Opera School hones South Africa’s musical talent

Henry

Yonwaba Mbo, a 31-year-old student from Cape Town, says his future initially lay in agriculture, but once the opera bug bit, it was over.

A few years ago, the tall, broad-shouldered South African decided to abandon his agricultural studies and exchange them for the study of lyrical opera.

He is now training for the role of Figaro in the Marriage of Figaro and prepares to take the first steps towards his dream as an opera soloist.

Mbo is a student at the University of Cape Town (UK)’s music faculty, home to probably Africa’s most sought-after opera school.

Pretty Yende, the soprano who sang at the coronation of Britain’s King Charles III this year, honed her skills there, just like other rising stars in the opera world.

Like Yende, who grew up in Mpumalanga, many of the school’s students started singing somewhat late in life, often by accident.

“Before I started studying opera, I always asked myself why these people always shout like that?” Mbo told with a laugh.

“But when the bug bit me, I started to hear and understand the technical side of it and how much work you have to put in to be able to sound like that. I started appreciating the art of it,” he adds.

Because he could not read a musical score, he had to start at the very bottom.

For six years now he has been studying everything to do with opera, spurred on by the idea that someone like him can tell a story through music “in a foreign language”.

He practices his performance of Figaro with Siphosihle Letsoso on the university campus.

Letsoso (23), who comes from Kimberley – and also dreams of a career as a soloist – plays Figaro’s lover, Susanna.

“There is no opera in Kimberley!” she said laughing.

“That’s what really encourages me to just do good. So that one day I can go back and develop the theater there – I want to make it an experience.”

The opera school of the University of Cape Town is the only opera school in the country with a comprehensive curriculum, which includes music, singing, acting and operatic languages, including Italian, French and German.

“There is a lot of talent in South Africa,” says Jeremy Silver, the school’s director, adding that the country is establishing itself firmly on the opera stage worldwide.

School, church and community choirs are ubiquitous in South Africa, which help to expose people to “spontaneous, uninhibited singing” from a very young age, he says.

“What we have to do then is focus that interest, focus their instincts, and teach them all the other skills.”

This year the school held auditions in six cities across South Africa.

The school offers music lessons in underprivileged areas in Cape Town, run by singing teacher Paulina Malefane. She keeps her ear to the ground for promising voices.

In the township of Khayelitsha east of Cape Town, one of the largest and poorest in the country, around thirty school children are learning to sing the C scale.

“One day when you grow up, you will take over my job!” said Malefane encouragingly to a girl who was drawing a treble clef on a white board.

“It is very important to me. I had to learn everything from nothing. If and when my pupils decide to take music or opera… they at least have something to start with. They have a little background in music,” she says.