No. 1 Ladies' Opera House to bring arias to Botswana's bushland

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The Independent Online

It may only be a matter of time before Precious Ramotswe is operatically trilling her way through her private investigations. Alexander McCall Smith, the author of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, has founded Botswana's first opera house, The No. 1 Ladies' Opera House. But the writer, who is himself no mean bassoonist, is keeping his plans for a future world premiere at the new venue firmly under wraps. He's brimming with enthusiasm, however, over immediate plans for his latest project which opens with "a grand-ish concert" on 21 June, sponsored by the Edinburgh-based author.

The building has been transformed from a 1940s recruitment station for miners to an extraordinary performing arts centre cum café in the African bush, about 10 minutes from the capital, Gaborone. McCall Smith first spotted its potential during the making of a BBC documentary about his novels, struck by its resemblance to his fictional Speedy Motors garage, and discovered it was available for lease. In collaboration with the former director of the country's Maitisong Arts Festival, David Slater, their "wonderful, ridiculous idea" began to take shape. Seven staff have been recruited; the café opened a month ago – serving a McCall Smith breakfast special alongside traditional food – and rehearsals for the first musical event are under way.

"There's no tradition of opera here," says McCall Smith, "but choral singing is very popular and an enterprising trio has recently formed itself as the Three Botswana Tenors."

It's scarcely going to be your average Royal Opera House experience, with an auditorium seating between 60 and 80 and – at least for the opening concert – an electronic keyboard, a clavinova. Even a 10- to 12-strong chamber orchestra, brought in from Johannesburg, is a luxury Mr Slater thinks they can't afford at present. "The opening concert," he says, "will combine vocal and instrumental solos by young performers of Botswana, operatic scenes, arias and ensembles, and possibly marimba music from the SOS Children, who feature in the No.1 books."

With tickets costing between £6 and £10, the performances will be affordable, and McCall Smith is adamant that at each performance some seats will be cheaper or even free. "There's a big educational side to all this," he explains, "apart from the project's purpose as a showcase for local talent. I want to help organise training for singers, encourage artistic support at all levels and enrich lives by introducing an art form I suspect people will love. And though there won't be more than two operas each year, it will be an extremely useful venue for all sorts of arts events."

McCall Smith's next novel, La's Orchestra Saves the World, celebrating the healing power of music, is published in November. Meanwhile, auditions are taking place for the Christmas production at the No.1 Ladies' Opera House.