A Life Risen – an opera about AIDS and life …

Opera singer

Tuesday November 30, eve of World aids day, is the 23rd anniversary of the death of Simon nkoli. Simon died of AIDS. He was an assortment of fiery and introspective personalities – a freedom fighter and political prisoner, a gay activist, a pioneering AIDS activist, a dreamer and a writer.

Simon belongs to the pantheon of South African heroes, but is probably unknown to many. He is one of a handful of activists whose personality, politics and impertinence have reshaped our world.

In 1998, Simon’s death came when HIV treatment was the privilege of only a few who could afford it. At his funeral, Zackie Achmat called for a campaign of action for HIV treatment, a movement that will come to life in the following years. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

In the early 1990s, Simon, his comrades (among them Phumi mtetwa, Zackie Achmat and Bev Ditsie) founded organizations such as Gays and lesbians of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) and the municipal aid project. Along with retired Judge Edwin Cameron, he successfully campaigned for the inclusion of a ban on unjust discrimination based on “sexual orientation” in our Constitution. pioneer equality clause.

In 1998, Simon’s death came at a time when HIV treatment was a privilege only a few could afford. At his funeral, Achmat called for a campaign of action for HIV treatment, a movement that would come to life in the following years and help prevent millions of deaths by waging a successful fight for antiretroviral drugs and a national treatment plan.

November 2021: Enter Simon, courtyard side

Violinist Waldo Alexander and dancer Lwanele Masiza perform in a scene from “GLOW, The Life and Trials of Simon Nkoli”. The cage is a lot of things in vogue-opera, from the go-go disco dance to a jail cell. It is symbolic of the different aspects of liberation and freedom in Simon’s story. Freedom from homophobia and racial oppression, freedom to express one’s own sexuality and identity. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of being invited to a special performance of a new “fashion opera” based on Simon’s life, “GLOW, the life and trials of Simon Nkoli», Designed by composer Philip Miller. The preview marked the end of a 10-day creative workshop bringing together singers, musicians, costume designers, filmmakers and researchers to co-create the opera and an online film installation to accompany it.

It is the end of another plague year, a year in which more people have died in South Africa than since the peak of the AIDS epidemic. But as I walked out of Linden Street in Johannesburg to enter the studio where the performance was taking place, I entered another dimension. Lights, colors, orchestra, dance.

glow nkoli simelane
Tenor Simphiwe Simelane stars in “GLOW, the life and trials of Simon Nkoli” against the backdrop of images of letters that Nkoli brought out of prison on toilet paper.
(Photo: Mark Lewis / GALA Archives)

A small audience gathered around a stage to witness a multisensory performance bringing Simon Nkoli and his many trials back to life. I felt like I was propelled into a better world.

Veteran producer and public health activist Harriet perlman, the creative producer, explained to me how GLOW is interpreted as a “fashion opera”, organized around different “coming out” moments (scenes) in Simon’s life.

“Each vogue category is an episode in Simon’s ‘coming out’ journey: To his mother as a homosexual; in the streets of the canton to fight against apartheid; to his ANC comrades imprisoned while they were tried for treason, “the queer on the quays”; to the world as the organizer of the first SA Gay Pride march; to his community that he had AIDS.

glow miller ditsie
Composer and creator Philip Miller with Dr Bev Ditsie, close friends and comrades of Simon Nkoli during the performance of ‘GLOW’. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Vogue ballroom performances are an integral part of queer nightlife. According to Wikipedia, “Vogue dance presents the genre as a performance. Drag queens pretend to put on make-up (“beat face”), style the hair and put on extravagant clothes through dance movements.

Philip Miller notes: “The South African style of Voguing has its roots firmly in the township beauty pageant scene of the late 80’s and 90’s. He reappeared in urban South African queer life and on the international stage popularized by Netflix Pose.

In this opera, however, the setting is a fashionable ballroom dance competition at the once famous queer bar in Johannesburg, the Skyline. The set is beautifully created as a voguing ramp, conceptualized by visual designer Catherine Meyburgh.

Music at GLOW is created by the internationally renowned composer SA Miller, with classically trained opera singer Tshegofatso Moeng serving as musical director and conducting the orchestra.

glow nkoli simelane
Simphiwe Simelane playing Simon Nkoli in a live presentation of “GLOW, the life and trials of Simon Nkoli”. to an audience selected to present the work produced during a 10-day creative workshop. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

The lyrics are a combination of Simon’s words and handwriting and an exciting new libretto. Miller works with a co-lyricist; rapper and performer S’bonakaliso Nene (Gyre) and researcher Welcome Livisha.

According to Miller, his passion “Is to make a unique multimedia opera that has an impact on contemporary young audiences who have not experienced the way music, song, film, archives come together and do something that breaks the mold of what people think of opera ”.

Miller says, “I am a gay artist and activist who has always worked with the power of the arts and music to advance social justice issues. GLOW Could not have been more timely, as we are seeing a right-wing backlash from homophobia, transphobia and hate crimes across the world.

glow masina masiza
Soprano Ann Masina and dancer Lwanele Masiza perform the song “Sasisifa iHIV” in “GLOW, the life and trials of Simon Nkoli”. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Equally evident is Moeng’s enthusiasm. He says it was a “huge honor” to be on board… “a revelation about Simon’s life and the struggles of the LGBTQI community.

“As a straight man, that meant becoming less alien to each other; I saw myself more in the other. It had a lasting impact on me, ”Moeng says.

Many actors and dancers did not know Simon’s life at all. Simon is played by the young countertenor Simphiwe Simelane from Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). Along with three other talented opera singers from TUT and their teacher Mhlaba Buthelezi, their enthusiasm for working on this new contemporary work shone through their energetic performances.

Although still under construction, the 10-day opera that I saw was already rich in meaning, music and dance. It’s an eclectic and irreverent mix of genres that combines song and dance with voiceovers from interviews given by Simon. Color is in the costume and performance created by stylist Neo Serati and choreographer Llewellyn Mnguni.

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Four singers perform the song ‘Sangomas, Priests and Therapists’ in ‘GLOW, the life and trial of Simon Nkoli.’ (Photo: Mark Lewis / GALA Archives)

An otherwise sparse ensemble revolves around a pink cage. The popular opera is largely inspired by GALA Archives. GLOW not content with popularizing the archive, but increasing it with new interviews, reconstructions of letters, sound archives and films. Simon’s letters from prison are read and lip-synced, one to Edwin cameron, a friend, lawyer and comrade in Simon’s struggles – as well as thrown deep in the scene.

Simon may be gone, but his spirit survived. His comrades too, some of whom appear as characters on stage and in the score. On that day in November, several were in the audience, including filmmaker and lesbian activist Dr Bev Ditisie, one of the first gay rights activists; Gcina Malindi, now a judge, comrade and close friend and at the time one of the The Delmas treason trials and outstanding writer and librarian of queer life and struggles, Marc Gevisser.

In one particularly poignant moment, Malindi and Ditsie were invited to sit a few feet from the front of the stage as the people playing their characters performed their roles in the unfolding vogue.

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Township Aids project poster. (Photo: GALA Archives)

It was surreal: life looks at life through art; art reflecting life. The spectator’s eyes return to the gazing eyes. Witness through epidemics; love in an era of apartheid versus love in an era of democracy and persistent homophobia and hatred.

GLOW shines, and it felt like an opera on hold meant to subvert the stage. It made me proud and honestly could only be made in a cruel and mad South Africa.

It is unique to South Africa The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; an opera (with a capital O) about the exuberant struggle for personal and political freedom of a young black, poor, gay and HIV-positive young man from Sebokeng who has made such a difference in millions of lives. So loaded with meaning. So vibrant. Someday he should do Broadway.

Then I heard Ditsie and Gevisser speak, as they shook their emotions: “It was like Simon was in the room,” they agreed. It was. DM / MC / ML

Watch a short teaser of GLOW here:

To concern Beverly Ditsie film in 2001 on Simon’s life, Simon and me.