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Winnie the Opera: Mandela's ex-wife gets musical treatment

By Emily Wither for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Winnie: the Opera premiered at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria
  • Winnie Madikizela-Mandela attended the opening night and praised the production
  • She's a controversial figure who divides opinion in the country
  • The show's producers are planning to take the opera on a worldwide tour

(CNN) -- Her life story reads like a Hollywood movie. Full of grand highs and lows, there's no denying that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's life experiences lend themselves to drama.

Her tumultuous life divides opinion across South Africa and this year it's under the spotlight both on stage and on screen.

A Hollywood biopic starring Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson is in the final stages of production, and an opera has premiered in Pretoria, South Africa, telling the story of a woman so often in the headlines.

The ex-wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, Madikizela-Mandela adopted his fight for freedom as her own when he was jailed for life in 1964, earning her the nickname "Mother of the Nation."

Winnie: the Opera - final dress rehearsal

A long-serving member of the ANC political party, she is also a member of South Africa's parliament.

But she was convicted of kidnapping in 1991 and fraud in 2004, and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission accused her of human rights abuses during the apartheid years.

For the team behind "Winnie: the Opera," it was a story that needed to be told. The program literature reads, "Love her or hate her ... but come and hear her."

"I think the majority of people's understanding of Winnie's story has been based on media sound bites," said the show's producer, Warren Wilensky. "This was a person who had personified the South African liberation struggle and very few people know her story."

It is a universal story about our own humanity.
--Warren Wilensky, producer Winnie: the Opera

Four years ago Madikizela-Mandela had hoped to travel to Canada to attend another opera about her life that was showing in Toronto, but was denied a visa because of her criminal convictions.

The same team behind that production, film maker Wilensky and South African-born composer and musician Bongani Ndodana-Breen, completely re-worked the show and brought it to her instead.

"She is a perfect character for a drama," said journalist Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob. The film "Winnie," starring Hudson and due for release in September, is based on her book "Winnie Mandela -- A Life."

"At the age of 76, after a life that reads like Shakespeare; hardships and suffering that would have destroyed most people, and many attempts to destroy her, she is re-emerging as a viable political force," she added.

Watch video: Winnie concerned about biopic Video.

The opera, performed in a mixture of English and Xhosa, has just finished its run in Pretoria, and there are plans to take the tour worldwide.

"I wanted to tell a holistic story," Wilensky said. "Winnie was both a grand heroic icon but also a single mother in her early 20s caught up in extraordinary times and circumstances.

"Essentially we are not telling the story of a grand heroine but rather the story of our human condition. It is a universal story about our own humanity," he continued.

Madikizela-Mandela was in the audience on the opening night of the show at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria. She asked Wilensky if she could address the audience and cast at the end of the performance.

"She said that she has received doctorates and accolades from all over the world but this was the greatest accolade she had ever received," he said.

"She called it an accurate portrayal of very dark times in our country's history."

The story is part of our South African history.
--Tsakane Maswanganyi, actress
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Madikizela-Mandela also made reference to the theater's history as a whites-only establishment.

Bringing opera to a mainly black audience is something that Wilensky hopes to achieve with the production.

"Never before has a local opera had a majority of a black South African audience in attendance," he said. "I hope this trend continues; in so doing we are introducing an untraditional form of a traditional art form to a new audience."

It is also a story that the opera's organizers felt needed to be shared with the youth in South Africa.

"The story is part of our South African history," said Tsakane Maswanganyi, the Soweto-born soprano who took on the role of Madikizela-Mandela.

"It's part of my history -- there is a lot of which I grew up with but also a lot more I had to learn," she added.

The story centers on a single day in Madikizela-Mandela's life when she is called as a witness to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During the hearing she was asked to apologize for human rights abuses.

The opera then examines how she got to that place and time in history. Despite her fierce reputation, the producers say she made no attempt to change the content of the performance.

As Wilensky and his team now work on bringing the show to an international market he says that it's not good reviews that motivate him.

He said: "People who have lived the story have come up to us and told us how it was true to their own experience of the times. Some have even called it a personal healing.

"What an honor to be part of an art form that has helped people heal their emotional pain."

 
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