Page last updated at 10:41 GMT, Sunday, 4 October 2009 11:41 UK

'Scots' opera gets Botswana treatment

Image from TV adapation of The Number One Ladies Detective Agency
Mr McCall Smith began a love affair with Botswana when he first visited in 1982

By Pauline McLean
BBC Scotland Arts Correspondent in Botswana

Saturday night saw the world premiere of a new opera created by Edinburgh-based author Alexander McCall Smith.

The Okavango Macbeth is his contribution to the musical culture of Botswana, the country which inspired his Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series.

He created one memorably feisty African woman in Mma Ramostwe, the determined heroine of the popular series. Now Mr McCall Smith has created another.

She's outspoken, determined and ruthless enough to push any unassuming male out of her way. She's also a baboon.

The Okavango Macbeth - based on a real life encounter Mr McCall Smith had with two primatologists in the Okavango Delta - transfers the plot of the Shakespearean tragedy to a troupe of baboons.

Alexander McCall Smith
Mr McCall Smith was born over the border in what was then Rhodesia

Three primatologists observe but cannot intervene as the baboon version of Lady Macbeth encourages a rival male to kill her mate and lead the troupe himself.

Saturday night represented the culmination of weeks of rehearsal for the local cast - mostly amateurs with full time jobs to fit in too. It's also the most anticipated show since the Number One Ladies' Opera house opened for business last year.

Opera house is a tongue in cheek description of this former garage by the railway sidings in Kgale, on the outskirts of Gaborone. Think the original Mull Little Theatre in Dervaig, or any pre-lottery village hall around Scotland.

It seats just 70 people but they've been chopping up pieces of foam to allow more guests to enjoy the show in some kind of comfort.

And it's not really an opera. More an entertaining piece of music theatre, with musical director David Slater, barefoot in the thick of it, accompanying the singers on piano.

The point, say Mr McCall Smith and composer Tom Cunningham, was to create a piece which could be performed by casts like this - mostly amateur, and more accustomed to African choral singing than western opera.

The aforementioned Lady Macbeth - played by Tshenolo Segokgo - is wonderfully entertaining, flirting and plotting among the baboons and her aria Do Not Fear To Close Your Eyes is one of the most memorable and moving of the show.

Mma Ramotswe
The TV adaptation of Mr McCall Smith's books was shown on BBC one

Tshenolo is one of the few singers in the show who is actually pursuing a career in opera, having just finished a two year course at a French conservatoire.

Like all shows, The Okavango Macbeth's had its fair share of last minute changes - and Lizibo Glenn Simon is one of them. But he rises to the occasion with a Macbeth which captures beautifully the shallow arrogance of his character, goaded into action by his lady.

The chorus too provide some wonderfully moving moments, not least in the aria they sing on the death of Duncan, a soaring heart-felt song which shakes the tin roof with its final anthem - oh great Kalahari, wide Okavango, oh Africa.

And talking of shaking roofs, it's the little opera house that turns out to be the star of the show. The old garage doors wide open behind the simple set of trees and bush, allowing the landscape outside to play its own part. From the howling dogs to the goods trains which rumble past, to the torrential rain which pounds the roof of the little opera house, it all adds to the atmosphere.

"It's Africa," says one performer afterwards, as he prepares to run through the downpour. And that, for Alexander McCall Smith and Tom Cunningham, was surely the biggest compliment of the night.



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SEE ALSO
African opening for 'Scots' opera
03 Oct 09 |  Scotland
Minghella's 'perfect' last film
22 Mar 08 |  Scotland
Detective Agency to be serialised
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Detective writer back at university
07 Mar 08 |  Northern Ireland
Honorary degree for McCall Smith
23 Jun 07 |  Edinburgh, East and Fife
Author trades Africa for Edinburgh
19 Aug 04 |  Arts & Culture

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