Increasingly, South Africa’s new generation of opera singers are putting the country on the map. J. BROOKS SPECTOR met with Kelebogile Pearl Boikanyo on the day she was finalising the details of her flight to Europe for a series of recitals and concerts in Paris and Marseille – as well as participation in the international Hans Gabor Belvedere Opera Competition (held this year in Amsterdam) for young opera singers.
Well, okay, she didn’t win the whole thing this time around, but out of the thousand or so amazing young singers from around the world who competed after they had been selected from even more who first auditioned for such a chance, she almost made it to the final round. And along the way, she garnered a European soloist’s performance contract – even as she was “strutting her vocal stuff” in concerts and recitals at the Sorbonne and elsewhere in France.
Now she is in Marseille for a leading role in Jan Meyerowitz’s opera, “Il Mulatto” that will be performed on 11 July, as part of that city’s Festival Musiques Interdites. Meyerowitz had composed his opera to a libretto by writer Langston Hughes. Kelebogile Boikanyo, the 2012 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for music, is only twenty-five years old, she has been seriously studying voice for less than a decade (in a discipline that usually demands decades of 24/7-style concentration), but she is already firmly on an escalator that is heading sharply upwards.
But, unless one had happened to have been an aficionado of high school choral festivals up north of Pretoria, one would have only heard Kelebogile on stage for the first time a few years ago when she sang the role of the high priestess in Opera Africa’s production of “Aida”. Her performance was a shimmering spellbinder of a thing, the sound coming out of the smoky darkness of the Egyptian temple on the stage. “Who was that?” one heard people in the audience whisper. A year or so later, audiences heard her ravishing performance as Musetta in “La Boheme”. A temptress in a scarlet dress, with her newest older admirer firmly in tow, and with enough attitude on board to make grown men weep; she captured the audience’s hearts as that working girl courtesan with a heart of gold and expensive tastes. Within two years, she was the Standard Bank’s Young Artist Award winner.
So, who is the real Kelebogile Pearl Boikanyo behind such roles? Does she come along with enough attitude to be an operatic diva sufficient to make one dive for cover – or is she a warm, genuinely cheerful human being; delighted to be able to do what she lives for – and for which she seems positively born to do? We sit over coffee and cake and when she is asked about her success so far, she says, “It feels great! I’m still young! So far things have been going well; things have their own time. Still I have a long way to go and things to achieve as an artist. I’m excited about the future. What I want to achieve is a career that will last me forever and for happiness in my personal life. From long ago I said I don’t just want to have a career; I want to have a family. Now I have Catalia – my three-month-old daughter. I have my husband, I get support from them.”
Watch: Kelebogile Boikanyo
Asked about her beginnings as a singer, she notes that, yes, she started singing seriously later than many singers. Still she says, “I think it was meant to be that way.” She says that when she sang her first aria, she felt right at home. “I remember when I got to high school and was introduced to opera, I was just blown away. It was a “Cosi Fan Tutti” aria and I was just fascinated by the sound. A teacher had brought a recording to school for a competition. I convinced myself I sounded just like the singer on the record.”
Soon, she says, she was looking forward to choir periods every day in school, from the beginning of each day. Then, when she had returned home, while doing homework or house chores, “I’d play recordings at home and I’d make up my own words.” This leads us to talking about the challenges of singing in those many languages and she says singing in Italian has come relatively easy for her (and perhaps Russian too) – it is pronounced as it is written and the Italian sounds are like the Setswana ones of her home language.
We talk about the mystery of making an emotional connection to an operatic role, and she explains that recently she was listening to “Madame Butterfly” while sitting on an airplane and “I cried. I was already creating the character, feeling the music. In our community, it is hard to explain sometimes, and I ask, ‘why can’t you feel what’s here?’ Opera allows me to go places in my mind. Crying over ‘Butterfly’ took me somewhere else…but I also love Verdi. I don’t sing a lot of Verdi yet, but I love Verdi.”
We talk about her star turn a year or so ago in Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the one with the sublime vocal part in it and she smiles and says, “The Mahler 4th, I absolutely loved it… Yesterday, I was saying I would love to sing Mahler more. I enjoyed it and it’s beautiful.” The interviewer adds there is so much more very beautiful Mahler vocal music and that prompts her to say, “It would be great to allow audiences and friends to say, ‘I’d love to hear you sing a particular piece of music. After all, the audience sits there and they think of you singing a particular composition.”
And what would she most like to sing in future, “The Verdi requiem, I cry again with that. I heard Leontyne Price sing it [from a recording] and her control is so amazing – what one can do with one’s voice. Your voice doesn’t control you; you control your voice. But I will do that when I’m ready for it. But it is close to my heart.”
Photo: Eglise de Collandre at the Concert Lyrique, Paris contracted by the EUROCULTURE en PAYS GENTIANE (01 June 2013)
And as to what she wants to sing now, she says that when she was singing in “La Boheme” she had the role of Musetta, but she wants to sing the role of Mimi now. “I understand her better now emotionally. We go thru experiences in life and I know what Mimi is now…. Still, I had so much fun with Musetta.” And she adds, “Sometimes in rehearsal different roles can stress you, but I didn’t find that with Musetta. When I did Micaela in “Carmen”, she’s a simple girl and I had to think more about her…. Still, it is a wonderful thing when you come to know your voice. When I sing the first note and I know it is not right – if it feels like that, uh oh. Of course we are supposed to challenge ourselves. But, she recalls, “When I did Musetta, I tried Mimi too and it is ok but didn’t feel right so it means I am not supposed to sing it now.”
Kelebogile has already been thinking ahead as her career moves into a higher gear. She says, “It is not just about singing a role. If you want a long and happy career… I’ve been reading about Maria Callas and I understand you don’t want to sing everything. Yes, I need to challenge [myself] but I need to know what battles to fight, I don’t want to have a short career!”
Asked about the role of Bess in “Porgy and Bess”, her face lights up and she says, “I like that opera! I think I’d have so much fun with Bess! Personally I am not a Bess, I’m quite simple. But I think would enjoy it. And she is a tragic character. She is not a wicked, evil person, but she has no sense of limits. She is a kind of like Carmen. Carmen doesn’t have limits either. Bess’s friends can’t figure out why she’s fallen in love with a cripple. Would I go for Porgy? Why does she go for him? But opera is really life. Opera is real life. It’s like the question, ‘Why are you dating this guy, he’s not in your class?’ ”
Asked what is the hardest thing for her professionally, she explains that there are days when she is really very down, but nobody else understands how she is feeling. “But that’s not that grandmother’s [in the audience] problem. She wants to hear that song she loves and you have to forget about yourself and be Musetta. But I’m still me and I’m not ok, but I [still] have to do it. But I think I’ve coped with that… I’ve always tried to find a way to deal with that.”
We speak about her role models and those in the place ahead of her in her craft, people like Sibongile Khumalo and Pretty Yende, and if she feels like she is the next one in line. She replies, “In every industry you look up to someone. That is not a bad thing when people start comparing. It’s Pretty’s time, I’m happy for her. I do look up to her. And I looked up to Sibongile when I was in high school. She’s a South African and she did it. If you work hard, you’ll do it. There are people who complain about racism… but you just have do what you do. Pretty’s so humble…. I’m not like Pretty; I am not on Facebook [with my fans and supporters] but she gets her energy from that…. But I never say anything about myself on Facebook. There was a time when I couldn’t trust anyone. I learned to keep things to myself. Even when I’m performing, you never see anything about me on Facebook….”
Asked about how or why Africans do or do not connect to opera, and if opera shouldn’t be the easiest form of classical music for Africans to embrace, Kelebogile replies somewhat wistfully, that yes, “it should be easiest for Africans. Yes, there are lots of choral lovers, and they love opera, but then you go back home…. And it’s not everywhere and people still think you’re funny, weird…”
Then the conversation turns to the challenges of a classical music career in South Africa, Agreeing that it is a tough choice, she says, “Yes, it scares me and makes me sad. It makes me nervous and makes me sad. With all of those arts programs in universities, why let these flourish and then criticise the result as a European art form? What is a European art form anyway?… They [the government] pretend to care, but they give you peanuts. It is an issue I am sensitive about and I get very angry. They are only willing to take out the money when there is some big event… I love to live in my own country and have a career here, but why should I suffer? So many young South African opera singers have left the country – all those beautiful voices have left the country. And the same in ballet, they‘ve left the country.” By comparison, she argues, “Wherever you go in Europe they are so excited about you as a South African, as an African.”
We speak about contemporary South African composers; she smiles and says, yes, she enjoyed the challenges of singing in the contemporary classic, “Princess Magogo” by Mzilikazi Khumalo and a new opera, “Ziyankomo”, by Phelelani Mnomiya. These two works, she explains, had a strong choral background to them, but she admits the isiZulu language librettos were a challenge and real learning curve for her. “When I started ‘Magogo’ I knew no Zulu and it made me uncomfortable and made me nervous…. [But] Sibongile Khumalo [who sang the lead in ‘Magogo’] helped me relax and get into the role. She’s very down-to-earth; she’s like your other mom in the townships. And that made me calm.”
We have to finish up – Kelebogile still needs to rush to the bank to exchange some money and then get to the grocery store to stock up on rooibos tea – no coffee, no tea – “I’m a rooibos girl” she giggles, for the time in Europe. But now, following her winning ways in Europe, she’ll eventually be back on these shores and music lovers should make certain they make time to hear her. Sadly, as more and more people discover her voice around the world, those occasions may come less frequently in the future. But this writer is going to work very hard to convince someone to cast her in a production of “Porgy and Bess”, or as Mimi or Cho Cho San, or in any of those other roles just waiting for her to spread her wings and take to the sky. DM
Photo: Kelebogile Boikanyo.
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas