Dramatised production of St John’s Passion in Soweto

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Umculo presents Bach's St John's Passion at the end of May.
Umculo presents Bach’s St John’s Passion at the end of May.

Music-lovers in Joburg and Soweto can experience Johann Sebastian Bach’s masterpiece, the St John’s Passion, in an innovative production at the end of May.

Written in 1724, it tells one of the greatest stories of human history … the final days of the life of Jesus Christ as narrated in the writing of Gospel author St John.

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An Umculo Opera Incubator Production, PASSION is a new dramatised production of Bach’s vision of human suffering and compassion, an extraordinary work with some of the most beautiful and rich music ever compose. It comes to Soweto’s Meadowlands Seventh-day Adventist Church in Mpolokeng Street from Friday 25 May to Sunday 27 May.

PASSION is directed by the renowned South African director Kobie van Rensburg and conducted by Felix Bender (from Germany). It brings together diverse South African community choirs and professional musicians from South Africa and Europe, uniting performers in an unprecedented and ambitious venture.

In rehearsal with Umculo Opera Incubator for the May production of St John's Passion.
In rehearsal with Umculo Opera Incubator for the May production of St John’s Passion.

This will be the first time that one of Bach’s oratorios has been dramatised in South Africa. In keeping with its commitment to both community and musical excellence, Umculo brings professional soloists and an orchestra playing historic instruments at baroque pitch to Soweto.

“The idea of human suffering explored in this magnificent piece is something that most South African communities are too intimately acquainted with, “says van Rensburg, who in 2016 directed the acclaimed LAMENTO at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. “We’re working towards not just representing this seminal work, but truly interpreting it in a way relevant to our communities.”

The oratorio is packed with virtuosic passages for choirs and soloists, and it contains some of the most timeless melodies; many are of popular church hymns which audience members will clearly recognise.

Bach composed his work around Lutheran chorales which are accessible and strong, in order to draw in his congregations through active participation. These will be performed by community choirs, including the Hillbrow Outreach Foundation’s newly-formed youth choir (Phiwe Makaula), the Meadowlands Seventh-day Adventist Church Choir (Mokale Koapeng), the 4Fourty Chamber Choir (Siegfried Pretsch), and the Choir of Christ Church Arcadia (George King), the Umculo Ripieno Ensemble (Pieter Bezuidenhout), UP Voice Students (Hanli Stapela), Water in Wine Society (Paul Pretorius) and the Northwest Choral Clinique (Patrick Tsotleho Motshabi), in the unconventional space of Soweto’s Meadowlands Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The choirs are joined by soloists Linelle Wimbles, Antoinette Blythe, Stephen Schalkwyk, Monica Mhangwana, Albertus Engelbrecht, Siyabonga Maqungo, Phiwe Makaula and Ronald Melato.

Shirley Apthorp, director of Umculo, says, “Rehearsing and performing the St. John’s Passion, at baroque pitch, in Soweto, bringing together a very diverse group of young South African artists and community choirs, is a huge undertaking. But it fits perfectly with Umculo’s DNA, and we’re taking up the challenge! If at the same time we can give more people access to the empowering force of music and theatre and create job opportunities for young South Africans, I would be very pleased.”

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