BOOK REVIEW: An opera star’s trip from hunger to the high life
Musa Ngqungwana captures his courageous journey from humble beginnings to becoming one of South Africa’s most successful operatic exports, writes Edward Tsumele
ODYSSEY OF AN AFRICAN OPERA SINGER
While many young men growing up in Zwide, a township in Port Elizabeth, were attracted to crime, grime, unemployment and alcoholism, Musa Ngqungwana expressed himself in a church choir.
This decision eventually lifted him out of poverty and made him famous in SA and abroad. Like other South Africans performing on the opera stages of the world, such as Pretty Yende, Pumeza Matshikiza, Vuyani Mlinde, Luthando Qave, Fikile Mvinjelwa, Golda Schultz and Sunnyboy Dladla, the opera star, now based in the US, is making huge waves.
His humble beginnings, struggle for education in his formative years and journey to becoming one of SA’s most successful operatic exports is captured in his memoir, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer. Summoning the courage to write the book was, ironically, motivated by negative emotions.
"It is a combination of the first book I wrote and self-published last year, titled Odyssey of an African Opera Singer: From Zwide Township to the World Stage, and new material I had excluded," he says. "I had deliberately held back on revealing some things about my life, simply because at the time I felt uncomfortable about going public about them. Now I am comfortable about letting go of some things."
Ngqungwana was reticent about including some details about his upbringing, particularly the issue of his absent father.
"Quite honestly, when I wrote the first book, I did it because I was angry with my father who was never there for me, especially during the moments in my life when I needed him most," he says.
"As a Xhosa, you simply cannot be absent when your son is undergoing his rites of passage, a crucial aspect of our culture. It is expected that your father will be there. My mother was there for me."
In the second version of the book, the opera singer, who has several accolades behind his name, paints a picture of a contented star who has made the world his stage.
The book is celebratory in tone as Ngqungwana relates his successes including how he managed to get two music degrees from the University of Cape Town’s College of Music and spent four years studying at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Art in the US.
His achievements serve as a study of focus and resilience. He had initially planned to go to medical school, but his matric results were not good enough.
Ngqungwana then dropped out of Port Elizabeth Technikon because he could not afford the fees.
When eventually he was enrolled at the University of Cape Town on a scholarship, he had to start at the beginning, doing a foundation course in music before he was admitted to the degree proper.
The five years he spent at the university, from which he graduated with an honours degree, were the result of hustling for scholarships.
Today Ngqungwana’s other feats include winning several international awards for his opera exploits, playing important roles in the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Los Angeles Opera and performing on other world stages such as in Germany and Norway.
Ngqungwana says that despite his international success, he does not forget where he came from.
"For me hunger is not something I just imagine how it feels like. I have experienced hunger at home and when I studied as some of the scholarships just covered tuition fees only.
"This meant I had to find singing jobs to earn money for my upkeep as I studied. Besides, it is not wise to burden people that are paying for your education with your personal problems that are not related to your studies and fees.
"However, it is this experience of hunger that continues to keep me on the right path, even now that I am well-established in my profession," he says.
"I continue to make sure that my mother is taken care of, something that my fellow artists, especially in the US, do not understand.
"They ask, ‘How come your mother as an adult is not able to take care of herself?’
"I then have to keep on explaining that my mother comes from a defeated people that never had the privilege of education, with the only job open to her being working as a domestic worker."
Ngqungwana says although he is now well-established abroad, he takes seriously every opportunity to audition as the level of competition and professionalism is very high in his field of work.
"Even when casting directors know you, you still need to audition, just like everyone else," he says.
"And also because the major opera houses audition people for roles that will be available in four years’ time, they sometimes audition you for the second time even though they would have given you the role four years previously.
"This is because within those four years, your voice might have changed."
• Ngqungwana will be in SA in June to launch his book and give some performances.