Nice to meet you: Neo Muyanga
Your experience as a musician and composer encompasses such a broad scope of international musicial genres and traditions. You’ve been successful at all of them, including as a pop musician in South Africa. Why opera?
First of all, I am fascinated by narrative. For millennia, people have been moved to change the way they see what’s possible through stories and storytelling. I wanted to use storytelling in a musical way―that’s one reason. Second, I wasn’t always an opera fan. I found it put-on and affected, it wasn’t a natural way of expression. So I read a lot about the development of opera and how, in his original writings, Monteverdi talks specifically about how it can’t be real or realistic. It’s supposed to be hyperreal so that the emotional soundscape can reverberate within both the performer and the audience. I found that quite a moving possibility. Thirdly: South Africa – and this surprises many people who have never been there – is very much an opera-loving country, specifically in the poor and marginalized black and brown community, which is the opposite of what opera has become in the West: a privileged black-suit-and-tie kind of tradition. The tradition that I am focused on in South Africa are these operatic, declamatory voices that without much formal musical training are able to articulate some of that reverberating emotion. So all these three conversations are what I have been developing, and that is what I am attracted to.
Part of the Opera Forward Festival’s mission is to open the European black-suit-and-tie opera tradition to a broader demographic, one that more accurately reflects young urban Europe. Do you think it is necessary to develop specific strategies with that in mind?
Absolutely. And I think it’s important. This is what I want to speak about. We don’t have a choice. The elite structures in Europe are no longer going to support the kind of cultural output that they were able to in the past. We need to rethink what opera means to society. I will bring anecdotes and experiences from my own background in Africa, on the fringe, to say there are ways to rethink this premise of opera. I fundamentally believe that we share human stories around the globe. I don’t think stories in Europe are exceptional, I don’t think our stories in South Africa are exceptional. I think what we don’t have is a bridge that allows us to see each other through this lens of what is common and what is interchangeable. But I will also delineate some of the differences. The reason opera has survived for 400 years is exactly because it hasn’t stayed the same. Again, if you look at Monteverdi – where the premises of the form of the first operas are – and if you look at the Italy of Verdi: it is a vastly different scenario. And if you look at what then happens in terms of French opera, in terms of German opera, it is very different. And if you look at what’s happening in the new operatic currents in the Chinese community, or if you look at opera across the African continent, or at opera and hybrids of opera in Latin America, you start to see where some of these links can be found.
Traditional European opera is not an interactive form. Storytelling forms in many African traditions are by nature interactive. Is this also an area you think opera could evolve?
Absolutely. Interacting not just in terms of the performance but interaction in terms of the actual production: creating it, marketing it – considering questions like who is invited to come and see it, where people come to see it, what does it sound like, what people are invited to be disrupted by the practice of opera in ways that are unusual and new to them.
Going back to Monteverdi’s concept of hyperrealism: how does that translate to your work?
One of the things I am interested in is the futurity of Africa. How do we imagine an Africa of the 22nd or the 23rd century? My stories often have to do with moments of great ruptures within society, where the old premise is left behind and the new premise is emerging. The work that I do is often about crisis. I want to encourage people within the European construct to think about what crisis means and what strategies we deploy in terms of mitigating the damages, the disruptions, the reformations we are able to imagine. The ability to be flexible.
I have a Tai Chi master, Eddie Jardine, who says if you are rigid and fixed like a wall it is inevitable that you will break, but if you are free-flowing and can be directed everywhere like water, then you never have shape. The best thing is to try to aspire to the consistency of bamboo, which is fixed and has form but is also flexible and can bend. I think the future for all of us is going to be about flexibility: how we use formal training, how we use informal training, how we appeal to audiences, how we budget productions and take them on the road, what kind of spaces do we accept as the correct desirable space to perform the work that we do. All of that for me is about flexibility in spirit – not just in thinking – and flexibility in the material act.
You reference traditional narratives from many different cultures in your work, and traditional narratives are very much alive in South Africa. In Europe, young people are often more familiar with pop culture and Hollywood narratives than they are with classical stories and traditional iconography. What are the perspectives for narrative in opera in a contemporary European framework where classical stories so often referenced in opera are almost foreign to young people?
I think that’s an interesting proposal. It makes me think of Anthony Turnage, an English composer who wrote an opera about the reality tv star Anna Nicole Smith. The initial criticism was “Oh gosh, you can’t write an opera about a person who is living that kind of crass public life… the issue of breast implants, the issue of greed, of wanting to marry someone for their money, all of these things are not right,” but I think if you look at the stories we are talking about in the archetypal European tradition, there are many strands that we can pull from that.
So part of my journey in this trade is to try to draw a link between some of these old stories and how people are expressing themselves and living now – which in terms of popular culture are not seen to have anything to do with this archetypal history. I find that a very interesting exercise: to see how contemporary expression connects to the archetypal past. Take the social media scourge – it’s raising the kinds of arguments about ethics, the kinds of tensions in society similar to what happened when the first printing press came out. This idea of knowledge becoming freely available: what does it mean for the privileged classes in terms of owning the privilege to know? What did it mean for the church to be the only arbiter of knowledge? We are once again in such a moment . In our contemporary spectrum, the grand old church tradition has now been replaced by grand old government. The idea of democracy has replaced what used to be the privileged voice of the pope, the one unitary arbiter. I want to try and trace how some of those tensions are not as far from each other as we might think.
By Maarten van Hinte