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Almost unknown at home, Musa Ngqungwana has sung in the world’s opera capitals, writes Claire Keeton

Published in the Sunday Times

Musa Ngqungwana’s memoir talks about the man behind the voice. Pic: Simphiwe Nkwali. © Sunday Times

 
Odyssey of an African Opera Singer
***
Musa Ngqungwana, Penguin Books, R250

Performing the title role of Porgy in New York last year, PE-born opera star Musa Ngqungwana looked out into the dark behind the conductor and saw rows of people crying. “Then the curtain came down. We got a standing ovation. We came out for four bows,” he says, his eyes misty. “It was a surreal moment.”

From his early days in a church choir bass-baritone Ngqungwana has performed in the US, Canada, UK, Norway and Italy and won critical acclaim internationally.

When he turned 16 he applied for a passport. As a teenager scraping by in Zwide, he told no one about standing in line for a passport. “A classmate once told me I was a dreamer when I said that one day I would travel the world,” he wrote in his new memoir, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer.

This expands on his first self-published memoir with revealing insights about his life, including how hard he found the absence of his father while growing up.

The first black man he saw singing opera in a video, bass-baritone Willard White, inspired him as a schoolboy to follow his voice. Now at age 35, he has never looked back.

In Joburg for an interview, Ngqungwana says: “I know 10 guys who can outsing me or act better but only 5% of opera is about singing. Your brain is 95%.”

Ngqungwana lives in Philadelphia, US, where he moved to study at the acclaimed Academy of Vocal Arts after graduating from UCT magna cum laude. His immersion into the academy was a shock.

French pianist Laurent Philippe was brutal in his first coaching session. “He arrived late on purpose and said hello to me in French. As I started singing he said: ‘I hear this remarkable voice but it does not match what I’m seeing.’ He was very rude about my weight and called me a black rhino.”

But they formed a good relationship and Philippe even accompanied Ngqungwana to South Africa as his pianist when he entered the Standard Bank Young Artists competition at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in 2015.

The night that Ngqungwana triumphed in Grahamstown was one of the highlights of his career. Growing up he couldn’t afford to go to the SA Music Awards (Samas) when they were held in PE.

Ngqungwana said: “This is why performing there was a big deal for me, it was our (classical) version of the Samas.”

He wondered whether people would come from his childhood home 120km away because it was raining that night and opera was seen as Eurocentric. He said: “Philippe said to me: ‘I thought we were coming to Africa but we have done two concerts and hardly seen any black people.’”

Ngqungwana’s first choirmaster, Makhaya Msizi, was in the audience though his mother was not. He has struggled with his absent father and estrangement from most of his family most of his life, yet seems to have made peace with this, and helps his mother. “I do not cling to the past,” he said.

Ngqungwana’s vulnerability and vision shine through in this account of his inspiring life. He is meticulous, even pedantic, about paying tribute to the many people who helped him at every stage of his life. His honesty gives a glimpse of his life offstage, of the man behind the costumes and the face paint.

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