The Princess Diaries; They're Outta Here | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

The Princess Diaries; They're Outta Here 

It took a team of dedicated music lovers to create the buzz that brought the first Zulu opera to Chicago.

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The Princess Diaries

Steve Robinson first heard about Princess Magogo in the fall of 2000. He'd just arrived to take over management of WFMT when he got a call from Regina Fraser, a member of the Chicago-Durban Sister Cities committee, about a South African opera based on the true story of a 20th-century Zulu princess. Constance Magogo kaDinuzulu, who was born in 1900, was the daughter of a king, a singer with a three-octave range, a composer, one of the last players of the ugubhu (a musical bow), the chief archivist of Zulu music, and the first female "praise singer." Her son, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, grew up to lead the Inkatha Freedom Party and become South Africa's first postapartheid home affairs minister. Her story, told in flashback in the opera, encompasses the modern history of the Zulus, including their struggles against the British. The opera, at that time still being written by composer Mzilikazi Khumalo and librettist Themba Msimang, had been commissioned by an Afrikaner, Sandra de Villiers, for performance by Durban's Opera Africa, which she heads. The music would be based on songs written by the princess, and her role would be sung by renowned South African mezzo-soprano Sibongile Khumalo (no relation to the composer). Fraser wanted Robinson to travel to Durban and put the opera on the air; when he asked to hear a sample of the composer's music she sent him a cantata based on the life of the Zulu king Shaka. "I was bowled over," Robinson recalls.

Fraser had learned about the opera a year or so earlier, at the dinner table in Pat Johnson's Hyde Park home. Johnson, then head of Chicago Artists International--a city artists-exchange program funded by the State Department--had also invited de Villiers. Johnson (who's now director of San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora) and Fraser became the project's champions, talking it up to their contacts and appealing for corporate support to bring it here. When de Villiers produced a preview in Durban in 2001, they were both there to see it, along with Robinson, whose expenses were paid by Johnson's exchange program. He taped a Lisagor-winning documentary on the trip, The Making of "Princess Magogo," and told de Villiers that if it had its premiere the next May, he might be able to sandwich it between the end of the Metropolitan's season and the start of the Lyric rebroadcasts. It was scheduled accordingly, and in 2002 they were all back for it, along with Andrew Block, who sits on the Sister Cities committee with Fraser and on the board of the Chicago Humanities Festival, and CHF executive director Eileen Mackevich.

But the performance, in a landmark theater packed with dignitaries, almost didn't happen. Just hours before the curtain was to go up, the cast threatened a boycott. According to reports in the South African press, they refused to waive broadcast fees until the producers at Opera Africa signed a contract guaranteeing them their roles in any performance of the opera for the next five years. "It was up in the air until 45 minutes before curtain," says Robinson, who was sweating it out in the booth. "At 7:15 it was finally cleared for broadcast--and then the technical problems started." For the next 40 minutes Robinson and his engineer struggled with everything from dead headphones to a failing satellite hookup. But the show went on, broadcasting live over 155 American stations and in 17 countries in Europe. Afterward, Opera Africa fielded inquiries from interested venues worldwide, and Block and Mackevich began talking about bringing the production to the Humanities Festival the following fall.

That turned out to be optimistic, but three Humanities Festival-sponsored performances were set for March 2003 at the Oriental Theatre. Then, in late December 2002, Mackevich got a call from the South African consul general and was informed, she says, that "there was a labor dispute and it was serious....We engaged attorneys to advise us, and the upshot was a strong possibility that the suit would not be settled by March. Based on that advice, we had no choice but to cancel." The South African press reported that Opera Africa had replaced most of the leads except Sibongile Khumalo and that the performers--including the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Durban Serenade Choral Society, and five soloists--had filed suit, charging the producers with breach of contract and complaining, among other things, that their musical heritage had been exploited.

Ravinia Festival president Welz Kauffman had been working with the Humanities Festival on a performance in Lawndale during the 2003 run, and he says it occurred to him a few months after the cancellation that it might be possible for Ravinia to get the opera to Chicago. With much of the funding that had been raised still available, it looked like an opportunity for a unique opening event for Ravinia's centennial season. And the issues that had given the Humanities Festival folks cold feet a year ago no longer seemed to be much of a factor. "We didn't delve into it very deeply," but "it hasn't gotten in the way," Kauffman says. In fact, ownership of the opera has been turned over to its authors, which de Villiers says has removed the obstacles to its performance. On Monday Kauffman was in New York, visa application confirmations in hand, waiting to greet the cast of 70 and their crew arriving for events in Chicago this week and a June 4 opening weekend at Ravinia. Kauffman conferred early on with Fraser, Robinson, and Johnson, but they aren't involved now.

"It wouldn't be here if we hadn't been beating the drums, doing all the hard work," Fraser says. "It was like pulling teeth." But "my hat's off to Welz. I'm a cheerleader for the whole thing. I'll be standing there, applauding. Whatever it takes to get it here."

They're Outta Here

Today is the last day of work for 11 members of the Department of Cultural Affairs who bit on an early retirement package one of them calls "too good to pass up." Among them, media relations director Linda Wedenoja, who joined the staff of what was then the Chicago Council on Fine Arts during Jane Byrne's administration; 29-year veteran Rose Farina; grants chief Marye Young; assistant commissioner Pat Matsumoto; and first deputy commissioner Joan Small, who says the Princess Magogo project "started here, at my desk."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, Jim Newberry.


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