No Easy Walk to Freedom

words by Chandler Carter

No Easy Walk to Freedom is an evening-length musical drama based on the life of South African president Nelson Mandela. The story chronicles the struggle to overthrow apartheid by focusing on Mandela’s imprisonment from 1963 to 1990, his release, and his election as President in 1994. But No Easy Walk to Freedom is more than the story of a single individual. It dramatizes the struggle and sacrifices of an entire nation — both the cruel hardships suffered by the oppressed and the fears and uncertainties of the oppressors. The opera directly addresses the awful repercussions of choosing violence as a response to oppression.


The drama begins with Mandela in jail, teaching himself Afrikaans. He recalls the campaign of defiance in the 1950’s, the non-violent phase of the struggle against Apartheid that culminated in the massacre by police of over 100 protesters at Sharpeville. The incident prompts Mandela to resort to sabotage, a turning point in his life, for it forces him into hiding and destroys his personal and family life. He is eventually arrested, tried and sentence to life in prison.

Part two focuses on the continuation of the struggle in Mandela’s absence and the agitation for his release. Mandela’s wife Winnie emerges as a forceful leader. Her repeated arrests and eventual banishment to internal exile forge in her a more radical identity. The authorities offer Mandela clemency in return for his renunciation of violence, but he refuses.

As unrest intensifies and boycotts from Western countries isolate the white government, the prime minister relents and Mandela is released in 1990.

Even with Mandela’s release, success is not guaranteed. Fratricidal conflict among Zulus in the Natal province, as well as pressure for radical solutions to the black/white conflict from both whites and blacks threaten to disrupt the planned elections. This 40-year episode in South Africa’s struggle for freedom concludes with Mandela’s election as President in May, 1994.


The story of the opera is presented in a variety of ways. It is framed by a prologue and epilogue, presented as an African-American work song and set to a text from an early speech by Mandela, “There’s no easy walk to freedom anywhere.” Traditionally operatic scenes are connected by interludes that feature dancers and a solo quartet or chorus singing music indigenous to South Africa. During these interludes, placards or screen projections convey the events of South African history (the Sharpeville massacre, Mandela’s arrest, the Soweto uprising, his release).

Musically and theatrically distinct from the operatic music of the scenes, the African music of the interludes expresses black South Africans’ experience of the struggle, either through collective protest, mourning or celebration. In Part I, the scenes and interludes are clearly separated – a sort of musical/theatrical apartheid. As the barriers between the races gradually weaken, the contrasting Western classical and African musical styles become more fluidly incorporated. During one scene (Part II, scene 2), in a duet with a white prison guard, the soprano sings a traditional Zulu lullaby to evoke the image of Mandela interacting with his newborn grandchild during a prison visit.

The “African” music, which in the first part is decidedly secondary to the “Western-style” opera, literally takes center stage in Part II as black South Africans struggle to have a say in their country. This transformation climaxes in the celebratory dance that coincides with Mandela’s release (Part II, scene 5).

Thus, the overthrow of apartheid is realized musically through the integration of traditional African and Western classical music and linguistically through the juxtaposition of indigenous South African languages and English.

The libretto is based largely on the writings and speeches of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. First depicted as her husband’s strong ally, Winnie evolves into a distinctly independent voice that represents a radical challenge to his effort to reconcile with the white authorities. The perspectives of white South Africans – a prison guard, a judge, the governor of Mandela’s prison – also play an important part in the opera. These characters demonstrate how apartheid undermined the freedom of the entire society, and acknowledge the various roles, both negative and positive, played by white South Africans. These various “voices” — Mandela’s, the white authorities, Winnie’s and other voices of protest — each possess their own distinctive music. Their interaction, whether juxtaposed in irreconcilable conflict or fused, forms the substance of the musical drama.

“The opera pays tribute to Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa, but the work is more than political history. The piece is a statement against apartheid —“apartness”— everywhere, whether racial, political, or artistic. A chronicle of Mandela’s life, from his 27 years in an isolated prison cell to his political victory in the election of April 1994, the opera appears to be direct, even simplistic. Yet although the events follow a general chronological order, the work operates on different levels to reveal Carter’s true genius and courage.” — Marie Yereniuk, The Columbia Spectator


Nelson Mandela (baritone)

Winnie Mandela (soprano or mezzo-soprano)

Judge/Prison Governor/Prime Minister DeKlerk (bass-baritone)

Zulu Chief (tenor)

Solo Quartet (SATB)

small chorus (SATB)



flute, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, two percussionists, piano, single strings


No Easy Walk to Freedom was premiered on October 12, 2001 at The Riverside Church in New York City; Helen Cha-Pyo, conductor.