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Opera voices from the sun

On international stages, South Africa’s soul-stirring opera voices garner such admiration that they’re believed to be the result of a mysterious alchemy of oxygen, water and fierce sunlight. That, or it’s the fire in our blood.
Opera

While the Brits were anointing their king, for music lovers worldwide the true crowning moment was hearing Pretty Yende sing.

Yende, who has gone from rural Piet Retief to headline engagements at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, and now also into living rooms around the world during Charles III’s coronation, is about as close to a household name as one finds in the world of opera, a veritable soprano superstar.

From humble beginnings in Mpumalanga, where she learnt church choruses – or amakhorasi – from her grandmother and sang at home with members of her family, she found her way, via school and community choirs, to an earnest interest in opera.

But it was the singing competitions and eisteddfods that got her noticed, winning the national schools championship performing Mozart’s ‘Batti, Batti, O Bel Masetto’ and landing her a place in UCT’s opera programme.

Opera

She was soon winning just about every competition she entered, and has over the last 20 years become a measure of the unprecedented potential and power of the trained voice; the apotheosis of what the human vocal instrument is capable of. That much was clear to future-king Charles when he witnessed her sing at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebrations at Windsor Castle in 2022 and personally asked her to perform at his coronation.

And while that episode in her career has once-in-a-lifetime significance, Yende is by no means the only South African opera singer whose flame has ignited international acclaim.

There’s UCT-trained Pumeza Matshikiza, who was born in Lady Frere and now lives in Berlin; bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, another UCT graduate who went from PE to Philadelphia in the US where he’s been based for several years; and virtuoso soprano Golda Schultz who, after two years with Africa’s premiere opera company, Cape Town Opera (CTO), successfully auditioned for the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.

Opera

Another showstopper talent is UCT-trained Levy Sekgapane whose bel canto tenor voice won him the International Belvedere Singing competition in 2015; it’s an achievement he shares with Yende, who won in 2009. He followed in Yende’s footsteps again in 2017, when he took top honours at Operalia, Plácido Domingo’s ‘World Opera Competition’, where Yende had triumphed in 2011.

Winning the world’s most prestigious singing competition significantly boosted Sekgapane’s international career – he tours Europe, and now also the US, almost constantly. For the better part of a decade he’s been based in Munich, Germany. He says being in Europe is vital for his career since his engagements are tied to his specialised repertoire, those parts he’s most often hired to perform.

While Yende has in part made a name for herself by shattering various glass ceilings (such as being the first Black opera singer to perform Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in Paris), Sekgapane has become an expert in the deeply demanding, specialised role of Count Almaviva, the young Spanish grandee in Rossini’s Barber of Seville. It’s the part he’s performed most in his career. ‘I cannot even count how many times I have sung the role,’ he says.

Recently he’s performed a series of duets touring Europe with American tenor, Robert Brownlee, one of opera’s most in-demand singers. And he calls legendary Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli his ‘stage wife’, having performed with her on a tour last year. He’s also sung with Plácido Domingo.

Quite a feat for a lad raised in the small Free State town of Kroonstad, where he sang at church, at school, and by age 13, was imitating Pavarotti, much to his friends’ amusement.

In May, shortly after Yende had raised Westminster Abbey’s roof, Sekgapane had a rare opportunity when his touring schedule enabled him to perform on home turf. He was in Cape Town (where he had – somewhat reluctantly – studied opera) to sing the role of Nadir, a lovestruck fisherman, in CTO’s semi-staged production of The Pearl Fishers, an obscure early opera by Georges Bizet (who later wrote Carmen).

Despite its obscurity, the opera features fantastic duets and a very difficult aria that Nadir sings in the first act that totally breaks your heart.

Bizet’s music is beautiful, although it’s probable the full houses the show attracted would have turned up had Sekgapane been singing nursery rhymes – he is a true virtuoso who took Bizet’s challenging aria in his stride.

Opera

Audiences went wild, something Sekgapane has become used to in Europe, where at his many packed recitals, he says audiences express immense appreciation for South African voices. ‘They’re crazy about these concerts,’ he says. ‘People are talking about the talent coming out of this country. Everybody in the business is talking about us, too. My colleagues say things like, “Oh, my god! What do you guys eat there?”’

But of course, it’s not the diet – and it’s not something in our water, as some suggest. ‘It is in our blood,’ Sekgapane says. ‘Music is in our veins, we are born with it, this something special.’

He believes it’s down to our country’s rich diversity and our culture of celebration that always involves singing. ‘We celebrate almost every moment. At funerals, at weddings, any big moment. And our huge choir competitions have long been an important tradition. So we are always singing – it’s part of our lives, part of who we are.’

Some of that celebratory spirit will be bubbling up in Cape Town this year, when the 30th anniversary edition of Operalia, the competition that helped launch Yende and Sekgapane internationally, will be held at the Artscape Theatre Centre from 30 October through 5 November. Hosted by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and Cape Town Opera, it’ll be the first time the event happens in Africa.

Sponsored by Rolex, the weeklong competition will not only see some top international singers visiting to compete, but will also spotlight several of the most promising opera talents from South Africa. Among the rising stars shortlisted to compete is Pretty Yende’s younger sister, Nombulelo, another skilled soprano who has been winning competitions and carving out a career for herself in Europe.
Who knows? Perhaps she – or another of our sun-drenched singing stars – will be raising the roof when a king called William is one day crowned.

By Keith Bain

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