Ordinarily, pidgin, a creole language or simply put, a vernacular spoken across parts of West Africa, would not find itself in the architecture of opera. But Nigerian-British opera performer Helen Epega has changed the status quo, infusing Nigerian pidgin and other languages.
She calls her style Pidgin Opera. Epega, who goes by the artistic name “The Venus Bushfires” (symbolizing the birth of possibilities), first introduced the world to pidgin opera in 2015.
The pidgin opera is a product of Epega’s fervent commitment to uniting cultures. Her mission revolves around sharing the vibrant Nigerian and African cultural heritage with the diaspora, serving as the driving force behind her innovative pidgin opera project, according to Okay Africa.
For Epega, she does not only live her African identity on stage but in her daily routine as well. She displays this in the vibrant Ankara fabric she wears and her hairstyle which signifies a symbol of her deep connection to her African roots.
At the age of seven, Epega and her family relocated from Nigeria to London, marking the start of a new chapter in their lives. However, this transition which she was optimistic about was accompanied by a bittersweet realization as she encountered discrimination due to her African heritage.
She recounted those lonely days and feelings of being confused and hurt by the differential treatment she received in London. Despite her pride in being African, she couldn’t comprehend why she was treated differently.
This early experience became a powerful motivator for her to work towards establishing a space where Africa would be celebrated and where Africans in the diaspora could take pride in their heritage. But, her epiphany moment was when she made a trip to Nigeria in 2008. It was not only transformative but had a profound impact on Epega’s worldview. She said she developed new hope and a strong desire to share Nigerian culture with the diaspora community.
Her visit inspired her to create a dialogue by wearing traditional hairstyles and clothing. In her London home, she proudly displayed numerous artifacts from Benin to create an environment that showcases Africa as bold, vibrant, and deserving of love and respect.
In 2013, Epega recalled receiving a memorable invitation to the Royal House Opera, marking her first opera attendance and a pivotal moment in her journey. She arrived at the opera house adorned in vibrant traditional attire, including a massive gele, driven by her passion to proudly represent her African identity.
Her experience at the event, along with interactions with attendees, ignited her vision to establish a classical-like movement that champions African culture. Inspired by the occasion, she decided to infuse a “pidgin” style into her efforts, aiming to make African culture more accessible and relatable to a broader audience. Today, she is behind “Song Queen”, the world’s first Pidgin opera.
Since she found her rhythm, there is no stopping for it. Epega is actively shaping the future of the opera she leads. She aims to release a live recorded album of the performance to reach a broader audience. Her ambitions include making the opera as successful as renowned productions like “The Lion King” and “Hamilton.” She hopes to secure a dedicated theater for the show to extend its runtime and envisions the possibility of a global tour.