What's it like to portray Nelson Mandela in an opera? Amazing!

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The opera singer we're about to meet was supposed to be performing tonight in Pretoria, South Africa but his show, "Madiba: The African Opera," was cancelled after just 3 nights because of a lack of funding. The opera is about Nelson Mandela's early years in his native home of Qunu on South Africa's eastern cape. Thabang Senekal played Mandela in the production. Senekal is a well-known baritone in South Africa and he's disappointed that the show was cancelled.

Thabang Senekal: We are all shocked and disappointed at the same time but we as artists are hoping that the show will go on because it has to be seen by the whole world.

Werman: Give us the good stuff, or at least the shows that you were able to perform. What was it like to portray Mandela and not just Mandela but a singing Mandela at that.

Senekal: For me, it was so unbelievable. I went to auditions and I knew I was going to get the role but just one of those small roles. I never thought in a million years that I would get the role of Nelson Mandela. But then when I got the call from the CEO of the company, telling me "Thabang, you got the role of Nelson Mandela." He sent me an email and I couldn't believe it, I couldn't sleep that night because I was so nervous. But then when we started with the music, I told myself "you know what Thabang? You can do this." Through the help of the other cast members, it was easy for me to portray the role of Nelson Mandela.

Werman: So everybody rallied around you to get it right. Where do you even start to prepare for a role like this? Especially when you're not even thinking you're going to get it.

Senekal: What I had to do as an artist - as you all know, Nelson Mandela is a world icon - so like anyone else, I knew some things about him. But then I had to dig deep to get the character of the man because the story starts when Nelson Mandela was still a child, from the rural areas. The director of the show is related to Nelson Mandela, so he set me down and told me what he was expecting from me. So for me, it was easy because I got all of the information from the director.

Werman: I'm going to put you on the spot and ask you to sing just a little something from the opera. Is that possible?

Senekal: Okay, I will try.

[Thabang Senekal singing]

Senekal: This is one of the arias from the opera.

Werman: Can you just describe the scene where that aria occurs?

Senekal: It occurs in the second act, a love scene. Nelson is singing his song to Winnie Mandela. He's telling the people that when he met Winnie, it was love at first sight.

Werman: Considering this opera is about Nelson Mandela's early years, what do you think audiences learn that's new about him and his life then?

Senekal: Most people know Nelson Mandela as a president. We never knew anything about his childhood. I think our audiences have learned a lot from this opera because now they know him from his childhood, the reason why he had to go away from his village and come to Johannesburg and look for greener pastures. I think from that opera that they now know the man who was the world icon.

Werman: What's the most important thing you learned about Nelson Mandela after performing in "Madiba: The African Opera"?

Senekal: What I've learned from the man is that whatever you want to achieve is possible whenever you put your mind to it. Everything is possible.

Werman: Thabang Senekal, who is a very well-known baritone in South Africa, even better known now. Thanks for being with us. We really appreciate it.

Senekal: Thank you very much.

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