Who was Nana Yaa Asantewaa, and what was the Golden Stool?
To understand that, we have to go to the year 1900. In the Ashanti region of present-day Ghana, the decades-long struggle against British colonisation came to a culmination point. The British claimed the Golden Stool: a small golden throne that was the symbol of the Ashanti monarchy. The court - or what remained of it after the exile of King Prempeh - came together. The consensus among the weary men was: 'Give them that throne, we'll make a new one.' But that was beyond Nana Yaa Asantewaa. The king's 62-year-old niece made herself heard: if the men wouldn't fight over the Ashanti's soul, she would. She drummed up an army of women, who defended the Golden Stool by force of arms. In the end, the British won. The Gold Coast was taken; the Golden Stool was taken to England. But on arrival, it turned out to be a fake. Our opera is the portrait of the radical woman who still got the last word.
You call The Golden Stool an 'Afropera'. What do you mean by that?
You could say I am staging a musical confrontation between Europe and Africa. I select some iconic compositions from Western music history and rewrite them in the tradition of African 'classical music', which floats on percussion. One by one, they are 'hits' that I admire, by composers such as Vivaldi, Handel, Beethoven, Bizet, Verdi and Shostakovich. I inject their music with African influences, rhythmically, melodically and harmonically. So in a way, I play a game of appropriating cultural symbols, like the English did with the Golden Stool. But I don't steal the music - I just borrow it briefly. (laughs)
How does that musical confrontation translate on stage?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to make this performance with ten black women: two classically trained singers, flanked by a 'choir' of dancers and percussionists. Together, they will tell the story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa in a series of rituals. We will work a lot with body percussion, and the space will also become one big instrument. During the War of the Golden Stool, the female warriors did something ingenious: they surrounded the enemy with hundreds of atumpangs. These are African drums also called talking drums. By scratching over them with a stick, the women simulated the sound of lions. Images like that fascinate me immensely. The trip to Ghana I made last summer also left its mark. There I observed how complex Nana Yaa Asantewaa's legacy is. She is seen as a heroine, but her statue has disappeared and her portrait is no longer on the Ghanaian currency. Few people really know her story. Nana Yaa Asantewaa is a multi-layered character, evoking as much strength as tristesse. We hope to show all those shades.