Music

Rhoda brings opera to Kenya schools

LifeNov12a

Opera singer, producer, and director Rhoda Ondeng Wilhelmsen. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • She is already dreaming of her next opera tentatively titled “The Hummingbird” based on the life of environmentalist Wangari Maathai but during our conversation she also drops a teaser that she could be working on a Christmas concert for next month.
  • Rhoda is keen on demystifying classical music and specifically opera by targeting school children.
  • Through her foundation, Baraka Opera Trust, she is exposing, educating and inspiring the young generation to push the boundaries of art and performance.

The internationally opera performer, Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen was in ebullient mood as she left for Europe after the world premiere of the opera “Nyanga: The Runaway Grandmother” at the Kenya National Theatre last week.

“Nyanga achieved its goal, it produced great singing, acting, technical lights, and the entire cast was brilliant,” says the operatic soprano about the success of the new Kenyan opera.

She is already dreaming of her next opera tentatively titled “The Hummingbird” based on the life of environmentalist Wangari Maathai but during our conversation she also drops a teaser that she could be working on a Christmas concert for next month.

Rhoda is keen on demystifying classical music and specifically opera by targeting school children. Through her foundation, Baraka Opera Trust, she is exposing, educating and inspiring the young generation to push the boundaries of art and performance.

“Knowing that there are thousands of other Rhodas across the landscape of Kenya means that they just need a door opened for them and that is my role,” she says.

She is passionate about touring schools with 30-minute productions by four or five hours highly qualified musicians, singers, players and dancers. “The new education curriculum is based on discovering and nurturing talents and skills, but we don’t have enough teachers for the arts so we are playing our part,” she says.

Rhoda herself was first put on stage at the age of 7 by a Scottish missionary teacher at Thogoto Junior who spotted her talent.

It was her teachers who first exposed her to classical music, through theory and training.

“It takes years of practice and training to become an opera singer and that is what we are trying to do with the young talents some of whom appeared in the Nyanga opera,” she says. She quickly learnt to be confident on stage during her first competition as a 13-year-old during the Kenya Music Festival at the Kenya National Theatre.

“I have never looked back since and I am now in a position where I can assist young people to attain their dreams and fulfil their potential if they want to pursue their dream in classical music.”

In 2012, Rhoda produced the first ever Kenyan opera “Ondieki the Fisherman” written in 1973, by Francis William Chandler who was then Head of English at Limuru Girls School. Rhoda who was just 16 was cast as the heroine of the opera in the original production.

“People found out that opera was not a foreign concept, it could be Kenyan, she says. Since then her mission has been to bring opera to ordinary Kenyan people dressed in Kenyan clothing.”

The core of opera is building human beings, says Rhoda. “It is about building self-confidence, and potential. Opera may be a musical art form, but it is really about life: the loves, the hates, the envies, the sorrows, everything that makes us human comes together in an opera,” she says.

Her face beams as she recalls the reaction of Italians when ‘a little Kenyan lady’ won an opera competition in that country.

However, the highlight of her career was singing at the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize Award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, as the honour was officially bestowed on Prof Wangari Maathai.

Her grandmother, the heroine in “Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother” inspired Rhoda with her storytelling and singing.

The opera is based on the story of her grandmother who converts to Christianity in the hope of meeting her mother in the afterlife. The arrival of Christianity in the remote part of Kano plains illustrates the clash of two cultures and the victory of good over evil.

The auditions for Nyanga were done in January 2020 and four months later vocal instruction had started with vocal instructor Ciru James and Executive Producer Michael James, who is also a composer, and rearranged the music to making it suitable for Orchestra.

The original plan to premiere Nyanga in October 2020 was disrupted by the pandemic but the cast rehearse used that time to rehearse even more.

“Many things stopped during the pandemic but Nyanga the Runaway Grandmother took off because in the quiet of the garden we practiced. Yes, masks were donned and distancing was observed but with the keyboard out in the open air we were able to practice.”

“We brought Kenyans together in one production. I know nothing else that builds bridges than music and in this case the opera was a bridge.”