Africa: Voices Of Opera

Through the interpretation of numerous opera repertories by African singers and authors, new paths are opening up on the stages of the world.

It was during the inauguration ceremony of the XX Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, 2014, in her elegant long red dress, that 38 year-old, Pumeza Matshikiza, nicknamed the ‘Callas of the townships‘, enchanted the thousands of people present in Celtic Park stadium and millions of people who saw her on television with her voice.

Pumeza discovered opera as a teenager almost by accident. One day, while she was switching from one radio channel to another, she heard a piece of the great Swiss soprano Edith Mathis, singing ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. She remained completely enchanted. At that time, however, music lessons were beyond the scope of a Xhosa girl born in a township of the Eastern Cape of South Africa – especially in the last years of apartheid. But as Matshikiza says, “one develops by other means”. She immediately learned African and European music by ear while singing in the local church choir.

Passing from one township to another with her mother, looking for a safer, more peaceful life, she never thought that this fine and elegant voice of hers would be her fortune. Further, Pumeza had never heard her voice recorded until she heard it for the first time at twenty years old while studying at the University of Cape Town. “I remained struck by it”. She recalls: “I didn’t think I had a voice like that”. People had told me. But to hear your own voice. I also heard a lot of mistakes”.

Matshikiza’s career would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Today, she is part of a new generation of black South African opera singers. Her performances with a mix of Mozart and Puccini arias, elegantly orchestrated in Xhosa, Zulu Swahili, both fascinate and enchant.

This young South African opera singer is not the only one in Africa. In the last two decades other opera singers have appeared on the world stages. To distinguish itself in the first place was the school of South Africa, a country that has the advantage of possessing an opera culture. The post-apartheid years revealed great talents, as well as the soprano Pumeza Matshikiza; Pretty Yende, 32, first prize at the ‘Placido Domingo Operalia’ contest in 2011; tenors Sunnyboy Dladla, 33, and Makudu Panyane Senaoana, 25, have also established themselves on the international stage.

In Nigeria, where there is neither conservatory nor opera, talents have emerged such as Omo Bello, winner of the ‘lnternational Paris Opera Competition‘ in 2014; Francesca Chiedu Chiejina, who recently joined the Royal Opera House in London; and Joseph Oparamanuike also known as ‘Mr.Tenor‘, who refuses the title of ‘Pavarotti of Nigeria‘ to claim the right to his own vocal identity.

ln Kenya, the singer Rodha Ondeng created the ‘Baraka Opera Productions‘, which aims to spread the art of opera in his country. We can also mention Agyelang Kofi Offeh, alias Nino of Ghana; Star Mendonca from Mozambique, Batlang Boyce from Botswana; the countertenor Serge Kakudji from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Jacques-Greg Belobo and Elisabeth Moussous from Cameroon.

The operas

From the point of view of the operas, the first performance of ‘L’Africaine’, was held in Paris on the 28th April 1895. A five-act opera by the German composer Giacomo Meyerbber. The work was presented after his death in a performance directed by the Belgian maestro François-Joseph Fétis. It was the story of a princess from a far country, located in an imaginary place in Africa in the libretto, who had to meet the famous Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama. Despite the name, however, ‘LAfricaine’ was not an African word. Many decades had to pass before a real lyric opera created in Africa for African artists was to be seen.

The credit goes to the Britisher Francis Chandler, who, in the early sixties, wrote the music and the libretto (text) of ‘Ondieki, the Fisherman’, the story of a fisherman on the shores of Lake Victoria. At the time Chandler, who was an English teacher at the High School for Limuru Girls, wrote it in order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the school. Inspired by an essay written by Sarah Alai, one of his students, which told the story of a foolish, fisherman called Ondieki, Chandler wrote both the text and the opera music. He wrote the music specifically for the first soprano voice of sixteen year-old Rhoda Ondeng, who in consequence was to become an opera singer of international fame. But it’s only a decade ago since the first works written by African authors and adapted to the local context began to be realised.

The first project, called ‘Opera Bintou Were’, was presented on 17th February 2007 in Bamako (Mali). The music was written for a bambara violin, kora, percussion, flute and balafon. The work recounted the life of a former child soldier tempted by illegal emigration. This production, which had some success between 2007 and 2008, had a pan-African cast: text by Koulsy Lamko (Chad) and Wasis Diop (Senegal); music by Manel Fortes (Guinea-Bissau); directed by Jean-Pierre Ioro (Senegal); choreography by Germaine Acogny (Senegal) and Flora Ernest (Togo); costumes by Oumou Sy (Senegal).

The other project that had some success was ‘Likembe Opera’, the first work in Kiswahili which debuted in 2007 in Lubumbashi – Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, however, the attempt in 2012 to stage ‘Madiba’, the African Opera on Nelson Mandela’s life, did not succeed.

Through the interpretation of the many opera repertoires of these singers and the will of these new authors new perspectives are opening, in a field where Africa has long remained imperceptible.

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