Grandmother’s opera comes home to Kenya


Rhoda Ondeng Wilhelmsen is creator and producer of the opera 'Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother'. PHOTO | POOL



  • December 8 will be a special occasion since ‘Nyanga’ will be part of the larger Kusi Festival, embracing representative artists from East and Central Africa.

Opera was something Rhoda Achieng-Ondeng was destined to do from the time she was seven years old when her Scottish school teacher spotted her vocal talent and sent her straight on stage with a song that this professional soprano still recalls.

Achieng-Ondeng also remembers the simple songs her maternal grandmother Nyanga would sing to her when as a child she would sit at the ancient storyteller’s feet, listening as she told of how she had run away from home as a little girl, was found by Canadian missionaries who turned her humble life upside down.

It’s the ‘runaway’ grandmother’s story that Achieng-Ondeng first wrote down with a view to its becoming Kenya’s second indigenous opera. The first was Ondieki the Fisherman composed by her former teacher of English Francis Chandler. “It was he that I sought out once I decided Nyanga’s story had to become an opera,” says Achieng-Ondeng who has been a professional opera singer since she left the University of Oregon with two master’s degrees in music.

She spoke to the Business Daily just before re-staging excerpts of the full opera, Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother last night in Lavington at her Baraka Opera Trust Performing Arts Centre, which she built since coming back to Kenya from Norway early this millennium.

“We will perform another set of excerpts on December 8 in Kisumu County at the Ciala Resort,” says Achieng-Ondeng, adding that Kisumu governor Anyang’ Nyong’o invited her and the opera.

Surprisingly, this singer turned opera producer-director chose not to play the title role for several reasons. One is she wanted to bring together all of the elements required, from the orchestra and conductor (Kiggundu Musoke, Director of Kampala Music School) to the vocal training of 40 singers (by Ciru James, also a professional musician) to all the other production details, which she’s left with Michael James who, like Achieng-Ondeng, has been back and forth between Kenya and Europe for many years.

“Mike actually accompanied me on the piano when I sang at Starehe Boys. I was still a student at Limuru Girls,” she says, who married Norwegian Ingvard Wilhelmsen and has lived abroad ever since. “But I’ve always come back to Kenya every year.”

“I call myself a ‘visionary’ because I’ve always wanted to return and introduce Kenyans to opera,” she says, knowing that opera seems alien, even elitist to many.

“But that is why I want to demystify it so people can see opera as a vehicle for sharing Kenyans’ stories.” In this case, she says her opera is in English mixed with bits of Dholuo and Kiswahili.

Having auditioned many Kenyans for the show, she’s found the vocal talents of young people tremendous. “Every character is cast with an understudy,” she says, noting that Lyndie Shiniyega is playing her grandmother with May Ombara as her understudy.

Serving as both opera producer and director, Achieng-Ondeng has staged extracts of Nyanja twice already this month, once November 6 at her centre in Lavington and again November 8 when she involved award-winning writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, to help her lead a programme on how “music meets literature”.

“We practice social distancing during all our performances, but it’s also helpful that thus far, they have all been outdoors,” she adds.

Rhoda has previously kept a relatively low profile when she’s been back in Kenya. Yet she still gets recognised for first prize performances that she gave during past Schools Drama Festivals. It was in 2014 when she set up the Baraka Opera Trust now to begin to realise her dreams of bringing opera home to Kenya.

December 8 will be a special occasion since ‘Nyanga’ will be part of the larger Kusi Festival, embracing representative artists from East and Central Africa.