A-List: La Bohème with a South African twist

The Global Fund and South Africa’s award-winning Isango Ensemble have joined forces to breathe new life into “La Bohème,” a classic 19th century opera by the acclaimed Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Titled “Abanxaxhi,” (the Xhosa language translation of the original title), the contemporary interpretation transplants the setting from Paris in the 1830s to South Africa today, complete with revamped instrumentation for marimbas and steel pans. But even with these drastic changes in time and place, the opera’s main storyline doesn’t require any tweaking. The opera tells the tragic tale of Mimi, a young seamstress who dies of tuberculosis — a story all too common in the South African townships.

“Some stories are so strong that even if you take them from a hundred years ago when they were written and put them in the present context, they still make sense,” explains Pauline Malefane, the ensemble’s music director and star performer. “’Bohème’ is like that. It’s exactly how people live in the township: People who are unemployed, but very happy within themselves, and know how to look after each other.”

The Isango artists, township residents themselves, have personal experiences with the disease to bring to the stage. With TB continuing to traumatize township communities across the country, no one goes untouched. Deaths from TB are falling, but as of 2010, the devastating disease was still South Africa’s biggest killer. The Isango Ensemble and the Global Fund hope that these performances will serve as a reminder that TB isn’t a disease of days past and that fighting it should be a priority.

“I’ve had a lot of friends and relatives who have died of TB,” says Malefane. “It’s a very sensitive issue, an issue that’s very close to everyone’s lives. I really do hope that ‘Bohème’ becomes another medium, another way of communicating to people about TB.”

“La Bohème – Abanxaxhi” premiered yesterday in Cape Town, South Africa, and will begin a European tour in May at London’s Hackney Empire Theatre. In the meantime, check out this peek into one of their rehearsals in the player above.