Local opera singer’s voice knocks out judges

2014-04-02 00:00

NJABULO Madlala has sung for the queen of England as a full-time opera star in Britain — but he’s never heard a voice like the one that scooped gold in Durban on Sunday.

Bongani Kubheka — the 23-year-old son of a KZN mine worker — became a national singing champion at the gala event at UKZN’s Howard College, in a new competition designed to use the once elite field of opera, of all things, as a short cut from poverty to middle class opportunity.

Having also come from a poor KZN township, Madlala has established and funded the Amazwi Omzansi Africa National Singing Competition as part of a personal mission to create a new breed of self-made and self-employed businesspeople: call them the encore-preneurs.

Madlala’s theory is that KZN’s township youngsters not only have “an instrument for free”, in their voices, to compete for careers within the vast international industry — but that they actually have a built-in advantage over more privileged rivals “because the vowels in Zulu and Italian are so similar; so easy for us to master”.

He revealed that up to 40 “township singers” from South Africa were already employed by opera companies and schools from Portugal to the U.S. and Germany — which has 300 opera companies on its own.

Kubheka, a baritone, picked up a winner’s prize of R10 000 on Sunday. But he said the real value for him and the other 23 competitors was backstage, where a week-long workshop gave the singers instruction in the “business of music” — everything from how to find an agent, to how to create a pension in the non-salaried field.

Madlala said Kubheka’s performance — including a soaring Mozart aria — stunned judges in the finals.

“For the other excellent competitors, there was over an hour’s discussion among the panellists regarding positions. But with Bongani, there wasn’t even debate; I’ve never heard a voice like it. He really is that good — he is going to go very far.”

Even Kubheka’s speaking voice seems to fill up the room. He told The Witness, “It was unbelievable, a wonderful experience. It is hard to imagine that singing has brought me to this point but I believe the career is there if I am disciplined.”

Having grown up in a household of 13 relatives, Kubheka — devoutly religious and shy — said he had “hidden” in the back row of his Newcastle school choir before his rich voice was discovered in Grade 11. Though he dreamed of acting, he planned to study business management and actually missed the admissions deadline for UCT’s school of music. His lecturer, Patrick Tikolo, said he “got him in; we couldn’t resist” after hearing Kubheka’s audition. He also won two competitions last year.

Madlala said at least half of the 24 singers at the event could forge full- time careers in opera — though he admitted that most would have to do so overseas.

But even for the majority of talented singers who don’t crack international stardom, like 2011 world opera champion Pretty Yende, Madlala said classical singing could be the ultimate career networking strategy, linking township students with wealthy benefactors, funded education, other music careers, and “basically a whole new world”.

The winner of last year’s competition, Simon Shibambu, slept in Madlala’s living room in London ahead of a key audition in November, and then won a full scholarship from the Royal College of Music.

“There are great opportunities in the meeting of these two worlds,” he said. “Of course we black singers are proof that opera itself should no longer be thought of as elite, but it has state funding in Europe, and it does tend to have an affluent audience who passionately support it. And South Africans are not just making up the numbers in Europe, they are really making waves. But its not an easy career — one month you might have a concert; the next nothing at all. I need an agent to plan engagements a year ahead of time.”

Despite a shrinking domestic “opera economy” — with regular productions restricted to Cape Town — South Africa’s opera “exports” have boomed. In Germany alone, Pumeza Matshikiza, Vuyani Mlinde, Golda Schultz and Musa Nkuna have all bagged key contracts.

But Madlala said these stars were already studying overseas when they won their contracts — and so, now, he is trying to grow the local competition as a showcase for foreign talent scouts.

“People say, ‘but you are sending our talented singers overseas’. My position is: if you can find work for them here then fine. And many are coming back and using their experience and contacts to stimulate opera here,” said Madlala.

He reckons Durban is “ideally placed” to revive the genre, with one of the country’s few remaining orchestras; the KZN Playhouse run by two opera singers; and “talent like you can’t believe” in the region.

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