Chandler Carter Composer


“The rich baritone voice of André Solomon-Glover reverberated, “There’s no easy walk to freedom . . . freedom, freedom. . .” in the vast space of Riverside Church last Friday night. The opera No Easy Walk to Freedom, with words and music by Chandler Carter, pays tribute to Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa, but the work is more than political history. The piece is a statement against apartheid —“apartness”—everywhere, whether racial, political, or artistic.

A chronicle of Mandela’s life, from his 27 years in an isolated prison cell to his political victory in the election of April 1994, the opera appears to be direct, even simplistic. Yet although the events follow a general chronological order, the work operates on different levels to reveal Carter’s true genius and courage.

The opera begins in Mandela’s prison cell on Robbin Island. Nelson Mandela (Solomon-Glover) is physically confined by “four walls, nine feet high,” but his fight for freedom extends far beyond the constraints of his brown prison uniform.

The path to liberation is not simple; there is no easy walk to freedom. The fight to unify South Africa, black and white alike, takes its toll on Mandela’s family life. In a scene depicting the couple before Mandela’s arrest, his wife Winnie (Diana Solomon-Glover) admits, “I knew when I married you that the nation would come first.” The two, seated together in the middle of the stage, are physically and emotionally connected, their voices in harmony.

Ironically, the fight against apartheid creates a chasm in the marriage. Torn between politics and family, Nelson chooses politics. He recognizes his role as a voice for many; in the court battle that lands him in jail, he asserts, “This is more than the trial of Nelson Mandela.” Winnie is left alone to raise their two daughters.

Despite her solitude, Winnie finds her own voice. At first in the shadow of her husband, she realizes, “I am not a copy of him . . . I am my own person.” She, too, fights to end racial divisions but does so independently of her husband.

The conflict between the two reaches its climax in a dramatic moment accentuated by discordant music. Nelson and Winnie occupy different sides of the stage; he is on the left in a suit, and she is on the right in a gold-trimmed purple robe. As the two duel with words, their personal conflict is reflected at the back of the stage. Two dancers clasp each other’s hands and arch their backs against each other, representing the Mandelas’ divergent interests through movement.

When Winnie reluctantly walks off the stage, Nelson is alone as he had been in the beginning. In 1994 he visits the prison cell on Robbin Island, alone in the spotlight. This circular path of meaning reflects non-Western tradition. As Carter writes in the program’s explanatory note, African music “is more repetitive or circular than progressive,” and he increases the depth of the work’s meaning as the two traditions interact.

Although Mandela was released in 1990, South Africa is still fraught with divisions, in a sort of symbolic prison. Conflict among Zulus in the Natal province, led by Chief Buthelezi, has led to the creation of the Zulu homeland movement. Poverty and hunger persist, and as the election nears, violence escalates. The fight against apartheid seems to have led to even more divisions.

The opera itself seems to challenge divisions as it moves between Western and African music and movement. At the beginning the traditional operatic scenes are separated by musical interludes with South African song and dance. These fragments are the bits and pieces the opera attempts to reconstruct in order to give life to the idea of South African diversity. Yet, as if to parallel the cultural reality of the time, the African influence is secondary to the Western operatic theater.

As black people gain a larger voice, the distinction between the so-called Western and African styles becomes more blurred. The segments, once so distinct, blend together in the fluid connection of one scene to the next. Indeed, the final scene symbolically recreates the overthrow of apartheid—the entire cast is onstage, singing in both English and Zulu, accompanied by both African drums and string instruments.

As Carter explains, the two musical and theatrical forms work together to create different ways of experiencing the story, ranging from a historical progression to a circular, collective experience. The opera is both things at once, according to Carter: “A fluid interaction between the two is, for me, the ideal—musically, dramatically, politically, and culturally.” Maybe it is time to stop separating art and life.

Marie Yereniuk, The Columbia Spectator, October 17, 2001

“The opera is a selective telling of Mandela’s political career, from the early Defiance Campaign through his incarceration and eventual election as president. Scenes from Mandela’s life, such as his sentencing or his poignant attempts at maintaining connection with his wife, Winnie, are interspersed with the scenes of South African public life in which a vocal quartet sings arrangements of traditional South African music. Behind them on stage, projected headlines chronicle the African National Congress’ ongoing struggle against the apartheid government.

The work was most notable for its juxtaposition of its two musical centers: the western classical language and the traditional folk music of South Africa. In the first act, the two musical poles maintained an uneasy distance, presumably representing the separation between white and black South Africans.

In the second act, Carter attempts to bring them closer, though the balance remains tentative. . . Carter has a clear talent for embroidering vocal melodies with obbligato accompaniment from the orchestra.. . .[T]he work is a compelling musical recounting of a story with its own inherent dramatic power. André Solomon-Glover was both commanding and soulful as Mandela, capturing the complex relationship between private doubt and public confidence. His actual wife, Diana Solomon-Glover, sang the role of Winnie, and affectingly portrayed her character’s emergence as a political force of her own accord. ”

—Jeremy Eichler New York Newsday, November 20, 2000

“Composer/librettist Chandler Carter has grasped the characters of both Mandelas and devised an effective vehicle for their story. The result is entitled No Easy Walk to Freedom, ‘an opera in two parts.’ But the world premiere, in Manhattan’s Riverside Church, was severely challenged by the venue’s acoustics. . . The sanctuary is a vast, beautiful space, recalling the great cathedrals of Europe — but one is reminded that the musical forms developed in cathedrals were chants and chorales, not operas.

Some scenes did register clearly: a tender duet in Part I, in which Winnie tries to persuade Nelson to give up his struggle and lead a quiet life (he refuses); and strong choral numbers in Part II, as black South Africans comment on Mandela’s imprisonment and anticipate his release. The opera concludes in a sequence illustrating the buildup to South Africa’s first free nationwide elections.

Carter intersperses choral interludes, mostly comment numbers, in the Zulu and Xhosa languages (texts in English projected on a screen upstage) among narrative scenes in a lyrical, thoroughly Western idiom; some numbers included traditional African instruments. Unfortunately, the chamber orchestra, led by Helen H. Cha-Pyo, was the principal victim to the hall’s acoustics: Cha-Pyo kept her thirteen players together in a supple, lively reading, and one occasionally heard lovely orchestral effects, especially from the strings.

... This was very much a community effort: the opera was presented by Music at Riverside and the Social Justice Commission, with funding from the church’s Special Initiatives Fund. The premiere was a benefit to fight AIDS in South Africa, and it was prefaced by remarks from church leaders; a performance at a local school was scheduled to follow.”

William Maddison, Opera News, January, 2002