By Moira Nolan
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Review of 'U-Carmen eKhayelitsha', director: Mark Dornford-May
Issue 305

When U-Carmen eKhayelitsha was premiered earlier this year in the South African township where it was filmed, it drew an audience of 1,500 every day for a month. This contemporary version of George Bizet’s opera Carmen deserves as large an audience everywhere it is shown.

This film came out of the successful staging of the original opera by Dimpho Di Kopane (Combined Talents), a lyric theatre company whose members were recruited from thousands of ordinary South Africans who attended auditions in 2000. Their production of the opera sold out in 24 hours when it came to London in 2001.

The story is probably one reason why Carmen is among the world’s most well known and widely performed operas. Carmen is an outsider in her society – a gypsy who rebels against society’s norms, thrills at the dangers of mixing with smugglers and tricks the authorities who try to put a leash on her. Her reaction to a dispute with a fellow worker at the tobacco factory she toils in is to start a fight and pull a knife.

Carmen’s fierce independence is nowhere more evident than in the field of sexual relations. She yearns for love but refuses to be owned by any man.

Her passion and energy attract many men, but also lead to her inevitable untimely death at the hands of a jealous ex-lover – a former soldier who had given up everything to be with her.

Bizet’s original opera was set in the slums of Seville in the late 19th century, and has been transposed to many different eras and cities. This latest restaging is the most successful I’ve seen.

Despite 12 years of ANC rule, post-apartheid South Africa remains an incredibly divided society. Lack of decent housing and access to work, and appalling poverty are the norm for millions who live in the townships that ring the wealthy cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The lives of women like Carmen encapsulate both the harsh oppressions of this society and the spirit of struggle that came out of the movement to end apartheid.

The updating of the film references this world very astutely. The toreador (bull fighter) of the original becomes the returning son of a murdered anti-apartheid activist, while the soldiers of Seville become the new black police force trying to keep the lid on the rage of the township.

Like Carmen herself, the township is both exciting and dangerous – its busy sprawl is full of characters that both intrigue and repel us.

The film shows both the collective spirit of the women workers at the tobacco factory and the divisions that arise among people barely managing to keep body and soul together. This dovetails nicely with the internal conflicts of the central characters in the film – especially Jongi, Carmen’s jealous lover, torn between country and town, duty and desire.

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is performed in Xhosa, one of the 11 official languages spoken in South Africa. The distinctive sounds of the language combine successfully with the familiar melodies to intertwine the diverse European and African traditions this production brings together.

Film can be a great medium for opera, and this production certainly shows why. The moments of great tension are caught superbly in close-up, and the sense that this tale is a universal one is carried supremely.

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is good for your soul – go see it.

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