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South Africa sets stage for opera on high and low notes of Winnie

The life of South Africa's most famous and most controversial woman is being adapted for a new opera, to open next year in Pretoria.

Winnie: The Opera will chronicle the transformation of Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela from heroine of the anti-apartheid struggle to courtroom villain. "She is the perfect operatic character. The highs and lows of her life are too big for a normal dramatic story," said the work's producer and librettist Warren Wilensky.

"It's not about a grand heroine, it's about real life and humanity. She was there at a difficult time with no support and came to personify the struggle. We're trying to tell a fully rounded story that I don't think has been told before."

The opera will combine English and Xhosa, feature a 60-piece orchestra performing western and traditional African music, and be performed at South Africa's State Theatre. It is believed to be the first opera fully composed and orchestrated in the country.

Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela came to attention in 1964 when her then husband Nelson and seven other anti-apartheid campaigners were sentenced to life imprisonment. Left alone to bring up two small children, she was harrassed and, after she printed and distributed anti-regime literature, she was arrested in 1969 and tortured in prison. After her release in the 1970s she emerged as a leader in her own right, and the authorities banished her to a township hundreds of miles from her home. In 1985 she defied the regime and moved back to Soweto.

Her rhetoric increasingly played to the mob, and she began to be viewed as out of control. By 1988, rumours circulated that her bodyguards had kidnapped, tortured and killed a 14-year-old activist, Stompie Moeketsi. She was convicted of kidnapping, and in 2003 was convicted of more than 40 fraud charges, although her sentence was suspended on appeal. Nelson Mandela's release in 1990 signalled the start of her downfall and their marriage did not survive.

But Mrs Mandikizela-Mandela remains on the political stage. Last year, at the age of 73, the African National Congress placed her fifth on their MP list for the next general election.