MATTERS OF OBSESSION
Pumeza Matshikiza: South African opera singer and Covid-19 survivor looks to the future, not the past
She has survived lockdowns, travel bans and a bout with the coronavirus to triumph in two roles in the same opera – ‘Porgy and Bess’ – in Vienna.
Like so many performing artists around the world this year, South African singer Pumeza Matshikiza has survived a particularly trying year. Her big open air concert at Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Gardens did not take place because of the lockdown. Other projects have also been cancelled or postponed.
Then she came down with a serious case of Covid-19 herself.
Just weeks after fighting her way through its debilitating effects – including an extended hospital stay – Matshikiza insisted on fulfilling her commitment to sing in the Theatre of Vienna’s production of the American classic, “Porgy and Bess”, alternating between the title role of Bess and the role of Serena, throughout its run.
When “Porgy and Bess” was first staged on 10 October 1935 in New York City, it became an instant hit. It remains one today, and is a true landmark in opera and American musical theatre.
Still, the debate remains over whether it is an opera, a folk opera, a sophisticated, jazz-inflected work of musical theatre or some magical amalgam of them all.
It has become the archetype for all the American operas that would follow it to the stage.
When the Metropolitan Opera in New York City revived the work in 2019, The New York Times music critic wrote, “Is ‘Porgy’ – which features some of the best-loved songs by one of America’s greatest songwriters (‘Summertime,’ ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So,’ ‘I Loves You, Porgy’), as well as mighty choruses and bold orchestrations – an opera or a musical?”
It returned to Broadway in 2012 in a stripped-down form. But since 1976, when Houston Grand Opera brought it back to the opera house, it has often been proclaimed as – you can almost hear the capital letters – the Great American Opera.
“More urgently, is ‘Porgy’ a sensitive portrayal of the lives and struggles of a segregated African-American community in Charleston, S.C.? (Maya Angelou, who as a young dancer performed in a touring production that brought it to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1955, later praised it as ‘great art’ and ‘a human truth.’)
“Or does it perpetuate degrading stereotypes about black people, told in wince-inducing dialect? (Harry Belafonte turned down an offer to star in the film version because he found it ‘racially demeaning.’)
“Is it a triumph of melting-pot American art, teaming up George and Ira Gershwin (the sons of Russian Jewish immigrants) with DuBose Heyward (the scion of a prominent white South Carolina family) and his Ohio-born wife, Dorothy, to tell a uniquely African-American story?
“Or is it cultural appropriation? The fact that the most-performed opera about the African-American experience is the work of an all-white team has not been lost on black composers who have struggled to get their music heard.
“And has the Gershwins’ insistence that ‘Porgy’ be performed only by black artists – originally aimed at keeping it from being done in blackface – helped generations of black singers by giving them the opportunity to perform on some of the world’s great stages?
“Or has it pigeonholed some of them, limiting the roles they are offered?”
Some big questions there.
When the curtain went up, on one night she was Bess; then, in the next performance, she became Serena – alternating like that with other singers all the way through the run.
When rehearsals in Vienna for “Porgy and Bess” moved forward with all the precautions needed to cope with the pandemic, it became clear that, on top of everything else happening in her life, Matshikiza would now need to double up, covering two big roles.
There was all that additional music to learn – in a great hurry!
And so, when the curtain went up, on one night she was Bess; then, in the next performance, she became Serena – alternating like that with other singers all the way through the run.
When we spoke about her efforts and challenges, she admitted that through it all, she really missed her dog, Rocky (one of those energetic Bichon Frise canines), left in the care of friends back in Berlin, where Pumeza is now based.
But she reassured me (and herself, I suspect) that she and Rocky meet through frequent virtual meetings when she is performing elsewhere. No scoffing allowed!
The life of a classical singer may seem glamorous, but it has many obstacles and challenges. It often means too much travel and living out of suitcases in hotel rooms and BnBs. Having a beloved pet helps keep one centred, even when singer and dog are temporarily resident in separate countries.
By now, Pumeza Matshikiza has travelled an immense distance over the course of her professional and personal journey, even as she explains her discovery of opera came quite by accident.
As a teenager, she was switching between local radio stations when she encountered a broadcast by the great Swiss soprano Edith Mathis, singing music from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”. From that moment, Matshikiza says she was hooked on this art form, so different from anything she had encountered before.
But the reality of music lessons was beyond the financial reach of her family, living in the Eastern Cape during the final years of the apartheid era.
Still, she described her response to this challenge, saying, “You develop other means” towards achieving the goal of learning the operatic repertoire. Instead of formal lessons, she learned “African” and “European” music by ear, singing in church choirs.
Even as she moved with her mother around South Africa to find a safer refuge in the chaotic last years of apartheid, Matshikiza had few expectations that it would be singing that would be the vehicle for her international success.
In fact, when she first heard a recording of her own voice while she was studying at the University of Cape Town, she says she was shocked to hear herself, saying, “I still don’t expect people to like it, but they do. I hear so many mistakes.”
Matshikiza’s musical career might well have been almost unthinkable a generation earlier for a young black woman, but today she is a leading figure in a generation of young black singers which also includes other stars like Pretty Yende and Kelebogile Boikanyo, among a growing list of other lustrous voices.
A key figure in her ascent was Kevin Volans, South Africa’s best known serious music composer.
Volans first met Matshikiza when she sang in an opera he had written specially for the renowned Handspring Puppet Theatre.
“To undo the whole history of colonialism and apartheid in 20 years is a very hard task.”
After hearing her sing, he urged Matshikiza to audition for British conservatoires, paying her airfare to Britain. Her first stop in London was the Royal College of Music, where they offered her a full scholarship.
The Royal Opera House’s young artists scheme followed. She is moving carefully and deliberately in her musical career. As she has said, “I don’t understand what the hurry is. I want to sing as best as possible. It doesn’t matter when or to whom.”
In fact, at Covent Garden, observation of others was as vital an element of her learning experience as any actual performance or coaching.
Music director, Antonio Pappano, was her model of the ideal, collaborative conductor. She says he would ask her and the other soloists, “‘What do you want to do here? I’ll follow you’, and only then would he suggest what he thinks. When you are a singer, that gives you so much security, so much energy.” Ah, the mentor as mensch.
In previous interviews, Matshikiza, thinking about the circumstances of township life back home, says she remains “surprised by how some things have not moved forward at all.
“To undo the whole history of colonialism and apartheid in 20 years is a very hard task.”
While not ready to make a permanent move back home, she adds, “There are times when I think I would love to. Maybe after five, or 10 years… who knows?”
In our interview, carried out while Pumeza Matshikiza was still in Vienna, just after the run of “Porgy and Bess”, we discussed that opera, her life, her hopes – and even a few of her disappointments.
Asked about her familiarity with the American repertoire, she says of “Porgy and Bess” that “I have to use an operatic way of singing but also a jazz way of singing. Such a beautiful mix.
“But one can’t go with just the jazz feeling without solid operatic technique. It was an incredible thing to discover this [blend].”
For you, is “Porgy and Bess” an opera or a broadway show?
It felt like an opera with a jazz feeling to it and I had the need to project my voice. (Let the record show that at that moment, we were interrupted by dog Rocky, demanding attention.) It was an amazing experience for me and now I am looking forward to singing more of it. I felt at home with it.
Now that you have performed “Porgy and Bess”, have you explored other American operas or operatic-style works like “Lost in the Stars” by Kurt Weill or Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”?
I don’t know ‘Lost in the Stars’ yet (Please check it out with its South African story and Weill’s great music, we urge her!) While I’ve never sung it, I do know ‘Candide’. So far, I’ve mostly sung romantic and classical work and so I haven’t explored much of the later works. But I also love the rhythms of jazz. They really speak to me.
(She has, in fact, released an album that includes a wide mix of musical styles. Several years earlier when it was launched, The Guardian commented, “Today, she is part of a new generation of black South African opera singers. Small and self-contained, she cuts a glamorous figure, not least on the cover of Voice of Hope, her debut recording for Decca. With its mix of Mozart and Puccini arias, smartly orchestrated Xhosa, Swahili and Zulu songs, and the anthem she performed to an audience of a billion in the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, the album is aimed squarely at a crossover audience.”
Given that you alternated as Bess and Serena in “Porgy and Bess”, was it confounding to sing two different roles in the same work on alternate days, with somebody else in the costume you had just performed in?
Maybe I was a little bit mad – the roles and characters are very different and sometimes they are on stage together in the same scene. I only got confused one time, but it was with the acting. Suddenly, I thought to myself, ‘Oops, I’m not supposed to be happy in that scene!’ I think I am secure technically, but it was the question of being tired physically or vocally, but, still, I found a way of singing more easily. The range of the two characters is totally different.
(Matshikiza referred to what Maria Callas once said about performing the great Wagner roles – that the music is technically difficult, but that a singer must let her technique lead her and she should never push beyond her limits.)
What’s next for you?
I hope to be in Madrid to perform ‘Rusalka’ with a double cast. The role fits perfectly for my voice. But the theatres are closing again (because of Covid). There is ‘Eugene Onegin’ at the Staatsoper. Then a recital in England; but nothing is really clear as things are being cancelled. Then to South Africa for a little holiday. There are two Christmas season concerts in Salzburg. We’ll see then. We were lucky to have even finished ‘Porgy and Bess’. The theatre spent lots of money to test everyone in the cast all the time [for Covid]. Other colleagues haven’t had work at all.”
Where do you consider home base now?
I’m based in Berlin, but I have more good friends in Vienna than Berlin now. Doing this work, I went out with colleagues since we knew we were all negative, wearing masks, doing social distancing.”
And that eagerly anticipated open air concert in Kirstenbosch Gardens that was scheduled months ago?
It did not happen; but then there were no flights back to Germany so I stayed in Johannesburg until eventually there were repatriation flights to Germany. Then I contracted the virus and was in hospital for more than two weeks.
While you were being treated in hospital, did you think about mortality?
For two days, I thought, ‘Life ends. Who will get my diaries, who will get my dog?’ But, when I survived, I realised I have a second chance at life and must take as many opportunities as possible!
How can one do it? Taking the chance to do both roles [in ‘Porgy and Bess’]? That is impossible when you haven’t sung either role. But I memorised half of the opera in two weeks. There was no way not to have a double cast for Bess when an American colleague couldn’t make it. I say to myself, ‘I don’t feel strong enough, but, okay, let me just do it.’ A pianist worked with me for four hours a day.
Where did you get the virus?
In South Africa. A friend’s daughter got it, and then two days later I got it. The daughter tested positive and that’s when I knew. Had I known I was sick I would not have left.
Will you do Kirstenbosch now?
It was not cancelled, but postponed and we will find another date. I want to organise more concerts in South Africa. It is important to perform at home; I did one at the Artscape Theatre in early January and I could work on something like that. I want to introduce more South African singers to this music.”
We talk about the music and the character of Bess – she isn’t really a good woman, is she?
Bess really only has one solo aria at the end, reprising ‘Summertime’ to Clara’s child. Otherwise, she has duets with Crown and such. The whole story is a tragic story. Not just an American story; one can find this story in townships in South Africa with the macho-ness of men, lots of religion, the drinking and the gambling. The story was very familiar and reminded me of people I know in the townships.
Bess seems to me to be like a character who has bad circumstances when she tries to clean up her life, but she relapses. She tries to resist, but the impulse was stronger than she was…. Sporting Life drags her back. He’s like a kind of snake; he tempts her with drugs and to the life she had left behind.
How did Austrian audiences respond?
They loved it! The theatre was thinking of extending the run but the government prevented it. Could have run for six months and there would be an audience for it.
People would like to have it as a staple in the repertoire like “La Traviata”, but the chorus and everyone on stage must be black and the opera houses would still have to pay their permanent chorus of white singers.
Talk about the movement of very good South African singers who move away to the US, the UK or Europe…
There is something wrong about that, yes. South Africans do appreciate culture, but it is government support that is a problem. If that can be managed better, people can go and come, or stay.
So, how about a plan to bring singers back regularly to South Africa to perform?
It does not happen all the time, so I want to organise it myself. As a freelancer, I am a business person too. If something is not happening, I shouldn’t sit and complain about it, I must do something about it.
As we finish our conversation, we swap stories about Kevin Volans and she says that when she was a second-year student at UCT, a music college faculty member returned from the US to tell her he had heard a performance of one of Volans’ compositions, performed by the famous Kronos Quartet.
There on the programme was the notation that this work was dedicated to her, Pumeza Matshikiza! DM/ML