STAR SUNG INTO LIFE
From township dreams to the world stage — global award affirms Cape baritone Theo Magongoma’s soaring talent
Cape Town baritone Theo Magongoma was recently honoured with the prestigious Elizabeth Greenfield Award from a pool of 77 applicants from nine countries. The distinguished award is presented annually to a trail-blazing black singer who displays outstanding talent in the early stages of their international singing career.
‘It is a lovely endorsement that I am on the right path.”
This is the response from baritone Theo Magongoma after receiving the prestigious Elizabeth Greenfield Award as a testament to his hard work and dedication to not giving up on his dream of pursuing a career in music.
“It is thus a particularly special award for me to have won at this juncture in my career. I feel really honoured to have been chosen by the jury as a worthy recipient of this award out of all the applicants from around the world,” Magongoma told Daily Maverick.
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The award carries the significant historic legacy of Elizabeth Greenfield, a black opera singer in the 1800s who became known as “The Black Swan” and the first African-American singer to gain recognition in the UK, Europe and the US. Greenfield paved the way for black artists by maintaining an iconic image and giving back to the community by running a touring company for singers.
Township life introduced me to singing, it embraced strong musical traditions as part of its culture.
Magongoma was born in Alexandra in Johannesburg but grew up in rural Ezibeleni in the Transkei where he fell in love with classical music. He was born to two Xhosa migrant workers who knew nothing about opera music since there were no opera houses or concert theatres, but township life introduced Magongoma to the enchanting sounds of music.
“Township life introduced me to singing, it embraced strong musical traditions as part of its culture. There is a sense that the Xhosa people have carried their own songs for generations. These ancient melodies together with the introduction of formalised choral music to South Africa through the Apostolic Church and other faith missions, inspired the choral tradition in which I grew up. The church choirs provided opportunities to hear four-part singing that allowed me to develop my musical skills and tap into a dream to sing more,” said Magongoma.
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At 10 years old, Theo discovered classical music while listening to the radio and second-hand vinyl records. The lush, dramatic layers of sounds captured his attention and he was inspired to pursue a career of his own in the opera industry. “I spent endless hours as a young child and teenager absorbing the music of leading composers, conductors and musicians of the world. It was an extraordinary free portal into a sphere of outstanding musicians that shaped my understanding of this art form and educated me beyond the limitations of my circumstances at that time. These experiences of listening to the voices of the golden age inspired me to pursue a career in opera myself.”
Initially taught in the township, Magongoma received a bursary to further his education with the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town, where he obtained a performer’s diploma and a BMus honours degree. He is currently finishing his master’s degree in music performance at Stellenbosch University while he works as a freelance opera singer in South Africa and abroad.
The dramatic baritone singer credits the renowned South African vocal coach Ean Smit for his valuable contribution to his operatic development. The two first met when Magongoma joined the Cape Town Opera Studio. They started working closely when Magongoma was preparing to take part in the Berlin Opernfest’s production of Don Giovanni in the role of Leporello and later changed his vocal Fach to the heavier Italian baritone.
“Theo’s overseas projects and performances were invaluable to him as it is where a singer comes in contact with many different opinions from experienced practitioners in the field and where a singer can measure himself as to where he fits into the bigger operatic picture”, said Smit.
Earlier in 2023, Magongoma made his acclaimed debut at the Wigmore Hall in London alongside South African musicians based in England – double bassist Leon Bosch and pianist Tessa Uys – as part of the African Concert Series. Magongoma performed the world premiere of a song cycle, The Silence of the Day, by the South African composer Grant McLachlan.
“It was a real pleasure working with Theo. During the few days we had working together preceding our Wigmore Hall recital performing Grant McLachlan’s song cycle I was immediately struck by the beautiful quality of his voice, but it was his dedication to his work and his musical integrity which enabled him to give such an outstanding performance at the Wigmore Hall in London,” said Uys.
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Magongoma will be making his debut in three major roles in opera houses in Italy and Germany in 2024. On the recording front, Magongoma has been given the great honour of recording David Earl’s Sangharakshita Songs with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Smit told Daily Maverick that South Africa has an abundance of exceptional operatic voices but because of very few professional opportunities for opera singers in the country owing to a lack of funding, most young singers have to find work overseas.
“A singer such as Theo who has the talent and who is dedicated and reliable will be noticed by the forces in the operatic world.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.