25 May 2014

South Africa: Madiba's Song - Opera and the State in Post-Apartheid South Africa


After watching the latest stage work about the life and times of Nelson Mandela, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the place of opera in today's South Africa.

Way back in those supposedly halcyon days of the Apartheid state, opera (along with ballet) was purposely used to prove the importance and vitality of European high culture right at the southern tip of Africa, thousands of kilometres from its presumed spiritual home, way to the North. As South Africa's cultural isolation took hold with a vengeance from the late 1970s, it became even more imperative to Apartheid's cultural commissars to make the case to an increasingly worried population that South Africa's segregated culture was still strong, was still safe, and, most importantly, perhaps, was still white.

Then, as the old regime finally collapsed in the 1990s, its long-time cultural critics, arguing for support for a new and increasingly authentic South African culture, took out their ire on the relics of the old regime. While there were no tumbrils or guillotines providing an ultimate dramatic ending to Apartheid-era cultural leaders (or pretty much anybody else), the new cultural nomenklatura aimed for the bureaucratic equivalent. They decried opera, ballet and most other classical performing arts...

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