'Ladies' Detective Agency' scribe behind new work

Botswana’s lush, wild Okavango Delta might seem an odd setting for opera buffs. But for Alexander McCall Smith, bestselling author of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, it was the perfect backdrop for his latest venture.

On Oct. 3, with the help of Scottish composer Tom Cunningham and a cast of unknowns, McCall Smith bowed “The Okavango Macbeth,” Botswana’s first opera, in a tin-roof garage on the outskirts of the capital, Gaborone.

The scribe was inspired by a visit to the Okavango, where he came upon a pair of primatologists studying a troupe of baboons. They had been observing the scheming efforts of a female baboon to overthrow her mate — the group’s alpha male — with a powerful rival. For Scots-born writer McCall Smith, the hierarchical tussling, with all its complex plots and sub-plots, seemed almost operatic.

In fact, all it needed was a score.

With Cunningham providing the music and local amateurs offering their vocal chords, “The Okavango Macbeth” gave Verdi’s classic opera its first African makeover. The show shuttered after a successful two-week run last week. And McCall Smith, visiting from Scotland to see the production, seemed pleased with the effort.

The author, who has made a second home — and a considerable career — out of the scenic southern African nation, has announced plans for the opera to tour schools across Botswana. He said he hopes it will introduce the musical form to a country already rich in choral traditions.

“The Okavango Macbeth” was a homespun effort. Most of the opera’s performers were amateurs juggling day jobs. Gape Motswaledi, who played the chief primatologist, is a physics teacher whose only experience as a singer came from choir practice. The only trained singer in the group, 26-year-old Tshenolo Segokgo, returned from studying in a French conservatory to play the role of Lady Macbeth.

The performance space — seating just 70 — was equally modest. The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House, built in the garage of a building once used to recruit laborers for nearby mines, operates as a coffee shop and restaurant by day.

During a recent performance, with the opera house’s garage doors swung open to let in the sounds of the night, the howling of dogs and the clatter of a passing freight train added to Cunningham’s score.

McCall Smith, who helped establish the opera house last year, hopes it will provide a stage for Botswana’s talented but unknown musicians.

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