Arts, Culture & Media

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

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Credit: Alon Skuy/The Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Thabang Senekal during a performance of "Madiba: The African Opera" at South Africa's State Theatre in Pretoria on May 22, 2014. The opera focuses on Nelson Mandela's upbringing in the rural town of Qunu on the Eastern Cape and how and why he left that life for Johannesburg.

There were high hopes for "Madiba: The African Opera." It was a South African opera written by Nelson Mandela's grandnephew cousin, Unathi Mtirara.

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He's heads Opera South Africa, the country's first all-black owned and managed opera company. So when the opera opened in Pretoria this week, but shut down after just three performances because it ran out of money, people were surprised.  

The producers of "Madiba: The African Opera" opera say it expected the bulk of the funding to come from South Africa's National Lotteries Board (NLB), which funds arts projects that preserve the culture of South Africa. But the NLB say they never committed to funding the entire scheduled tour of the opera. In the end the money the NLB committed was only enough to cover three nights. 

"We were all shocked and disappointed," says South African baritone Thabang Senekal. He plays Mandela in the opera. "We as artists hope that the show will go on because it has to be seen by the whole world."

The opera explores Nelson Mandela's childhood in the village of Qunu on the Eastern Cape and how he ended up leaving his rural life to go to Johannesburg. Senekal says the experience of playing Mandela was unbelievable.

Senekal is a well-known opera singer in South Africa. When he auditioned for "Madiba: The African Opera", Senekal thought he'd get a part but never thought it would be the leading role. But then he got the call from the CEO of the opera company telling him he'd got the role of Mandela. 

"He sent me an email and I couldn't believe it. I couldn't sleep that night because I was so nervous," he says.

But once he started learning the music and rehearsing, Senekal realized he could do it. 

Thabang Senekal says in preparing for the role he learned a lot about Mandela that he never knew.

"What I had to do as an artist was to learn about Mandela's early life. I had to dig deep to get the character of the man."

And what he found out about Mandela helped him summon the courage to portray him in the opera.

"What I learned from the man is that whatever you want to achieve is possible whenever you put your mind to it. Everything is possible," he says.

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