South African opera songbird soars around the globe

South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza has sung in some of the world’s greatest opera houses, and gave a rare homecoming performance in Johannesburg in March 2017. 

Pumeza Matshikiza, opera, music
Pumeza Matshikiza, critically acclaimed opera star, grew up in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, listening to classical music on a portable radio. Today, she sings in some of the greatest operas throughout the world. (Image: Official Pumeza Matshikiza website)

Pumeza Matshikiza fortuitously stumbled upon opera as a child living in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Hearing a recording of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro while scanning for stations on a portable radio, it was love at first listen.

“I was just transfixed,” Matshikiza told The Australian newspaper in 2016, “I thought, ‘what language are they singing in, how people can sing like this, are they angels?’”

Following her dream to imitate those voices, a teenage Matshikiza began to find her voice while singing in church choirs.

As a student at the University of Cape Town, she collaborated with South African-born composer Kevin Volans on a number of his works for the Handspring Puppet Theatre. It was Volans who urged her successful application for a young artist scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London.

Her rise in the world of opera

In a 2014 interview with The Guardian newspaper, Matshikiza said her varied education in music and opera is “driven by the curiosity of how the human voice works to produce these beautiful sounds”.

Matshikiza sang her first lead role with Germany’s Stuttgart State Opera Company, and then later performed around the world in a variety of productions including Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at Milan’s famous La Scala opera house, and as Mimi, the lead soprano, in Puccini’s La Bohème, a role made famous by some of opera’s legendary sopranos including Maria Callas and Angela Gheorghiu.

Matshikiza gained widespread acclaim for her performance during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, seen by a global television audience of over 20-million.

She was also chosen to perform at the wedding of Prince Albert of Monaco and his South African-born bride Charlene Wittstock.

Ever mindful of her South African roots, Matshikiza released her first album in 2014, titled Voice of Hope, which featured, in addition to stirring versions of some of opera’s most popular arias, unique operatic renditions of classic South African songs, including  Mariam Makeba’s Pata Pata/Click Song. The album was well received by fans across Europe and South Africa.

Matshikiza recorded a second collection of lesser-known opera favourites titled Arias in 2016.

An opera superstar

In the often stilted world of classical music, Matshikiza is hailed as a veritable game-changing superstar. Opera Magazine called her voice “dusky, overtone-rich, abundantly sensuous, the timbre has fullness, freshness and purity alloyed to the darker tones of an almost-Callas like palette.”

Of her stage performances, the Financial Mail said Matshikiza “steals audiences’ hearts, her voice is smooth, rich, flexible, her manner open and unaffected, her dramatic instinct keen.”

The Sunday Times in the UK said her performances had a “distinctive beauty of a special voice.”

In 2016, Matshikiza was the subject of a short but detailed documentary film by British filmmaker Claire Oakley, titled Tuning In.

In an extensive 2014 profile in the Daily Mail newspaper, Matshikiza describes her performances as holistic experiences, saying “you put so much energy into your voice when you sing opera music, it involves your whole body.”

Returning home

While Matshikiza has been always eager to return to South Africa to live and perform, there are more opportunities in Europe which has a rich tradition of live classical music. She told The Guardian “there are times when I think I would love to (return permanently to South Africa), maybe after five, 10 years, who knows?”

In addition to filming music videos for her album in South Africa, Matshikiza returns regularly to the country to visit her mother and, as she did recently, to perform.

On 16 March 2017, she performed alongside an upcoming South African opera talent, soprano Noluvuyiso Mpofu, at a once-off recital at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium. She also gave a live performance for radio station 702.

The performances were made possible by Motseng Investment Holdings, whose CEO, Ipeleng Mkhari is a prominent patron of the arts in South Africa.

In her introduction to the Linder performance, Mkhari highlighted the prominence and importance of Matshikiza as an inspiration to South African women, adding that “as a pioneering black woman-owned organisation, we believe that South African black women in this musical genre have been somewhat overlooked and ours is to celebrate their globally recognised excellence, passion and talent.”

On this point, Matshikiza herself holds very passionate views, explaining in the Daily Mail profile that she continues to use her platform as one of the world’s top opera singers and as a proudly African woman, to passionately advocate for women’s and children’s rights:

“The way to move forward is to concentrate on education and the next generation. The one truth I hold on to is that life is about opportunities and being able to recognise and seize them, paths should be open to [women]. It would be a shame if, after all we’ve endured as a nation, our efforts come to nothing.”

For more information on Matshikiza’s career and to hear more of her musical talent, visit her official website.

Source: Pumeza Matshikiza official website, Guardian, 702 Radio 

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