed of that statistic in South Africa, the male/female violence in S.A. So the cast members really grasp those issues. In the same breadth Piece is also filled with great joy.”
     
    The opera follows the lives of people in the impoverished South Carolina community called Catfish Row.
     
    When the Cape Town opera company first began performing Porgy and Bess in 2006, they produced the opera as it was - an American story. But reviewers and fans began pointing out how the opera was so closely linked to the story of black South Africans.
     
    With that in mind, the company decided to reset the piece in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. They put the piece in the 1970s, when the country was still under apartheid. The opera’s dialogue has been infused with Xhosa and Zulu, and some African musical flourishes have been added to the piece.
     
    Victor Ryan Robertson is the only American in the company’s current production, which is now on tour in England, Wales and Scotland [until July 21]. Robertson is experienced opera singer with a background in R and B [Rhythm & Blues] and Pop, which brings a Jazzy swagger to the character he plays, Sportin Life, a drug dealer and bookie who eventually tempts Bess away to NYC.
     
    Robertson grew up in South Carolina, where the opera was originally set. He says the South African setting works well with the piece, and has gotten great reviews.
     
    “Oppression is oppression no matter where you are," said Robertson. "The chorus are all Africans, they can totally relate. They’ve seen the cripple around the neighborhood, they have seen the drug dealer. I know that. That makes sense to me. They love it. That’s why it’s had such success around the world.”
     
    Otto Maidi, a South African from Pretoria who is playing the role of Porgy, says the opera resonates deeply with the lives of South Africans.
     
    “Even though it was composed by an American, the relationship is that it tells our story as black people," said Maidi. "It also informs and also entertains at the same time. Everything which happens in Catfish Row, it’s really, really, really, going together with our daily lives in the townships.”
     
    When the company first began performing Porgy, they brought in Americans to fill the major roles. The recruits were familiar with the piece and had the talent and experience to play these characters. But the casting of Maidi in the key role of Porgy, and the fact that Robertson is the lone American in this production says a lot about the growing pool of talent of South African opera singers.
     
    “Although we’ve been very appreciative of the work and help from our American colleagues, there comes a time when we need to start actually developing our own soloists here," he said. "We’re very proud that this production has a majority of South African soloists in all the lead parts. I think that’s a very important statement to be making, that we can now do the full piece. “
     
    The opera will return to South Africa in September.

    You May Like

    Clinton, Trump and the 'Woman’s Card'

    Ask supporters of Democratic front-runner in US presidential campaign, and they’ll tell you Republican presidential candidate is playing a dangerous hand

    Russian Censorship Group Seeks Chinese Help to Better Control Internet

    At recent Safe Internet League forum in Moscow, speakers from both nations underscored desire for authorities to further limit and control information online

    Video Makeshift Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Free classes in Islamabad park serve a few of the country’s nearly 25 million out-of-school youths; NGO cites ‘education crisis’

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora