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Macbeth -- with baboons

Voices rise from the bush as Botswana's first opera is performed by a cast portraying a troop of primates.

November 18, 2009|Robyn Dixon

GABARONE, BOTSWANA — The villages of Botswana are full of music. Gospel music. Choral music. The singsong repetitive music of rote classroom learning.

But not opera, until now.

As a small girl in the village of Ramotswa, Tshenolo Segokgo learned to sing in a church choir. She grew up and moved to the capital, Gabarone, for vocal lessons.

Then one day in 2004, her music teacher put on an opera CD.

"It felt like it was angels singing," she recalls.

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Five years later, on a purple African night, operatic strains rise from a white, corrugated-iron shed in the bush.

Clouds gather and darken. Lightning dissects the sky. Rain slashes down, beating on the shed's tin roof.

Inside, the sounds get louder. It's just a rehearsal, but Segokgo and the other singers of Botswana's first opera house, a converted garage, hold their own against the weather as they perform the first opera ever set in Botswana.

A tale of evil, betrayal and lust unfolds: "The Okavango Macbeth," the story of a troop of baboons and its alpha female, Lady Macbeth, who stirs up trouble, plotting murder.

Segokgo, as Lady Macbeth, struts the stage, her voice rising in sweet soprano, but the words shriek death. "Kill him now!" she sings, urging her mate to dispatch the alpha male baboon. "Kill him now!" Her costume, simple black clothing and a headdress, is as far from the plush velvet costumes of traditional opera as the tin shed is from the Met.

"It's a challenging role," she says later, "because I haven't done that kind of role before. The real challenge is that I'm a baboon that loves power. The thing is walking like a baboon and trying to pose as a baboon."

When Segokgo began her singing lessons, it was clear she possessed talent and passion. But music, she figured, was no career.

"I didn't think it was something serious. I was just singing for pleasure."

Segokgo's big break came just over two years ago, when a cultural attache from the French Embassy heard her perform. A scholarship was arranged. She was sent to study at the Bourg-la-Reine conservatory, outside Paris, for two years.

It was a big adjustment for a village girl.

"I didn't speak French. It was a new environment. I had to adapt to the lifestyle of the French. But it changed my life."

'The Okavango Macbeth" was conceived by novelist Alexander McCall Smith, the Zimbabwean-born Scotsman famous for the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series of books, with their whimsical take on Botswana life. (Okavango is the name of a vast river delta that is one of Botswana's most distinctive natural features.)

McCall Smith, an opera lover and amateur musician, wrote the libretto for the hourlong work. The score was composed by fellow Scotsman Tom Cunningham, a conductor and composer who had set some of McCall Smith's poetry to music.

The opera, which had its premiere last month, was staged with a solo piano as the singers' only accompaniment. There wasn't room in the opera house, or money in the budget, for an orchestra. Still, McCall Smith said it was Botswana's first "proper operatic production," with paid singers.

"I don't think that there has been anything like this before," he said. "Indeed, I don't think that there has been anything put on, apart from amateur Gilbert and Sullivan and the like."

It's not easy to find the opera house, along a winding, bushy track outside Gabarone, a neat but bland city full of shopping malls, manicured roundabouts and tall mirrored skyscrapers built for the bureaucracy. (The city, disappointingly, bears little resemblance to the Botswana of McCall Smith's books, a quaint, soulful place of ramshackle buildings and good intentions.)

The building, part of a military recruiting station in the 1940s, caught the attention of a man named David Slater when it was put up for sale. Slater is a leading figure in Botswana's tiny classical music scene, and Segokgo's voice teacher. As it happens, he is also a friend of McCall Smith's. "I had on previous occasions commissioned him to arrange concerts to coincide with my visits to Botswana," the writer recalled.

The garage reminded Slater of Speedy Motors, the slightly rundown garage in the detective series, so he encouraged McCall Smith to come have a look. "He immediately said this should be an opera house," Slater said.

An opera house? On a forgotten road outside Gabarone?

If Slater had any doubts, McCall Smith's passion for opera swept him along. He and the novelist renovated the garage and dubbed it the No 1. Ladies' Opera House. McCall Smith funded the project. Slater became musical director of "The Okavango Macbeth," the venue's first production.

McCall Smith said he has loved opera since his early 20s, when he saw his first performances in Rome.

Music has been important to him ever since, he said. McCall Smith plays bassoon ("badly") in the Really Terrible Orchestra, an amateur ensemble which he co-founded that calls itself "the cream of Edinburgh's musically disadvantaged."

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