Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen: Living for Art

(This feature appeared in The EastAfrican 7th-13th May 2012 under the title Ondieki the Fisherman: Kenya’s First Ever Opera)

Rhoda Ondeng' Wilhelmsen photo by Philip Ondeng'
Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen photo by Philip Ondeng’

In Act II of the opera Tosca (1900) by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), the chief of police Baron Scarpia tells the famous singer Floria Tosca that if she agrees to sleep with him, he will release from prison her lover, Mario Cavaradossi. Distraught about finding herself in such a difficult situation, she sings Vissi d’arte (I lived for art) lamenting “I lived for art, I lived for love… in the hour of grief, why, Lord, why dost thou reward me thus?”

As a curtain raiser at the gala night of the first ever Kenyan opera Ondieki the Fisherman, Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen sang this famous aria, Vissi d’arte. Even though these particular circumstances were far more appealing than Tosca’s, the title of the song must have rung true for Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen because this is a woman who has certainly lived for art.

Ondieki the Fisherman was written thirty-nine years ago by Francis Chandler who was then the head of English at Limuru Girls’ High School, to commemorate the school’s 50thanniversary. Inspired by an essay by his student Sarah Alai which recounted the tale of a foolish, wife-battering fisherman called Ondieki, Chandler wrote both the libretto (text) and music of the opera. He wrote the music for the lead soprano Mariam specifically for the voice of the 16-year-old Rhoda Ondeng,’ who has since gone on to become an internationally renowned opera singer.

Francis Chandler photo by Philip Ondeng'
Francis Chandler photo by Philip Ondeng’

Until now, Ondieki has lived only in the memory of Chandler, Ondeng’Wilhelmsen and the former students of Limuru Girls’, including Her Excellency Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch, who was the guest of honour at the gala night of the opera’s revival.

However, thanks to cyber space, Chandler and Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen recently contacted each other, after which, Chandler re-wrote the opera to include male voices and Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen was the producer of the historic revival of Ondieki the Fisherman at Braeaburn Theatre on the stormy night of Friday 20thApril 2012.

Elizabeth Njoroge as Mariam photo by Philip Ondeng'
Elizabeth Njoroge as Mariam photo by Philip Ondeng’

Mariam was played by Elizabeth Njoroge, Charles Dickens Awany was Ondieki, Ben Katumba was the chief, Maggie Gitu was the witchdoctor and Linda Muthama made a very memorable storyteller.

The scene is set in the village of Bandari on the shores of Lake Victoria, where the storyteller and the villagers in the chorus Mjinga, tell the story of Ondieki and his battered wife Mariam. When the witchdoctor arrives, the villagers ask her to perform some magic, which she has never succeeded in doing, but this time, to her horror and surprise, her words “turn the singer’s tale to present scenes” actually come to pass.

The Ballet of the Mending of the Nets marks the ‘turning’ of the scenes from the singer’s tale into ‘present scenes’ and also depicts the fate of Ondieki, who eventually drowned in the lake, dragged down by the nets his own nets, which he always refused to mend.

In these ‘past scenes’ Ondieki ignores the advice of the village chief and continues to batter his wife Mariam who, after some reflection in her aria Long Ago, puts together her belongings and leaves him the following morning at dawn.

Part of the Chorus photo by Philip Ondeng'
Part of the Chorus photo by Philip Ondeng’

The music is melodic and pleasant to listen to even for an audience that is not well-acquainted to opera, perhaps because it has more arias (‘proper’ songs) and choruses than recitatives (singing that sounds more like speaking).

The production as a whole was a showcase of Kenyan talent, with Alakie Mboya-Owuor as the the director, Kiggundu F. Musoke conducting the orchestra and refreshingly innovative choreography by Jade Pesa and Julius Owiti. The chorus comprised singers from the choirs Cantus in Choro and Taifa Mziki and former students of Kenyatta University. All this is a promising sign that with appropriate funding, there is enough talent in Kenya to create theatre productions of world class standards.

But what makes this a Kenyan opera?  Is it because the story is based on a fictitious village on the shores of Lake Victoria, about a fisherman called Ondieki or is it because of the Kenyan costume with villagers dressed in colourful lessos, except for two in maasai attire despite the lakeside setting, or is it because it is produced by a Kenyan opera singer who was in fact the original  lead soprano? It is a Kenyan opera for all these reasons and the fact that in many ways itsjourney, from when it was first written to its restaging in April,  reflects all the things that define what we call Kenya, including the ‘Englishness’ that we are wont to deny.

Opera, a form of dramatic art in which singing none-the-less plays a more important role than acting, was first developed in Italy in the late 1500s. For many centuries, Italian operas have dominated European theatres but from the 1600s many European countries began to develop their own national operatic traditions. Opera has since developed varied styled and themes. In America for example, George Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote the libretto of the opera Porgy and Bess (1935) based on his novel Porgy (1925), which is based on African American characters. DuBose Heyward (1885-1940), also a white American, wrote the music, which blended classical European with African American jazz and folk music trends, of which the most famous aria is Summertime, sang by the lead soprano, Bess.

Over the centuries, magnificent opera houses have been built, with stages that can hold elaborate scenery, pits that can accommodate symphony orchestras, auditoriums that sit a thousand people at the very least and architecture and interiors that create a sense of grandeur, affluence and aesthetic refinement.

It is in such opera houses that Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen has nurtured her talent and built her career. In a brief telephone interview the week following the Braeburn peformance, she told me that her most memorable performance is Porgy and Bess which she performed at Glyndebourn Opera House in 1987.

Linda Muthama as The Storyteller photo by Philip Ondeng'
Linda Muthama as The Storyteller photo by Philip Ondeng’

Glyndebourne is a manor house that has been in Sussex, England since the 1600s which has housed the Glyndebourne Festival Opera since 1934, except during the Second World War. I imagined that the experience of singing in such a space must have been breath-taking and I wondered how that compared to singing in the 416-seat Braeburn theatre for Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen. She answered that it was a very enjoyable experience but  acknowledged the need to build a proper theatre in Kenya- one that can hold large-scale productions like operas.  She said however, that she is at the moment ‘focused on building musicians and singers’ and obviously, building an audience and to show people that ‘opera is worth going to, and listening to and is available.’

Opera was developed in an attempt to re-create Greek theatre, during the European Renaissance. It is not coincidence that the pursuit of high art is always marked by a rising middle class. It is therefore not a coincidence that Kenya produces its first opera (albeit a forty-year revival) in 2012.

Rhoda Ondeng' Wilhelmsen photo by Philip Ondeng'
Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen photo by Philip Ondeng’

Before singing Vissi d’arte and a Luo folksong Ne En Kende Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen sang I Could Have Danced All Night from Frederick Loewe’s and Alan Jay Lerner’s musical, My Fair Lady (1956) which is sang by an elated Eliza Doolittle after dancing with her teacher Henry Higgins. In a sense, it was a fitting song for an occasion that was the result of an inspiring encounter between a teacher, Francis Chandler and his student, Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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