The following interview took place at the 2016 Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation of the interview is deeply appreciated.
Wm: Typically, my opening interview questions relate to one’s childhood experiences with music and opera. However, you have given quite a summary of your life so far in your autobiography Odyssey of an African Opera Singer: From Zwide Township to the World Stage, now in its second edition. That autobiography provides an absorbing account of your growing up during the tumultuous 1990s and first decade of the 21st century in post-apartheid South Africa.
[Below: the cover of Musa Ngqungwana’s autobiography, from amazon.com.]
You relate details of your basic education and your training in choral music in missionary schools and in the newly established multicultural schools, partly based in your native language of Xhosa.
In your autobiography, you note that was a videotape of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” from the 1978 Glyndebourne Festival, in which Jamaican-born British bass-baritone Sir Willard White was the Speaker. This appears to have been a “life-changing” event for you. Would you describe its importance in more detail?
MN: It was in the year 2000 when I was 16, and part of the Viola Men’s Chorus in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. At that time, I was not aware that black people performed opera. Here was a black person, in Britain, in a costume singing opera. I was overtaken by that image.
I knew on the spot that I wanted to dress up and be involved in opera. But to my limited knowledge at the time, I wasn’t aware that blacks could study opera singing in South Africa, nor knew if there were any opportunities for an opera career there. I studied engineering but couldn’t afford to continue my engineering degree.
[Below: Bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of musangqungwana.com.]
Wm: In your autobiography you speak of the importance of your experiences as an adolescent and youth in choruses, but note that the South African pedagogical styles for choral singing are so different from European music that you lacked the preparation to read or write music, yet in 2010 you were accepted into the prestigious Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts [AVA]. Would you explain what happened in that decade that led to AVA inviting you to study with them?
MN: We started an opera ensemble with colleagues in Port Elizabeth, after we came across a reference in a free newspaper, The Algoa Sun, to a Monica Oosthuizen of the Port Elizabeth Opera Club.
Monica was an opera aficionado, who promoted opera concerts, particularly in the Port Elizabeth region. She invited us to audition for her, and, satisfied that we had talent, arranged for the facility for us to conduct a free concert, and also introduced us to a prominent South African soprano, Mimi Coertse, who was based in Pretoria.
Coertse, noting my inability to read or write music, asked me why I wasn’t studying music. She arranged for an audition for me and my colleagues before a panel that included herself and the South African opera director Niels Hansen.
[Below: the University of Cape Town’s Professor Virginia Davids (left) in 2016, on the occasion of Andre Thomas (right) succeeding her as the Musical Director of the ComArt Choristers at Elsies River (a suburb of Cape Town); edited image, based on a photograph from Artsvark Presser.
After the audition I was referred to Professor Virginia Davids, then the head of vocal studies at the University of Cape Town [UCT]’s College of Music. With her assistance I was able to audition and eventually got accepted into UCT’s music program, where I began to learn about music, voice and opera performance. Professor Davids was my voice teacher for six years.
Among my professors during my six years at UCT was Professor Angelo Gobbato and Professor Kamal Khan. Professor Khan had assisted Maestro James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He then led the UCT Opera School (a part of UCT’s South African College of Music) from 2009 until 2016.
[Professor Kamal Khan, University of Cape Town College of Music; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
Wm: I’ve been impressed by the University of Cape Town alumni whose performances I’ve reviewed, including those of sopranos Pretty Yende and Golda Schultz.
Please continue your narrative about your acceptance into AVA.
MN: Professor Khan told me that AVA is a top school, although not for everyone. There are only about 25 students at a time, and they accept only five or six students a year. Dr Khan said that if one survives AVA for four years, you have a better chance in being ready for an opera career.
He made the point that at AVA, the conductor requires that you sing come scritto, following the strict markings as per what the composer wanted.
It was arranged that I would make a video recording of my singing, which was sent to the President and CEO of AVA, Kevin James McDowell. In 2009, I was chosen for AVA on the basis of that video.
I wasn’t able to begin the program in 2009, but they had a full scholarship waiting for me. I arrived in 2010 and was enrolled for four years.
Wm: Tell me about your experiences at AVA.
MN: AVA is very clinical in approaching music. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was there to study. AVA is the kind of school that when faculty members tell you that you’re singing flat, they will explain why you are flat and then will show you how you can correct the problem. They sometimes get under your skin on purpose, but they are never unprofessional.
Laurent Philippe was my first coach. He’s French. I was not used to his type of honesty in criticizing my singing. I remember thinking that this would be a tough ride.
But I came to appreciate that honesty, which is respected by artists who have worked with him. As an example, tenor Michael Fabiano, who is also an AVA graduate, still works with Laurent.
Laurent Philippe advised me that once I learn all the music, I should sing it all the time, so that my muscles would get used to it.
At AVA you learn the craft. When the vocal coaches give you advice, you listen to them. You are respectful and accept criticism.
I had expected to take AVA a year at a time, and to have the goal of landing an agent before the end of my time there. But events moved much faster than I expected.
Wm: Tell me about those events.
MN: In my third year, in March 2013, I was a Grand Prize Winner in the New York Metropolitan Opera competition.
By October 1 of that year, I had an agent, Bill Guerri of Columbia Artists Management (CAMI).
In my final year at AVA I landed my first job with a contract with Francesca Zambello for Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Washington National Opera.
[Below: the Bohemians Schaunard (Christian Bowers, left), Marcello (Trevor Scheunemann, center, standing), Colline (Musa Ngqungwana, standing, second from right) and Rodolfo (Alexey Dolgov, right, kneeling) play a trick on their landlord Benoit (Donato DiStefano, seated, center) in the 2014 Washington National Opera production of Puccini’s “La Boheme”; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Wm: What were some of the roles that you performed as a student as AVA?
MN: I performed two roles in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” – the Commendatore in the first performance and Leporello in the following five – exchanging those roles with AVA basso Nicholas Masters.
The conductor was Maestro Maestro Macatsoris, who is very finicky about performing operas by Mozart and Verdi. You can work for two hours with him on one page of secco recitative with him yelling at you. No one is going to take your hand at AVA.
I also sang Il Talpa in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro”, Graf Waldner in Richard Strauss’ “Arabella”, Bartolo in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, Dulcamara in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”, the Comte in Massenet’s “Manon”, Sancho in Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” and Gremin in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”.
Of the roles I’ve done, the most demanding was the title role of Verdi’s “Oberto”. I was 26 at the time.
Wm: I saw that role performed by Ferruccio Furlanetto at the San Diego Opera.
MN: Ferruccio Furlanetto is one of my favorite people. I love the way he does things. I’ve seen him perform the role of King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” three times.
Wm: The first time I saw you in performance was as Queequeg in Heggie’s “Moby Dick”, conducted by Maestro James Conlon [Review: Maestro Conlon Captains Another Successful Launch for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2015], just two years after your graduation at AVA. How did that come about?
MN: I wasn’t sure how the Los Angeles Opera came to offer the role to me, but now I know that my agent Bill Guerri had a hand in getting me that role. The part of Queequeg is interesting. I know that I should be able to sing Queequeg for the rest of my life.
[Below: Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana, center) has fallen ill, greatly disturbing the Greenhorn (Stephen Costello, left) and Pip (Talise Trevigne, right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Wm: Your Glimmerglass Festival debut role was in a Rossini rarity – Gottardo the Mayor in Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” at the Glimmerglass Festival [Review: Gilmore, Angelini, Ngqungwana Take Flight in Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 7, 2016]
MN: I enjoyed working with Maestro Joseph Colaneri. If you come prepared, he is very flexible. I think I greatly benefited from working with him. I cannot drive 120 miles an hour, and if I’m trying to sing Rossini coloratura with an inflexible conductor, it can be a problem.
But supportive conductors can help you deconstruct how you are singing, and help you find the right voice, as if you are pounding a sword to re-forge it.
[Below: Musa Ngqungwana (right) with Glimmerglass Festival Ensemble Member Simon Dyer in the 2016 production of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: I am scheduled to review your Porgy in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, in a Francesca Zambello production that will open the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival.
MN: I felt greatly honored when Francesca chose me for that role. She told me that she would arrange for coaching for me to learn the Gullah accent. I’m on a timeline to master the role.
Wm: As you move into your mid-30s, what roles do you aspire to take on?
MN: It’s been my interest and dream to sing Verdi bass-baritone roles. I’ve already done the High Priest of Baal in Verdi’s “Nabucco” at Opera Philadelphia in Thaddeus Strassberger’s production, and I am currently preparing for Amonasro in Verdi’s “Aida”. I shall slowly build up as necessary on this demanding but important repertoire as I grow into it.
I’m, of course, open to any Mozart or Rossini role, such as Leporello in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” or Mustafa in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”.
Wm: What roles do you consider yourself ready for, and what roles do you expect to wait for?
The vocal coaches want the artists they teach to have long careers, and my vocal coach has his own ideas of what I’m ready for.
To have a career you have to respond to the opportunities that are offered you. The great tenor George Shirley told me that the only way that you know you’re ready is if you can sing all the parts of the role in one attempt/run without getting tired. Then you know you are ready for it.
I believe how you sing with a coach is different than how you sing in theater with a conductor, and how you sing in rehearsals is different than how you sing in the middle of a run. Coaches can’t be with you for everything that is going on.
I will return to Glimmerglass to do Porgy. I know that I can sing Queegueg for the rest of my life. Of course I do the smaller parts in Puccini’s “Tosca”. I’m interested in Michele in Puccini’s “Tabarro”. Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” is outside of my personality. My manager already has ideas of what I should do.
I’ve been asked if I want to sing German roles. In three years time, I figure I want to try John the Baptist in Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and hopefully would grow into it. After that I would consider the Dutchman role in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”. At age 45 I might try to go for Wotan in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”.
Wm: I’m looking forward to seeing how your career progresses. Thank you for your time for this interview.
MN: Thank you.