Last night, I had the privilege of attending one of only three performances of “Damyna, Damyna” an original Zambian opera composed by long-time Zambian resident Peter Langmead, with an all-Zambian cast. It may very well be the first opera ever performed in Zambia.
(All photos copyright Langmead & Baker 2014)
Opera has long been considered (by many) to be the pinnacle of musical performance. When you do an opera, you’ve hit the height of cultural success . And Lusaka’s emerging Zambian middle-class wants culture. A performance of “The Magic Flute” or “La Boheme” might have sufficed – but Mr. Langmead wanted this opera to speak to contemporary Zambians, with contemporary music. So the music was decidedly “modern” and the story explored the conflicts between life in a rural village and the attractions and challenges of living in the city. And being a real, bona-fide opera, the story also had romance, intrigue, a big secret, mistaken identity, betrayal, jealousy, drunkenness, sexual innuendo, emotional distress and finally, resolution.
The opera was staged in the Lusaka Playhouse, a small theater that has seen better days, but has surprisingly good acoustics and sight-lines. Incredibly, an long-forgotten orchestra pit was discovered under the stage, found to be still usable and opened up for this performance!
The cast was made up of local singers and instrumentalists, a local church choir for the chorus, a dance troupe called “Team Jiva” and several guest artists from the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Academy in Germany and was conducted by renowned conductor Theo Bross. It was very clear that none of the performers had ever attempted anything like this before. Their excitement and nervousness were both evident. The rehearsals had been going on for several months
The story starts with the village waking up and the chorus singing about Damyna; how she was rescued from being sold to a moneylender by her aunt and raised as a sister to Por Phiri, who believes her to be his real sister.
Damyna and Por Phiri appear and it becomes clear that they are in love with each other, but because they believe themselves to be true brother and sister, they cannot marry. They sing about how they are “best friends.”
Por Phiri’s mother sings about why she has kept up this deception – in order to keep peace in the family and avoid difficulty.
Two farming consultants from the city arrive in the village, in a fancy car. The villagers see them coming and sing about why these rich people might be coming to their poor village. “Perhaps they will build us a school!” “Definitely NOT!” “Perhaps they will build us a swimming pool! It would be cool to have a pool!” Everyone is very interested in the city people and their fancy clothes…and it is clear that the woman (a white European) is attracted to Por Phiri and the man (an African) very much enamored of Damyna. (Note how the woman is dressed in order to appear “white and European.”) The dancers in the background dance to show how the African consultant and Damyna are falling for each other. However, Damyna is obviously a bit jealous of Por’s attraction to the European woman, singing about how that woman has “small breasts, not as big as mine!”
The village witch doctor, not knowing that Damyna and Por are not really siblings, decides to help things along. He conjures some spirits, casts a magic spell and when everyone wakes, it seems his charms have worked and love has bloomed.
The second act opens at a cafe in town. The chorus sings “Here we are in town” as the proprietors of the cafe declare how excellent their establishment is.
The two couples are getting to know each other, but it is clear that Por and Damyna still have feelings for each other. The witch doctor, realizing his mistake, tries to set things right, but is foiled by Damyna’s aunt’s estranged husband showing up and declaring himself to be the father of both Por and Damyna, as he boasts of having sex with both women. The men in the chorus sing about how they wish they could have as much sex as this guy while the women sing their disgust with his boastful drunkenness.
But the aunt has the last word, when she calls her husband a pathetic excuse for a man and tells him that he is NOT the father of Por Phiri after all. The witch doctor undoes his spell.
Damyna and Por are not brother and sister after all and are free to marry.
I loved this opera. I loved it because of the love and effort that went into making it. I loved it because of the ownership of the performers and the obvious delight each of them showed in performing. I loved it because it was done in an old, inadequate theater by nervous and excited Zambians, so proud to be performing an opera – an opera! – for fellow Zambians, many who had dressed to the nines to come to the performance. (I saw at least one mink stole, lots of jewelry and high-heels…and suits on the men.)
And I loved the obvious joy and unaffected enthusiasm on the part of the performers. After the last chord had been sung and the orchestra played the last cadence, the entire cast burst into wild whoops of joy and ran off the stage, pumping their fists in the air. Not very “professional?” Maybe. But you know what? They’d just performed an OPERA. A real OPERA. In Zambia. About Zambians.
(I was reminded more than once of Scott Joplin and his only known opera called “Treemonisha.” Scott Joplin, best known for his ragtime music, was America’s first published black composer. He wanted ragtime to be taken seriously, not just thought of as “coon music” or “jive music” and so he wrote an opera using a wide range of musical styles, including ragtime and he spent the last 10 years of his life trying to get the opera published and performed. Like “Damyna, Damyna,” the plot also dealt with superstition, romance, adopted children, betrayal and the conflict between old and new. The opera had one concert “read-through” in 1915 and then was lost until 1970, when it was rediscovered (thanks, in part, to the movie “The Sting” which used many of Joplin’s works.) It received its world premiere in 1972, in Atlanta and now is considered an historically significant musical work, with performances all over the world. It would be wonderful to see “Opera Z” tackle this work for their next performance.)
After the performance, I met Peter Langmead, the composer, and told him how much I had enjoyed the performance. I think it was a great occasion. My hat is off to the singers, the orchestra, the dancers and everyone who helped make the show happen.