To many Namibians, the idea of a young man from Katutura conducting the country’s first opera in Berlin may seem improbable. But composer Elson Hindundu is that man and ‘Chief Hijangua’ opens at Haus des Rundfunks in the German capital next month.
Born of the ambitions Hindundu and his late brother Pasewaje nurtured as children watching grainy footage of international orchestras on the national broadcaster in the late 90s, ‘Chief Hijangua’ has its roots in Hindundu’s upbringing in and around St John’s Apostolic Faith Mission, his father’s church, and in the various choirs and the music school that ultimately led the composer from Katutura to Berlin.
“As a child, there were times when my brother and I would just sit and imagine. Imagine if we could do that! Imagine having a huge group on stage! That’s actually how the dream started,” says Hindundu.
The dream is one the young composer realised last September as a full house applauded ‘Chief Hijangua’ at the National Theatre of Namibia.
Billed as Namibia’s first opera, ‘Chief Hijangua’ is a Namibian and German production sung in Otjiherero and German. The opera tells the story of a lovelorn Namibian prince who leaves his tribe and is taken in by a group of German settlers. After learning their religion, their weapons and their ways, Hijangua ultimately returns to his village and things take a tragic turn.
Composed by Hindundu, directed by Kim Mira Meyer and co-directed by Michael Pulse with Nikolaus Frei as librettist, ‘Chief Hijangua’ is Hindundu’s first large-scale international production and the fruit of the composer’s passion, ambition and his deep desire to reimagine classical music for the Namibian ear.
The Namibian-German production is also a platform from which to acknowledge and represent the country’s German colonial history while forging connection and dialogue through creative collaboration.
Though the composer’s humble beginnings are a far cry from the sumptuous stages where opera traditionally takes place, Hindundu – who initially learnt to love classical music singing hymns and choral songs in his church’s choir – first encountered the genre during a College of the Arts Youth Choir trip to America for the World Choir Games.
“During that time in America, we had the choice to either go to a mall or to an opera production,” says Hindundu.
“That was the first time I ever saw an opera. I was so struck by how everything came together. At the time, I was also new to the singing industry. So the way they would lie down and sing in the most uncomfortable positions but then the sound still came out was amazing to me. And I thought, you know what, why don’t I go into this?”
Back home, the idea of pursuing a career in classical music, let alone having ambitions to sing in or stage an opera, seemed truly farfetched. Yet, as the years wore on, Hindundu continued to sing in youth choirs, conduct local high school choirs and compose original music while earning accolades in numerous local and international choir competitions, often under the guidance of acclaimed local conductor Fanie Dorfling.
In 2014, the young Hindundu founded Massive Youth Choir, a community-based choir in Katutura, and he is currently the musical director and founder of Windhoek’s Vox Vitae Singers.
After impressing a visiting professor from the University of the Free State during a music master class in Windhoek, Hindundu was invited to study at the Odeion School of Music in Bloemfontein.
Under the tutelage of conductor and composer Lance Phillip, Hindundu spent three years singing in The Odeion Choir, studying voice and conducting, learning music and composition and familiarising himself with the work of the classical masters.
“The music they were doing was more difficult than the music from my youth. What made it even more difficult was that they were mainly professionals who could sight-read on the go,” says Hindundu.
“So that first year was very difficult. The second year I fell completely in love with classical music, specifically with Renaissance and baroque music,” says Hindundu who cites the music of Händel, Bach and Palestrina as some of his favourites.
After his studies and taking part in the prestigious World Youth Choir in 2018, Hindundu returned to Namibia and was soon invited to be the assistant conductor of the Swakopmunder Musikwoche, where he worked with visiting international conductor and musical director of Germany’s Immling Festival Cornelia von Kerssenbrock. Hindundu was later invited to be an assistant conductor at Immling Festival in 2019.
It was here that Hindundu’s dream of an opera truly took flight. The Immling Festival staged Puccini’s ‘Turandot’, Strauss’ ‘Die Fledermaus’ and Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’, and Hindundu met Mira Meyer, who was working as assistant to the director of ‘Turandot’.
“It was my first time taking part from the very beginning of how an opera is staged and I thought: Wow, this is fascinating. From the costumes to the dancing to the acting to the singing,” says Hindundu. “I was so fascinated that I thought: Why don’t I write an opera?”
Hindundu lobbied the idea to his new friend Mira Meyer and the ambitious duo let the fantasy take hold.
“I knew I wanted to write an opera about someone getting lost in the desert, somebody who was sort of running away and at the end ends up going home,” says Hindundu.
“I started doing some research and that’s when I began getting into the whole history of Namibia. What interests me is that we know so little from before the genocide, before the encounter with the colonial,” says Hindundu. “The story of Maherero really inspired me.”
Over the next couple of years, working through the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic, Frei joined the team as librettist and wrote the libretto. Then, during six months in 2021, Hindundu composed ‘Chief Hijangua’.
“I finished it in December in Munich,” Hindundu says. “I remember sitting in a room, snow coming down, the most iconic view. An experience I’ll never forget.”
As the project began to grow, cast singers and seek funding, the Siemens Arts Program took interest and produced a documentary about the groundbreaking and youthful Namibian opera.
Eventually, after some funding setbacks and scaling down the production, ‘Chief Hijangua’ premiered in Windhoek in 2022, supported by the Siemens Arts Program and Bank Windhoek.
“Classical music has changed my life. So the question has always been how do I bring this to the Namibian people? How will they relate?” says Hindundu who was inspired by the classical music from films and church and by African folk music.
“That’s why even in the beginning of the opera, I used a well-known folk song. I don’t know if people noticed but I used a song about Waterberg, ‘Ndundu Yomeva’. I orchestrated it in a way that it would be familiar with the local listener. So the music was not alien to the ear.”
Based on the success of ‘Chief Hijangua’s’ first iteration, the opera will open in Berlin on 15 September.
The updated opera at Haus des Rundfunks features a Namibian, German and South African cast and will be staged in cooperation with Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Siemens Arts Program with the support of Momentbühne, the Berlin Senate Chancellery and the Berlin Lottery Foundation. The opera will feature Namibia’s Vox Vitae choir and Berlin’s Cantus Domus choir. A children’s version of Namibia’s first opera will also be performed at Berlin’s Humboldt Forum.
“Music is the star of this whole thing, but the staging, the design, the costumes …” says Hindundu with a palpable sense of awe.
“When I saw the orchestra in Germany, I got chills,” Hindundu says. “People just don’t get these kind of opportunities. Especially someone from Katutura. This is a big honour and a dream come true.”
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