Ready to rock 'n' roll

Staff Writer
The drive to the No.1 Lady's Opera House is not a pleasant one on this evening. The violent evening weather's fierce lightning and thunderbolts are causing the urban dwellers to run helter-skelter.

The mood at the No.1 Lady's Opera House, where the rehearsals for the world premier of the McCall Smith composed opera production is in progress, is defiant and totally oblivious of the dangers posed by these forces of nature nonetheless.

The lovely group of classical music singers just must push through the mad thunder and its terrifying lightning. Starting tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday the opera must deliver to the world audience a well-rehearsed opera,  The Okavango Macbeth. Then they have a titanic show on October 3, being the  official grand opening of the opera production in front of BBC cameras.

The weather continues to deteriorate. It begins to rain, and winds blow violently.  But the director of the opera production Nicholas Ellenbogen seems not bothered by the  weather challenge.  The long beard theatre veteran in fact decides to conduct his interview with Mmegi right in the open, under the trees, as if to take head-on those opposing forces of nature. Ellenbogen has faced several opposing forces in the production of this unique and exciting opera since he set the ball rolling in August.

They range from a shoestring budget, to the constraints of working with a group of singers who also double as students and employees; only availing themselves after work.

Late coming for practice sessions has also  been the order of the day, according to the director. Yes, Ellenbogen also has had to settle for only 16 singers, mostly tenors and baritones,  because the country is constrained generally when it comes to opera talent.Alto opera singers have been hard to come by. However, Ellenbogen says he is very happy with the only alto talent she has got in Tshenolo Segokgo, a widely travelled  and gifted local opera singer the 60- year-old theatre specialist rates Tshenolo as good as anyone in the world.

Despite the  small size of the opera group he is working with  Ellenbogen says this group is amazing. " It (opera) can be done with as few as 16 people, and  that makes it portable.  Sixteen is a kind of minimum for a four-part harmony. It is the backbone of  opera chorus. Here (in Botswana) you have got tremendous baritones and tenors I think it is because of your choir history that you have got these fabulous tenors and baritones," observes the producer. " Tshenolo (alto) is excellent also, but you've got to develop more of altos," he enthuses.

As the troublesome thunderstorm continues, the group of young opera singers, led by a team of experts are calmly practising the final touches of the stage production that could redefine their careers.

They are getting ready for the  Saturday world premier of the opera production written by millionaire author Alexander McCall Smith.

The young men and women are not to be deterred by any force. They have come from different parts of the city  highly determined to continue the classical music work which would possibly result in them being hailed as a magnificent and talented lot. In fact, Ellenbogen says after the successful premiering of the production he intends to use the same Botswana opera singers in his world tour next year.

He acknowledges that the fact that the singers also double as students and teachers might present another threat though.

The group looks quite unique for an opera production. They are not dressed in those classical attire associated with opera performances. Here  at

the No.1 Lady's Opera House, the singers are wearing various animal  masks, and grass woven hats. The small  group of singers' vocals would soon reverberate across the  tiny opera house, literally outdoing the thunderbolts outside with their lively and optimistic voices.

The group members practise their movement on stage with the assistance of  choreographer,  Claire Hills.

They perfect their harmony to the tune of  pianist David Slater.

Tom Cunningham, a renowned classical music composer, is also part of this McCall Smith Opera production. He composed the music that has a bit of African flavour infused into the traditional classical music style.

Like playwright Ellenbogen says one does not have to be a traditional opera enthusiast to appreciate the performance. It has some element of simplicity about it that gives it a crossover appeal.

Ellenbogen, a child hood friend of McCall Smith, has been roped in by the author to direct this production, which premiers for the whole world from Gaborone starting on October 3.

It will run for 10  days, with  the writer of the song, McCall Smith also present to see the final product on the grand opening.  In fact, the author was expected to have arrived by yesterday specifically for this historic occasion.

Ellenbogen sees the Alexander McCall Smith opera song as the right African vehicle through which African opera singers can project their musical talent instead of having to adapt Italian, Spanish or French opera styles.

McCall Smith has never been known for opera compositions, with his famous works around the world being the popular book series, the No.1 Lady's Detective Agency. But the Zimbabwean-born Ellenbogen is an opera enthusiast.

Over the years he has been supporting classical music courses in Gaborone, including the establishment of the No.1 Lady's Opera House, which opened specifically to develop opera talent in the country under the watchful eye of Gaborone opera music teacher, David Slater.

According to friend Ellenbogen, Sandy, as he calls McCall Smith, started writing the opera song  last year. It was finished in July this year. Cunningham composed the music, and McCall Smith's lyrics were fitted into that music.

The McCall Smith's classical music set is indeed something different from modern opera productions.

As piano music by Slater fills the air, the performers act as baboons barking, some act as eland snorting with the stamp of hooves. The stage is well designed to capture the African wilderness as well.

According to the vocal trainer and piano man for the show Slater, the production is an opera about Botswana's Okavango Delta and the animals that live there.

The opera looks at the internal politics of a baboon troop observed by three scientists, who find it hard not to get emotionally involved in what they see happening.  It is a fascinating look at African issues, according to Slater. 

Ellenbogen has both performed and directed the great Shakespearian Macbeth several times. His Black Macbeth produced in Cape Town played to sold-out houses there.

Slater sees the world premiere of the Standard Chartered Bank-sponsored 'opera production' as presenting an amazing opportunity for local singers.

His opera music products Tshenolo Segokgo (alto)  Gape Motswaledi (baritone) Kago Regoeng, Tebogo Dire (tenor) Lizibo Simon and Refilwe Ramogotsi(tenors) are all playing leading roles. The Okavango Macbeth runs for 10 performances from October 6-17 at The No 1 Ladies' Opera House at Kgale Siding, near St Joseph's College.



A luta continua

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