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A South African Group Gives Opera an African Feel

The Isango Ensemble performing the play "Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" in Cape Town (Photo: Isango Ensemble)
Isango Ensemble is a theatre group that does musicals, plays and opera with an added African twist. Their work focuses on re-imagining classics from Western theater and re-contextualizing them in a South African township setting.

They recently flew back to the city following good reviews of their theater performances at The Globe and Hackney Empire Auditorium in London, as well as the Admiral’s Palace in Berlin.

Thet group's musical director Mandisi Dyantyis said in London, the ensemble played for the Shakespeare Festival:

"They were surprised to see what we had done. They had not seen that much music in a long time. We went to Hackney [Empire Auditorium in London] where we were tackling three shows at once. The audiences were so receptive. The whole of Hackney welcomed us. They sort of understood. We use, sometimes, things that are strictly South African, but they get them – they get the stories. And then we went to Berlin, Germany – where we did The Magic Flute."

The three classics they performed were Aesop’s Fables, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, La Bohème—all of which were given a South African twist.

Pauline Malefane, an actress and one of the group directors, said "We look at the story and how South Africans would relate to it—for instance, what we just did now, La Bohème, [which] is an opera by Puccini. One of the principle roles dies of TB [tuberculosis], so when we looked at it, we found that there are still a lot of people in South Africa, Africa and around the world who are still dying of TB.”

Isango takes Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, translates the title into Xhosa as Abanxaxhi, which means “a beatnik,” and sets the opera in a township setting. The group draws most of its members from South African townships. They range from singers and actors to church choir members.

One of the challenges the group faces is that traditional opera lovers do not take kindly to their reinterpretation of Western classics.

"We love Puccini! We love Mozart! We respect them! And we would never do anything to jeopardise Puccini as a composer," she said. "We would put in a drum or enhance the music, to make it better or to make it more lively or to make it be now – [to] sound like we are in the present, not like we are in the 1800s. It is still the same opera, but it is seen in a different eye."

Another challenge the group struggles with is attracting local audiences to their productions, as well as making opera appealing to township dwellers who have not been exposed to it.

Isango Ensemble is best known for their award-winning film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (Carmen in Khayelitsha) in South Africa than for their live theatrical productions and opera. But they have big plans that they hope will make them known to audiences all around the world.

Isango plans to find more performance venues in South Africa, as well as embark on an international tour later this year. They are also currently working on an adaptation of Billy Elliot – a contemporary musical by the British playwright, Lee Halls.

They’re hopeful their busy schedule will help Isango Ensemble gain millions of more fans around the world .