The same, yet different: re-encoding identity in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha

Published in: Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa
Volume 13, issue 1-2, 2016 , pages: 53–70
DOI: 10.2989/18121004.2016.1263908
Author(s): Santisa ViljoenSchool of Music, South Africa, Marita WenzelSchool of Music, South Africa


This article explores the reconceptualisation of the opera Carmen as a cinematic adaptation of George Bizet’s eponymous opera (1873–1874), situated within an African context. The change in culture and context affects the interpretation of the character Carmen, who emerges as a strong black woman striving for autonomy within a patriarchal and sexist postcolonial South African society. The argument is based on an interpretation of identity as a social construct dependent on the interaction between character and place within a specific period of time – in this context Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town at the beginning of the 21st century. Film director Mark Dornford-May’s and musical director Charles Hazlewood’s portrayal of the modern Carmen as an emancipated woman within a postcolonial / postmodernist context could be traced by interpreting semiotic signs and specific narrative strategies – as found in literature and cinematic texts. The re-encoding of Carmen’s identity in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha questions intransigent or stereotypical perceptions of Carmen as the iconic femme fatale to which audiences have become accustomed. The indigenised production offers recourse to alternative perceptions of Carmen’s identity. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha does not deny the sensuality and femininity attributed to Carmen in the precursory texts, but it depicts Carmen as an even more complex character than the one depicted in Bizet’s opera.

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