A Black “Merry Widow of Malagawi”: Re-Imagining A Classic

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
14 July, 2015

Another Merry Widow? Yeah, we hear you. (And you’re right.) It’s probably the most over-produced operetta in operetta history, together with Die Fledermaus. But South Africa will get a new version in September that promises to be different and interesting: The Merry Widow of Malagawi.

Poster for tge Cape Town Opera production of "The Merry Widow."

Poster for tge Cape Town Opera production of “The Merry Widow.”

Cape Town Opera announces the production with these words: “The Merry Widow of Malagawi  is a light-hearted theatrical and musical exploration of diplomatic intrigue, capitalism and how people protect their wealth and self- interests. The themes prevalent in Lehar’s early 20th century Vienna – womens’ suffrage, the growth of industrialism and the movement from rural to urban economies – mirror many contemporary situations on our continent. Acclaimed director, Janice Honeyman will give this new production an upbeat and contemporary feel, contextualizing what has become the new vibrant, wealthy and internationally connected middle/upper class in Malagawi.”

A “Black Merry Widow” is not something you are likely to get every day. As a matter of fact, there are few examples of famous “black” versions of operettas, not on the scale of the “all black” Hello Dolly for example, back in the 1960s. Probably, because questions of “race” and ethnic groups are seldom touched in contemporary operetta productions, certainly not in central Europe. Perhaps that’s because theater directors think there is no substantial audience for such undertakings? Though obviously you do not have to be black to enjoy a “Black Merry Widow” and find it stimulating. (I am writing this as a white man who would love to see this The Merry Widow of Malagawi.

The production is set in the fictional African state of Malagawi. Tim Murray will conduct the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, costume designs are by Birrie le Roux, set designs by Michael Mitchell, lighting by Mannie Manim and choreography by Sean Bovim. British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn noted for her ‘gorgeously toned and rapturous’ singing (The Guardian) will sing the role of Hannah Glawari and South African soprano Filipa van Eck, noted in Opera Magazine for ‘spirited, playful and technically rock-solid, delicious performance,’ returns from the UK to sing Valencienne.

Cape Town Opera has collaborated with many international companies – this production of The Merry Widow of Malagawi has been developed in partnership with the Wales Millennium Centre. It would be great if there new Merry Widow could be seen elsewhere too, especially in Europe, where such a “People of Color” interpretation might shed new light on the over-familiar operetta by Franz Lehár.

For more information, click here.