Ondieki the Fisherman: Kenya’s first ever opera

Friday May 04 2012

Part of the cast and Linda Muthama. Pictures: Philip Ondeng’

In Act II of the opera Tosca (1900) by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), the chief of police Baron Scarpia tells the famous singer Floria Tosca that if she agrees to sleep with him, he will release from prison her lover, Mario Cavaradossi.

Distraught at finding herself in such a difficult situation, she sings Vissi d’arte (I lived for art) lamenting “I lived for art, I lived for love... in the hour of grief, why, Lord, why dost thou reward me thus?”

As a curtain raiser at the gala night of the first ever Kenyan opera Ondieki the Fisherman, Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen sang this famous aria, Vissi d’arte. Even though these particular circumstances were far more appealing than Tosca’s, the title of the song must have rung true for Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen, because this is a woman who has certainly lived for art.

Ondieki the Fisherman was written 39 years ago by Francis Chandler, who was then the head of English at Limuru Girls’ High School, to commemorate the school’s 50th anniversary. Inspired by an essay by his student Sarah Alai, which recounted the tale of a foolish, wife-battering fisherman called Ondieki, Chandler wrote both the libretto (text) and music of the opera. He wrote the music for the lead soprano Mariam specifically for the voice of the 16-year-old Rhoda Ondeng,’ who has since gone on to become an internationally renowned opera singer.

Until now, Ondieki has lived only in the memory of Chandler, Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen and the former students of Limuru Girls’, including Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch, who was the guest of honour at the gala night of the opera’s revival.

However, thanks to cyberspace, Chandler and Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen recently contacted each other, after which Chandler rewrote the opera to include male voices and Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen was the producer of the historic revival of Ondieki the Fisherman at Braeaburn Theatre on the stormy night of Friday, April 20.


Mariam was played by Elizabeth Njoroge, Charles Dickens Awany was Ondieki, Ben Katumba was the chief, Maggie Gitu was the witchdoctor and Linda Muthama made a very memorable storyteller.

The story is set in the village of Bandari on the shores of Lake Victoria, where the storyteller and the villagers in the chorus Mjinga, tell the story of Ondieki and his battered wife Mariam. When the witchdoctor arrives, the villagers ask her to perform some magic, which she has never succeeded in doing, but this time, to her horror and surprise, her words “turn the singer’s tale into present scenes” actually come to pass.

The Ballet of the Mending of the Nets marks the “turning” of the scenes from the singer’s tale into “present scenes” and also depicts the fate of Ondieki, who eventually drowned in the lake, dragged down by his own nets, which he always refused to mend.

In these “past scenes” Ondieki ignores the advice of the village chief and continues to batter his wife Mariam who, after some reflection in her aria Long Ago, puts together her belongings and leaves him the following morning at dawn.

The music is melodic and pleasant to listen to, even for an audience that is not well acquainted with opera, perhaps because it has more arias (“proper” songs) and choruses than recitatives (singing that sounds more like speaking).

The production as a whole was a showcase for Kenyan talent, with Alakie Mboya-Owuor as the director, Kiggundu F. Musoke conducting the orchestra and refreshingly innovative choreography by Jade Pesa and Julius Owiti. The chorus comprised singers from the choirs Cantus in Choro and Taifa Mziki and former students of Kenyatta University. All this is a promising sign that with appropriate funding, there is enough talent in Kenya to create world class theatre productions.

What makes it Kenyan?

But what makes this a Kenyan opera?  Is it because the story is based on a fictitious village on the shores of Lake Victoria, about a fisherman called Ondieki or is it because of the Kenyan costume with villagers dressed in colourful lessos, except for two in Maasai attire despite the lakeside setting, or is it because it is produced by a Kenyan opera singer who was in fact the original  lead soprano? It is a Kenyan opera for all these reasons and the fact that in many ways its journey, from when it was first written to its restaging in April,  reflects all the things that define what we call Kenya, including the “Englishness” that we are wont to deny.

Over the centuries, magnificent opera houses have been built, with stages that can hold elaborate scenery, pits that can accommodate symphony orchestras, auditoriums that sit a thousand people at the very least and architecture and interiors that create a sense of grandeur, affluence and aesthetic refinement.

It is in such opera houses that Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen has nurtured her talent and built her career. In a brief telephone interview the week following the Braeburn peformance, she told me that her most memorable performance was in Porgy and Bess at Glyndebourn Opera House in 1987.

Glyndebourne is a manor house that has stood in Sussex, England since the 1600s, and has housed the Glyndebourne Festival Opera since 1934, except during the Second World War. I imagined that the experience of singing in such a space must have been breathtaking and I wondered how that compared to singing in the 416-seat Braeburn theatre for Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen.

She answered that it was a very enjoyable experience but  acknowledged the need to build a proper theatre in Kenya — one that can hold large-scale productions like operas.   

Opera was developed in an attempt to recreate Greek theatre, during the European Renaissance.

It is not coincidence that the pursuit of high art is always marked by a rising middle class. It is therefore not a coincidence that Kenya is producing its first opera (albeit a 40 revival) in 2012.  

Anne Manyara is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics