South African version of La Bohème opera brings TB message to the stage

By Kim Cloete

23 February 2012 - Cape Town - The tragedy of dying of tuberculosis (TB) has been brought home in a creative and poignant way, with the staging of the world premiere of 'La Bohème Abanxaxni' in Cape Town.

Instead of Puccini’s famous opera being set amongst the struggling artist community in 1930s Paris, the Isango Ensemble’s production is set in the streets of Khayelithsa, where TB is as real today as it was 160 years after La Bohème was written.

The main character in the opera, Mimi, falls ill and eventually dies of TB.

"People like Mimi are dying every day here, so for us it had an extraordinary resonance," said Mark Dornford-May, who adapted and directed La Bohème Abanxaxni.

What’s given the production greater significance is that a researcher from Stellenbosch University’s Desmond Tutu TB Centre, met with performers during rehearsals to talk about what causes TB and how it affects people.

"I started by asking everyone in the cast if they knew of someone who had TB - and everyone said yes. It was a real eye-opener for them to see how widespread TB is," said researcher, Mareli Claassens.

During the rehearsal, the cast talked about everything from opening the windows in a taxi to prevent the spread of TB to how to portray the role of Mimi and her friends in La Bohème Abanxaxni.

Dornford-May says the session with Claassens left the cast with two points to ponder - the scary extent of TB in South Africa, and how to imbue the lessons they’d learnt into their roles in "this extraordinary piece of opera."

The result of blending the past with the present is a heart-rending performance by Pauline Malefane, who takes the role of Mimi and Mhlekazi Mosiea, who plays Lungelo, who she falls in love with.

The performers, who play Mimi and Lungelo’s friends, have also brought empathy and compassion into their roles, as they support Mimi as she suffers from TB.

The production, which will be taken to London in May, is a partnership between the Isango Ensemble, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Desmond Tutu TB Centre.

"The staging of this production in 2012 is a strong reminder that TB is still very much with us. Hundreds of thousands of people struggle with TB every year. While TB has decreased by 30% globally over the past 20 years, the battle is far from being won. We need to detect cases earlier and encourage people to take their treatment," the Executive Director of the Global Fund, Michel Kazatchkine, said at the premiere.

While the number of cases have come down in most parts of the world, it’s not the same for South Africa. "Everywhere else TB may be going down, but in South Africa, it’s going up," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who thanked the Global Fund and South Africans who are playing their part in tackling the scourge of TB.

TB cases are on the increase in Russia, parts of Eastern Europe and some Southern African countries, including South Africa.

"It’s desperately sad that we mount this performance not as a piece of history, but as a fact," said Dornford-May.

Puccini’s staging of the opera during a freezing cold Christmas time in Paris, posed a challenge to him as director. But he found a creative way of solving this by setting it in the heart of winter on June 16 - Youth Day.

Malefane, who is also the Music Director of Isango Ensemble, says she’d like more South Africans to see La Bohème Abanxaxni one day.

"TB is so close to our hearts. We live it every day in South Africa. It’s important to be able to reach people in a different way through a production like this."

TB workers in the field said they could relate to the performance. Monia Adams, who works as a TB counsellor for the Desmond Tutu TB Centre in the Somerset West area, believes there’s much more reason to be hopeful these days.

"It’s sad to see that people are still dying of TB today, when treatment is available " and it’s free. No-one needs to die of TB today," she said after watching the performance.