THERE have been few people in the world who have been so revered and loved as Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela.
The South African, who emerged triumphant from prison in 1990 after being incarcerated for 27 years was an anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist. He was also South Africa’s first black president and started the process of dismantling the legacy of apartheid when he became president.
Although throughout his life he was a controversial character both at home and abroad, when he died in 1999 it seemed the whole world mourned his passing.
Now an epic operatic tribute to this iconic man is to be performed by Cape Town Opera in association with Wales Millennium Centre at the Royal Festival Hall.
It is part of Southbank Centre’s Africa Utopia, a season devoted to celebrating the arts and culture of one of the world’s most dynamic and fast changing continents.
Mandela Trilogy, one of the undoubted highlights of the festival, is a large-scale musical celebration of his long life and promises to be a spectacular portrait of a man who touched the hearts and minds of people around the world.
It reflects both a life of extraordinary contrasts, and an overarching theme of unflinching courage in the face of adversity.
With music by Peter Louis van Dijk and Mike Campbell, it is presented in three parts by a cast of more than 60 South African performers, including three different incarnations of Mandela and with different styles of music to represent the contrasting phases of his life.
It follows him from tribal initiation rites on the banks of the Mbashe River and heady and rebellious jazz-fuelled days in Sophiatown, to incarceration and reflection on Robben Island and finally freedom, liberation and becoming President.
The upbeat jazz- and swing-influenced songs of Sophiatown in the central section of the piece are framed on either side by more familiar contemporary opera forms. Authentic Xhosa folk music grounds the production in the sounds and culture of South Africa.
The piece has been created by writer Michael Williams, the show’s director and librettist and managing director of Cape Town Opera.
In a chat ahead of the performance, which will also tour selected venues across the country as well as the Royal Festival Hall, Michael tells me it has been a fascinating if somewhat nerve-wracking job to bring it to the stage but something that he is incredibly proud of.
“Cape Town Opera has been putting on new pieces since its inception to fill an operatic repertoire with characters and stories of where we are as a country,” he says.
“This particular piece came about when the 2010 rugby World Cup came to South Africa.
“I had written a lot of pieces about South Africa and was asked to write this one. We decided we should do a piece on Nelson Mandela, the father of our nation, to show where we have come as a country.
“I took on the commission and regretted it immediately!” he laughs.
“It was a massive piece. Where do you start? It would be like doing something on Winston Churchill - it was huge and to say it was nerve-wracking is to put it mildly!
“Who and what do you leave out as there was so much in his life and it spans a huge period - he lived for almost a century and it was an eventful 100 years in our history with the First and Second World Wars which he lived through not to mention being in prison for 27 years and coming out into the modern world.
“So you can imagine I was enormously intimidated by it all.”
Despite the herculean task Michael took on the challenge and put on the piece in 2010. But he says it wasn’t right and was more of a “history lesson” which he says wasn’t what he or audiences really wanted.
So a period of “extensive change” to the piece took place before Michael says he was happy with it.
In fact it took Michael about 18 months to write followed by an extra year with all the revisions.
To create it he decided it should focus on the great conflicts in Mandela’s life - those with his wife, with his party, his own life, with peace and with violence.
“Any work of art that has conflict at its core has success written all over it,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it can be a good thing.
“I decided to look at the major moments of conflict in this life particularly those that were turning points for him.
“For example the first act revolves around the fact as a young man he was told by the village chief that he would always be a slave to the system - something he was furious about and which made a huge impression on him. He realised it was sowing a political seed in him.
“The second was about his charisma, his affairs and his turning against violence. He started the military wing of the ANC but eventually he knew that if people stood up against the apartheid government of the time at his behest he would effectively be killing a lot of them. So he had to go back to them and tell them not to.
“The third moment was his imprisonment.
“In the end I realised it had become a work of threes - the three women in his life, his three major speeches, three prisons, three letters and so I looked at producing three soundtracks to his life.
“I had to do quite a bit of research and had files open throughout rehearsals once I’d written it so that the cast could get some context. For many of them, they only saw him and knew of him in the later stages of his life so they didn’t know much about him. Being able to refer to the files was invaluable to give them some context.
“For the audience they will see three hot spots in his life dramatised with three different musical influences and three different men playing him. It’s turned into quite a thing!”
Although Michael never met Mandela he says he did see him give one of his speeches in Cape Town and one of Mandela’s daughters saw the production and heaped praise upon it.
“It was very nerve-wracking because you never know how these things are going to be received,” he says.
“But she was very gracious. She said her father had told her about his life growing up and when she saw the piece she said she caught a glimpse of what his life was like. That was very special for me.
“It was a fine line to tread because I didn’t want to make him out to be something that he wasn’t. However, we live in a democratic society now and there was no pressure to soft edge anything but he was such an iconic figure and I wanted to do justice to him and his life.
“As well as be entertained and see something amazing and spectacular from an incredibly talented and huge cast, I hope people coming to see this may also learn something about Mandela that they didn’t know before. Perhaps that he wasn’t a saint - he always said he was more a sinner than sinned.
“It’s hugely exciting to be bringing it to the Southbank Centre and I hope audiences will be similarly touched by the story of an ordinary man who had an extraordinary life, an icon who became father of our nation.”
Mandela Trilogy is on at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre between August 31 and September 3. Tickets from £15. Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7960 4200 for full listings.