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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.