The decision to compose No Easy Walk to Freedom grew from my great admiration for Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa — both black and white — as they struggled to overcome the cruel legacy of apartheid. Shortly after Mandelas release in February 1990, I began to imagine a monodrama for my friend and colleague André Solomon-Glover. As I learned more about President Mandelas epic life, my project grew into an evening-long drama.
Even as the project evolved, my original vision remained limited to a psychological narrative of Mandelas life told through music and text — essentially a traditional opera. Only when I turned to traditional African music did my musical and dramaturgical vision open up and the opera acquire new dimensions.
The African music that I use — traditional Zulu songs, protest songs, a Sotho chorus, a Venda ritual song, short instrumental melodies, traditional polyrhythms — challenged me to think of operatic narrative in a different way. The Western classical musical style in which I was trained ideally captures an individual characters internal psychological process. A traditional African melody or chorus is more repetitive or circular than progressive — an eternal collective state rather than a personal narrative.
African music has profound implications for the way that I present the operatic drama. Not just a recognizable leitmotif that distinguishes black South Africans from their white oppressors, traditional South African music in the opera creates a different way of experiencing the story. But these two musical and dramatic conceptions — like the two cultures from which they grew — are not rigidly distinct, and do not necessarily exclude one another. A fluid interaction between the two is, for me, the ideal — musically, dramatically, politically and culturally. As a classically trained, white American composer, my struggle to understand and integrate African music as I composed the opera — that is, to overcome my own narrow vision — helped me understand the struggle against apartheid within the operas story.