Fugard's Valley Song receives operatic treatment at Spier

24 February 2003

Knowing the score: Athol Fugard's play, Valley Song, receives operatic treatment at the Spier Conference Centre. The Spier Arts Trust has commissioned Emeritus Professor Thomas Rajna and Guy Willoughby to produce an opera on the acclaimed play. At rehearsals were (from left) Rajna, Matthew Overmeyer, Hesté-Maire White, Angela Kerrison and Melanie Scholtz (the latter three all from UCT).

EMERITUS Professor Thomas Rajna, composer of the opera Amarantha, and critic and author Guy Willoughby, have been commissioned by the Spier Arts Trust to produce an opera based on Athol Fugard's stage play, Valley Song.

For the first time in his career Fugard has endorsed the musical adaptation of one of his plays and is intimately involved in the project. Audiences have had a rare opportunity to see the play being transformed into an opera, with libretto and direction by Willoughby and music composed by Rajna, at opera lecture demonstrations at the Spier Conference Centre.

These demonstrations are a novel feature of the Spier opera season this year. On February 23, audiences were able to see singers such as Angela Kerrison, Melanie Scholtz, Brad Liebl and Ronnie Theys performing pieces from the score. A second lecture demonstration will be held on March 2 for those who missed the first, to be hosted by Rajna and Willoughby.

Talking to Monday Paper, co-producer Rajna was particularly upbeat about his new challenge. “This new South African opera, written in free lyrical and contemporary style, is enlivened by echoes of indigenous Karoo music, lively sequences of musical theatre and new songs, both poignant and comical,” he said.

The indigenous Karoo music was a particular delight to him. “I saw a production of David Kramer's Karoo Kitaar Blues and was bowled over,” he added. The music, with its “wonderful rhythms” formed an important part of Rajna's subsequent research for the musical score of Valley Song. He conducted similar research for his compositions for Turkish and Tibetan films.

Valley Song tells the story of Veronica, a gifted coloured woman from a remote Karoo valley, who yearns to go to Johannesburg to become a singing star. Her story is played out against the backdrop of a country emerging after its first democratic elections, a time of change and anxiety.

Rajna has immersed himself in the music, assembling a rich repertoire of musical styles and appropriate for such a work: Dutch Reformed and Lutheran hymnals, the vitality and rhythm of South African rural music as well as snatches of Italian opera.

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