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South African opera singers shine at World opera competition

Opera singer Nombulelo Yende sings during rehearsals in a studio at the Cape Town opera house on Oct. 28, 2023.   -  
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MARCO LONGARI/AFP or licensors

South Africa

Operalia, one of the most prestigious opera competitions in the world has come to South Africa second largest city. 4 of the 5 South Africans selected this year among about 800 singers qualified for the semi-finalists announced on Oct. 31.

In a studio at the Cape Town opera house, singer Nombulelo Yende rehearses for her Operalia audition. Operalia is one of the most prestigious opera competitions in the world.

The 32-year old reheases Mozart and Wagner. Wearing a floral dress, her hand waves  to the rhythm of the melody, as her powerful vibrato rings out. 

"Singing opera is so liberating to me. I love playing different characters, invoking so many emotions."

The competition is like "a great audition", said Nombulelo Yende, a soprano and the younger sister of 2011  First, Zarzuela and Audience Prizes Pretty Yende.

At 32, Yende already has a well-established career. But the contest can "broaden my horizons", she said.

The annual contest is running from October 30 to November 5th at South Africa's second largest city. 

Operalia features 34 contestants selected from an initial pool of about 800 singers.

Sipokazi Moltino is one of 5 South Africans shortlisted this year.

The 31-year-old mezzo from the southeastern city of Gqeberha is now based in New York.

"I have sung as long as I can remember. But opera is not a thing in my community," she said.

It was a music teacher who nudged her in another direction, by getting her to learn a Mozart aria.

Some of her classmates giggled uncomfortably, but she felt "immediately emotionally attached to it".

"I would listen to it when I was alone. This deeper opera world, I knew it was something special, so precious," she said. 

Since then, her connetion to opera only grew: "My favourite thing about opera singing, it’s story telling, creating art."

Slashing stereotypes

Sakhiwe Mkosana, a baritone, once dreamt of becoming a lawyer. But a high school teacher noticed his talent on the first day he attended choir trials -- and put him on a different trajectory.

"If you can stick to this, you can make a really good career," he remembers the teacher telling him.

"I love being on stage and getting to tell a story to people who don't necessarily understand the words, take them through the story," said the 29-year-old.

"If I can convince anyone to come to an opera show, I have done my work."

In black communities across South Africa young men are often expected to choose a "classic" profession, becoming a doctor or a lawyer, he said.

Many questioned his judgment, doubting he could make a living from his imposing voice. 

His journey led him from an impoverished South African township to Frankfurt, Germany, where he is enrolled in a programme for young talents. 

In his previous life, Luvo Maranti didn't read music and the only thing he knew about opera was who Luciano Pavarotti was.

He and his friends used to imitate the Italian tenor before bursting into laughter.

This week, the 29-year-old South African will sing his lungs out at Operalia, one of the most prestigious opera competitions in the world.

Maranti gave up a job in human resources to chase his opera dream.

He had to tell his parents he would not be able to support them for a while and sometimes went days without a meal while trying to secure grants to fund his studies.

But he doesn't regret taking the plunge for a second.

"I felt a bit selfish but I wanted to be happy, not sit in an office all day," he told AFP.

"I had to start from scratch," he said, explaining that his previous experience with church choirs and polyphonic music only went so far.

"Opera is a whole different ball game, I had to learn how to read a Western score."

His debut was nerve-racking, he recalled.

"With a choir, you have a sense of security. As a soloist you are vulnerable. As soon as you hit your first note, everyone can see your heart... I felt so much judgement," he said.

Now he feels at ease, also singing in Italian, German and French.

Operalia offers important exposure as contesters sing in front of managers, agents and casting directors.

It was created 30 years ago by Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.

Operalia offers an opportunity to be spotted without having to fly around the world.

The international jury, established international Opera Casting Directors and General Managers, presided by Plácido Domingo. 

Among 20 participants selected to continue on to the semifinals, ten singers will be chosen for the finals.

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