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How Isango Ensemble and Shows Like ‘Hamilton’ Integrate Audiences

Isango Ensemble

Finding new context for stories within a South African township setting, Cape Town-based theatre company Isango Ensemble makes its UMS debut this October 16-20 in two programs: The Magic Flute and A Man of Good Hope.

Black Opera: History, Power, EngagementIn her 2018 book Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (University of Illinois Press), University of Michigan’s Naomi André (Professor of Women’s Studies, Professor in the Residential College and Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts) discusses how companies like the Isango Ensemble and shows like Hamilton imaginatively revisit powerful moments of history while integrating audiences in meaningful ways. Here is an excerpt, used with gracious permission by the author and publisher:

The Isango Ensemble has been bold and thoughtful about promoting black South African singers in opera after apartheid. they present a new model of how to perform opera in a way that brings together the opulent Western art music legacy with new surroundings. They achieve that almost impossible combination of making something universal by bringing in the utterly specific. The Isango Ensemble is showing us how opera from the past — Carmen, La bohème, The Magic Flute — can become newly relevant. Additionally, their new ventures with [Jonny] Steinberg’s recent novel about a Somali refugee who has traveled down the eastern African coast to find a livelihood in South Africa show an engagement with stories that have roots in the present as well as the past. Through their work with the local people in the Cape Town area who love to sing and the connections to international tours and co-productions with Shakespeare’s Glboe Theatre, the Young Vic, and the Royal Opera House, the Isango Ensemble articulates a salient portion of the new opera scene in South Africa after apartheid.

In a 2010 article Mark Dornford-May wrote before the Isango Ensemble had to leave their space at The Fugard Theatre in the District 6 Museum Homecoming Centre, he outlined a thorny issue around building audiences in the new South Africa. He opened the article with a question:

“How come the audience is so white?” is perhaps the most frequently asked question by visitors from abroad to our theatre. It is a complex and difficult one to answer and to be honest I know I blush with embarrassment at our continued failure. It is no comfort at all to me but it is not just at The Fugard that this “whiteness” is: I am afraid to say the same is true of every theatre in this city and nearly every restaurant and cinema.

The integrating of audiences is something that the United States has also struggled with. While there are different issues for the nonwhite audiences in Cape Town and in most United States theatrical venues, there are also important similarities. Dornford-May talks about the difficulty of finding transportation that gets back to the townships after 10 pm and the short-term goals to get financial sponsorship for shuttles as well as the longer-term goal of “a proper bus/transport plan.” Though not an issue in every U.S. city, such logistical issues are still problematic when trying to recruit audiences who live far from theaters and are cut off from certain parts of town after hours due to the lack of public transportation. Another challenge Dornford-May alludes to is the energy needed to attract new audiences to events that have been considered off limits, whether “officially” through apartheid or Jim Crow laws or through internalized cultural biases that the arts (and especially the “elitist” art of opera) are not meant for, or welcoming to, nonwhite audiences. Even when there are black and other nonwhite singers in the show — such attitudes need to be actively overcome.

Through the use of language — translating European languages into Xhosa — in the opera and the placement of stories in South Africa’s township settings, the Isango Ensemble is doing a lot to bridge the connection between black South African audiences and the productions. The other South African opera houses, such as the Artscape and Baxter Theatres in Cape Town or the Black Tie Ensemble and Gauteng Opera in Johannesburg, are also reaching out to nurture young singers through apprentice programs and to feature works that combine the standard Western European opera canon with newer works by indigenous composers

The presence of black composers, singers, and interracial collaborations that feature subjects about black history in American opera is a narrative that has been primarily played out alongside the mainstream opera tradition, albeit frequently obscured in the margins. I have traced this story back to the nineteenth century, and scholars are beginning to find evidence of this tradition in archives, newspapers, opera house records, and recovered materials from private collections. A new chapter emerging in the United States has a connection to the adapted and newer productions seen in South Africa in a related musical-theater arena through the use of spoken word and hip hop.

The most dazzling example is in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015), a story of the establishment of the United States wherein the founding fathers (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and others) are all portrayed by black and Latino performers. “In this telling, rap is the language of revolution; hip hop is the backbeat. In each brilliantly crafted song, we hear the debates that shaped our nation and we hear the debates that are still shaping our nation.” These are the words President Barack Obama said to introduce a performance of Hamilton — the blockbuster musical that was then playing on Broadway — at the White house for Washington, D.C.-area high school students on March 16, 2016. In these opening comments, the president linked this presentation of the story behind Hamilton with the reality of how this work has meaning today.

President Obama is among the many people who understood that the wild success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was due to its tapping into something other than being an evening of entertainment that provides a getaway from life’s regular events. “The show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men; it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us, and that’s why Michelle and I wanted to bring this performance to the White House. Because Hamilton is not just for people who can score a ticket to a pricey Broadway show, it is a story for all of us and about all of us.” Audiences have been drawn in because this work says something relevant and pressing about that present time: who matters, who gets to have a voice, and who can make a country great. Hamilton has brought us a history of the United States that goes back to the eighteenth century and that, now more than ever, has resonance.

As an area for future inquiry, the success of Hamilton seems to build on the currents happening on formal concert stages and opera houses. Both in opera in the United States and South Africa the relevant themes emerging engage how histories are told and who gets to tell them. These works demonstrate that there are audiences who are eager to see their nation, including wider representations of themselves.

Naomi AndreNaomi André is Professor of Women’s Studies, Professor in the Residential College and Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan. She received her BA in music from Barnard College and MA and PhD in musicology from Harvard University. Her research focuses on opera and issues surrounding gender, voice, and race. Her publications include topics on Italian opera, Schoenberg, women composers, and teaching opera in prisons. Her books, Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (2006) and Blackness in Opera (2012, edited collection) focus on opera from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and explore constructions of gender, race and identity. Her current research interests extend to opera today in the United States and South Africa.

Challenging Times Require Challenging Art


Matthew VanBesien in Nickels Arcade, with the 2017-18 UMS No Safety Net brochure. Photo by Jesse Meria.


When I was announced as the new president of the University Musical Society (UMS) at the University of Michigan a year ago after five years as president of the New York Philharmonic, some people thought I was crazy.  Why on earth, they asked, would a former professional musician and successful orchestral executive who led three different major orchestras on two continents want to move to a relatively small university town in the Midwest?

Certainly the chance to come to one of America’s most charming and livable cities, to collaborate with one of the best research universities anywhere, and to work with an intellectual and culturally adventurous populace were all important factors.

But another answer for me was something quite potent and simple, and that I know will continue to define our work at UMS moving forward. Coming to UMS offered artistic diversity as a performing arts presenter (not just music, but also dance and theater — and maybe much more), but also the latitude to think more broadly about the arts as a vehicle for both cultural and social change. We are now at the end of a three-week theater festival titled “No Safety Net,” using theater and creativity as catalysts for exploring viewpoints that we, as individuals and as a community, long to understand better.

No Safety Net Brochure Cover

Program cover for “No Safety Net”

This is no easy time for university campuses across the nation, including ours, where the community is grappling with how to respond to a speaking request from a white supremacist who slyly foments protests with hateful words and singular ideas; where students have encountered racist flyers and ethnic slurs in prominent locations on campus; and where issues of identity, gender equality, and sexual harassment are ever-present.

And, of course, these issues transcend the public university environment and are symptomatic of larger cultural divisions, threatening to engulf our entire society with mistrust, anger, and fear.

But as artistic leaders, we have the privilege—and the imperative—to help change that.

A few weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College, at an event honoring the late poet Robert Frost. He spoke of art serving as a touchstone of our judgment as humans, noting that “We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes [them] aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential.”

As a performing arts institution, and as a major public university, we endeavor to help people understand the breadth of the human experience and to reach our highest potential. This comes about by creating an environment for courageous conversations across areas of commonality — and difference.

In an increasingly polarized world, it’s tempting to take complicated issues and turn them into reductive problems that lack both substance and nuance. But as the American actress and playwright Lisa Kron has said, “If there’s only one point of view, there’s no drama. Drama only occurs when people come up against situations outside of themselves and are changed by them.”

As someone leading an arts institution, I can no longer ignore the imperatives for social consciousness, for empathy, and for moving beyond superficial representation and into meaningful and substantive dialogue. One of the most powerful pathways for doing so is to engage with culture and creativity, embracing free speech and an unfettered exchange of ideas.

These imperatives are manifesting themselves with increasing frequency — Robin Bell creating protest art against President Trump’s immigration policies, and Oskar Eustis’ production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Public Theater causing a stir last summer with Caesar styled as a present-day Donald Trump.

The cast of Hamilton addresses Vice President Pence. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

And last year, shortly after the election, Vice Present-elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton and was admonished by the cast to work on behalf of all of “the diverse America who are alarmed that your administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”

Shortly afterwards, President Trump demanded an apology, tweeting, “The theater must be a safe and special place.” Special? Absolutely. Safe? Maybe. Maybe not.

At UMS, we took an alternate approach, purposely calling our concentrated theater festival “No Safety Net” to signal that we are intentionally placing major societal issues on the table: slavery and race in America, terrorism and acts of violence, non-binary gender identity, and recovery from addiction and depression.

We programmed this festival for those eager to engage with some of the thorny issues of our time. But it’s also intended for those who are hesitant, or even anxious, about doing so, providing an honest but nurturing environment for civil discourse. What happens off the stage during No Safety Net is as important as what happens on it, with many opportunities to spark and facilitate debate around the relevant, interesting, and sometimes troubling issues contained therein. While sometimes controversial, the four theatrical works on stage provide a concentrated period for both reflection and action, bringing people together to think about how we move forward as institutions, as a country, and as a global society.

No Safety Net asks us to embrace complexity and ambiguity—the artists we are hosting provoke thinking that can unsettle, challenge, entertain, but also hurt. At the same time, tackling these issues through their artistic lens has the real possibility to expand our own thinking as audiences, granting us both the intellectual and emotional space to consider others’ points of view.

When we step back and remember that one person’s provocation may be another person’s reality, we are also reminded that it behooves all of us to move out of the echo chamber and expose ourselves to environments where people may disagree with us.

Our communities will once again thrive upon returning to the basic tenets of our democracy — respect, decency, and a commitment to both seeking, and acknowledging, truth. The University of Michigan and the University Musical Society believe the arts are uniquely positioned, now more than ever, to help us with this journey.


Matthew VanBesien has been president of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, a 2014 National Medal of Arts recipient now in its 139th season, since July 2017. He has previously served as president of the Houston and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic.