- Opera is a genre of theatre that few Kenyans know much about.
- It’s primarily a European thing where a story gets told on stage with songs, fabulous costuming and elaborate sets.
- Yet it’s different from musical theatre because practically all the storylines are sung, accompanied by a full orchestra and chorus that tend to be quite magnificent and expensive as well.
Opera is a genre of theatre that few Kenyans know much about.
It’s primarily a European thing where a story gets told on stage with songs, fabulous costuming and elaborate sets.
Yet it’s different from musical theatre because practically all the storylines are sung, accompanied by a full orchestra and chorus that tend to be quite magnificent and expensive as well.
But as of last night, opera was no longer something alien to Kenyans. Thanks to Rhoda Ondeng-Wilhelmsen there was a world premiere yesterday of Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother at Kenya National Theatre which will be restaged tonight and through the weekend.
Ms Ondeng-Wilhelmsen is a professional opera singer who has performed widely in Europe but who always felt compelled to introduce her favorite art form to her fellow Kenyans.
“So I wrote the story of my grandmother Nyanga with the intent of seeing Kenya’s first opera having its world premiere right here on the Kenya National Theatre stage,” says Rhoda who has a cameo role playing an elderly Nyanga at the opening and closing of the opera. “My performance ‘bookends’ the production,” she tells the Weekender as she dashes off to the show’s first full rehearsal several days before last night’s dazzling opening.
Nyanga premiered with a 40-person chorus, 38-person professional orchestra, children’s choir from Kibera, and 10-person dance troupe, all of whom are Kenyan. The three exceptions were baritones Katumba Ben from Uganda and Lief Jone Olberg from Norway and UK soprano Rebekah Dawn, the latter two playing missionaries who introduce Nyanga to Christianity.
However, Nyanga isn’t Kenya’s first opera. That distinction goes to Ondieki, the Fisherman says Rhoda who was no less determined to bring her grandmother’s story to the Kenyan stage, complete with all the grandeur, beauty, and professionalism that she had seen in every opera she’d attended or performed in overseas.
Having staged and directed a preview performance of Nyanga at her home late last year, Rhoda left stage directing this time round to Julisa Rowe, musical directing to conductor Levy Wataka, vocal instructing to Ciru James, and executive production to Michael James who also re-arranged the original music and libretto by Francis Chandler.
“The transformation of Nyanga between then and now is enormous,” says James who keeps a low profile, but has been instrumental in seeing that the cast, chorus, and orchestra were auditioned and expanded effectively.
At its core, the opera is about that transitional moment when Christian missionaries arrived on the scene and locals either resisted or embraced their education, religion, and radically new way of living. Nyanga was the ‘runaway’ who made the radical choice to embrace the new religion with its promise of everlasting life in Jesus Christ.
“Basically, Nyanga missed her mother terribly, and thought the promise of immortality would enable her to meet her again,” says James.
For Rhoda, Nyanga was a courageous woman and pioneer whose choices led to generations of women in her family getting educated, unlike many women and girls in the Kenyan countryside.
The opera itself is a marvelous love story as well as a major theatrical feat. Why? Because we’re seeing the masterful merging of musical elements, the full orchestra and all those marvelous voices, (especially the principles (Lyndie Shinyega as Nyanga, Caleb Wachira as Joel, and Anthony Mwangi as Nyanga’s father and village’s wise medicine man), all of whom are double-cast.
Then there were those simple set designs that made the most of rustic digital village backdrops. There were the scene changes that were practically seamless, including the contrasting use of both traditional and modern instruments, and the beautiful expression of Nyanga’s bustling pre-colonial village life.
The opera is Ondeng-Wilhelmsen’s means of commemorating her grandmother’s courage. It’s also her gift to Kenya, opening up a whole new cultural genre for Kenyans to appreciate and enjoy.