"Chief Hijangua" references the complicated relationship between Germany and Namibia. It aims to provoke discussion about history and common struggles.
Operatic productions have long been known to tackle complex themes of historical significance — from the French Revolution to the rise and fall of dictators like Julius Cesar.
The opera "Chief Hijangua" tells the story of German settlers in South West Africa, in what is present-day Namibia. This dark chapter of Germany's history has recently been the subject of films, art exhibitions and other theatrical works, and now, the first opera written by a Namibian composer will touch on this complicated history and what it means for the present relationship between the two countries.
Presented on September 15, 16 and 17 in Berlin's Haus des Rundfunks, the opera brings together performers from Namibia, South Africa and Germany, under the leadership of conductor and composer Eslon Hindundu, who leads the Rundfunk Symfonie Orchester Berlin, as well as Berlin's Cantus Domus Chor and Vox Vitae Musica, which is dedicated to Namibian choral music. "Chief Hijangua" premiered in the Namibian capital of Windhoek in September of 2022; this will mark its European debut.
Set in a familiar, yet new landscape
Present-day Namibia, named at the time German South West Africa, became a German colony in 1884, despite the land being long inhabited by the Herero and Nama people. In 1904, the Herero people rose up against German colonial rule, and German military commander General Lothar von Trotha issued a notorious "extermination order," which led to what has gone down in the history books as the one of the earliest and biggestgenocides of the 20th century.
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The opera "Chief Hijangua" is set in an imaginary world that resembles the late 19th century and the landscape is similar to that of Namibia. It tells the story of Chief Hijangua's journey to find himself and how he encounters the German settlers. Yet "Chief Hijangua" does not directly tell the story of the genocide, explains the opera's co-director, Michael Pulse.
"We're trying to avoid this idea that this story is based on somebody who has lived before, which is not the case. It is mirroring some of these events that have happened, but we do not tie it directly to the history of Namibia and Germany and the genocide, because it is set in a time period before that — when the German settlers arrived and these two cultures, the Germans and the Herero met for the first time," Pulse tells DW. In this sense, the opera is meant as a prequel to the horrors of the genocide on Namibian soil, he says.
In the Afrofuturistic world in which this opera is set, Germans and Namibians are united, explained Pauls. Performers were not cast based on nationality: "The Germans and the Namibians are playing the villagers; and the Germans and the Namibians are playing the settlers." Pulse and the team wanted to challenge the audience and test how they would view casting not based on skin color or nationality. "Our major is Black, our pastor is Black, we have white soldiers, we have Black soldiers. So how do you feel when you look at this? Do you see the story or do you see color or race?" asks Pulse of the audience.
After all, the themes dealt with by both groups represented in the opera— the German settlers and the Herero people — are the same: "The story in both of these spaces deals with themes of power, jealousy, greed — the fact that women don't have that much control over who they marry, what they say, what they wear," explains Pulse. "So are you seeing those things before you see race?"
Musical styles collide
Musically speaking, the work fuses classical Western music with African music, and features improvisation — an element lacking in the standard classical canon. This pays homage to Namibia's oral musical tradition.
The libretto is bilingual, in Otjiherero and German. The opera's composer, Eslon Hindundu, wrote in the program notes that this was was done to "bring two nations together in harmony," as well as to "open the minds and eyes of Namibians" and "reflect on the journey that Namibians have taken for today's current and future generations."
Indeed, one of the opera's goals is to unite Namibians through music. The team, including Pulse who is from Namibia and German director Kim Mira Meyer, traveled the country selecting props such as woven baskets and clothing items which are used in various regions of the country — and not only by one ethnic group.
Having the European premiere of "Chief Hijangua" in Berlin is packed with significance for Pulse: "Our history has been connecting us from the day that we met and it will still continue connecting us, until the the day history evolves into something else. And that's why we brought it here."
Author Sarah Hucal
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier
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