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‘Okavango Macbeth’ is Botswana’s first opera

'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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