Tuesday, 6 June 2006

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005)

The audience may find it difficult to stifle their giggles in the very first scene of U-Carmen eKhaelitsha. That’s fine, it happened to me too. A squat-faced, rather large African female stares impassively at the camera. As the voiceover narration begins, it’s clear that you’re supposed to believe this is the face of Carmen, the free spirit with a fiery temper whose beauty, coupled with her impulsive whims, cause the downfall of many men who long to possess her. A few seconds later, you realise with a shock that this version of Carmen will be performed in the Xhosa language, complete with all its dental, alveolar, and lateral clicks. A minute later, the camera zooms into Khayeltisha, a large township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa – a world apparently populated by humans of ample, almost classical proportions.

Outrageous? Gimmicky? This is certainly not the first all-black Carmen – one is reminded of Carmen Jones, the Oscar Hammerstein musical and film. Neither is it as gimmicky as Karmen Gei, the 2001 Senegalese adaptation featuring a bisexual Carmen. For U-Carmen, the relocation from mid-19th century Seville to modern-day post-apartheid Cape Town is the only artistic license its director Mark Dornford-May takes. Perversely, the fact that Dornford-May’s decision to stick to a more-or-less faithful adaptation of Bizet’s original opera makes it all the more challenging, and the end-result more rewarding to the audience.

Visually, U-Carmen convincingly makes the case for an authentic African Carmen. The hustle and bustle of Seville translates well into the poverty-stricken yet vibrant shantytowns that make up Khayelitsha. The third-world style economy and underlying casual violence of post-apartheid South Africa enables the writers to preserve wholesale many details from the original opera, including the cigarette factory in which Carmen works, the small barracks from which her newest love interest, the police sargeant Jongi (Jose in the original) hails, and even the band of smugglers which they both join after Jongi deserts the police after letting Carmen escape from imprisonment.

The music, delivered in Xhosa, are brilliantly executed by the cast, who have big voices. Pauline Malefane as Carmen has magnetic charisma and an aura of unconventional beauty that makes her believable as an outsider and rebel. Somehow, music director Charles Hazlewood has managed to translate the opera such that the Xhosa lyrics match the English subtitles syllable for syllable. It’s almost magical once you realise what’s happening.

There are relatively few musicals on screen that can make the audience forget about the theatricality, the ersatzness of the production - after all, people don’t sing their conversations in everyday life. However, once you are comfortable with the conceit of overlarge black men decked in police uniforms singing in harmony, you’ll be more engrossed at the sheer dynamism and energy of this screen adaptation, from the buzz of its camerawork to how the shift to modern-day South Africa changes none of the issues from the original opera. I hazard that Carmen’s participation in smuggling is more understandable in this adaptation: she isn’t flawed or evil, but simply trying to survive by taking part in the black economy.

It also won’t be long before you are struck by the brilliant singing from the cast. Indeed, in North America and Europe, silver-haired seniors struggle to fill even half of the seats in otherwise empty concert halls, while middle-aged singers draped in curtains belt out tunes fashionable more than a century ago. Opera, as you have guessed, is slowly dying in the continent that invented it – and is most vibrant in postcolonial, post-Apartheid Africa. Throughout the continent, an entire generation of young people are training in music conservatories like the University of Natal Opera School and Choral Academy, and producing prize-winning talents like Cameroonian Jacques-Greg Belobo. Here’s an even more fascinating fact: the singing cast are from Dimpho Di Kopane, whose members were sourced from the shantytowns and had no formal musical training in opera at all. That certainly knocked the socks off my feet.

In line with the spirit of Bizet, the orchestration for U-Carmen has incorporated very nicely traditional Southern African music and rhythms into the original score. This, with Dornford-May’s approach in the script, points towards a serious African interpretation of opera, one that succeeds and more than deserves the Berlin Bear award.

First published at incinemas on 8 June 2006

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