Lukhanyo Moyake was the first singer I heard at the International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition last June, which for the first time in its 35-year history held rounds in Cape Town, South Africa. Still bleary-eyed from the day-long flight, I quickly regained my senses upon hearing the first phrase of his aria, “Ella mi fu rapita,” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” The 29-year-old tenor—clichéd as it may sound—reminded me of a young Luciano Pavarotti. His Italian diction and use of rubato were spot-on, and his voice seemed able to fill a stadium.

Moyake is one of several up-and-coming opera singers who have increasingly put South Africa on the map of an industry that is by and large Eurocentric. The Belvedere, originally a Vienna-based institution, has played a role in that process. In 2009, the now international star soprano Pretty Yende took first prize. Last year, another South African, the tenor Levy Sekgapane, followed suit. The success is all the more astonishing given South Africa’s history: During apartheid, which persisted until 1989, opera was an all-white business.

It was the bass-baritone, director, and former Cape Town Opera Chief Executive Angelo Gobbato who took an interest in broadening the talent base as racial strictures dissolved in the early 1990s. Thanks to the South African choral tradition, many singers could already produce sound with an open-throated technique. The open vowels of all 11 African languages spoken in the country approximate those of the Italian language. As a result, the Cape Town Opera Chorus began to include members with no Western training.

As a growing number of black African singers acquire university degrees, this is no longer the case. And for over a decade, outstanding soloists have been emerging one after another. Moyake, who is from the town of Lady Frere, on the Eastern Cape, first came into contact with opera during high school. A friend who left to study at the University of the Western Cape brought back a CD of the Three Tenors. Upon hearing Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma,” Moyake said, “I want to sing like that.”

Moyake onstage in “Porgy and Bess” · Photo Bernard Bruwer
Moyake onstage in “Porgy and Bess” · Photo Bernard Bruwer

Although he had sung in choir as a boy, Moyake had lost interest in his teenage years, investing more energy in rugby (not unlike the U.S., South Africa is a sports-focused nation). He was initially enrolled to study Information Technology, but upon rediscovering choral singing, felt he had no choice but to pursue a professional degree in music at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban. Three years later, in 2009, he successfully auditioned to be a young artist at Cape Town Opera.

He gained his first stage experience there, singing roles such as Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Don Basilio in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Since last year, he has been on the road with the company in Europe with a touring production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” This August, at London’s Southbank Centre, he appears in the “Mandela Trilogy” by composers Péter Louis Van Dijk and Mike Campbell (first heard as “African Songbook: A Tribute to the Life of Nelson Mandela” in 2010).

Moyake raised his international profile last fall when he took third prize at the Neue Stimmen International Voice Competition in Germany. Sipping coffee on the day before the Belvedere finals—where both he and his wife, the soprano Siphamandla Yakupa, have been selected to perform with orchestra and compete for the jury’s prizes—he seems content, if not relaxed.

YouTube video

Verdi, “Rigoletto,” “Ella mi fu rapita”; Lukhanyo Moyake (Tenor), Graeme Jenkins (Conductor), Duisburg Philharmonic Orchestra, at the finals of the Neue Stimmen competition in 2015.

“It’s just like a concert,” he says. “What I like most is people watching me.” He can’t hide his pleasure at the Belvedere’s decision to hold rounds on home turf, however. “It’s very, very nice,” he says with a deep breath. “I feel like the world is recognizing South Africa. Since Pretty Yende, the country’s name has been in finals. Hopefully, this year, one of us will be the top three.”

Although opera has only recently gained popularity in certain parts of the country, South African singers have the opportunity to prepare themselves early on for the pressure of international competitions. In addition to choral competitions in schools, there are now events devoted exclusively to opera. Most significant is the South African Schools Choral Eisteddfod (SASCE), which Cape Town Opera supports through educational outreach.

Matthew Wild, the opera company’s current artistic director and a jury member at this year’s Belvedere, describes arriving in a small town in the middle of nowhere and hearing “70 children sing Mozart, normally with absolutely no understanding of the language.” “Music education in the curriculum has become less and less thorough,” he says. “But happily the competition has gotten music into the lives of young people in rural areas, so that by the time some are 16 or 17, they can hum lots of opera tunes.”

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As we speak, I look out the window at an unusually robust rainbow that arches across Cape Town. South Africa dubbed itself the “rainbow nation” after Apartheid to illustrate its embrace of multiculturalism. While the country still struggles with poverty, a high crime rate and corruption (the current President, Jacob G. Zuma, violated the Constitution earlier this year when he refused to pay back millions of public funds spent on improvements to his estate outside Johannesburg), there is a spirit of renewal at all levels of society that can be infectious. During my six-day trip, I heard both a cab driver and a theater administrator spontaneously break out into song.

In Moyake’s words, “singing here in South Africa is very big. Because we sing for everything. If we’re hungry, we sing. If we’re happy, we sing. If we’re not happy, we sing. Maybe that’s why opera is not that difficult.” He also mentions the excellent coaches at the disposal of young singers in Cape Town. Gobbato, although retired, is always willing to help prepare for competitions, Moyake says, as is the conductor Kamal Khan and the retired coach Ian Smith: “We all have gone to the three of them. What they say sticks in your mind.”

The following evening, a crowd files into Artscape Theater—home of Cape Town Opera and Cape Town City Ballet—for the final round of the Belvedere. In the pre-apartheid years, the theater was only open to whites. The final selection of 16 singers who will perform with the Cape Town Philharmonic under Khan’s baton includes four South Africans, two South Koreans, two Italians, two Americans, two Russians, one Armenian, one German, one Swiss and one Lithuanian.

The tenor Hyungseok Lee is up first with “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Massenet’s “Werther,” in a technically flawless but dramatically stiff interpretation. The soprano Sophia Theodorides sings from Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” with a silvery timbre. Another soprano, Caroline Nkwe—stunning in a high-collared blue and orange dress—receives warm cheers from the audience even before she launches into an aria from Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Moyake is ninth on the list. Dressed in a tuxedo, he appears on his game for another rendition of “Ella mi fu rapita.” His timbre is robust, if not as booming as during semi-finals, his breath support secure. Just as I am admiring his phrasing, he becomes hoarse at a high point of the second-to-last line, in which the Duke proclaims not to “envy the angels in heaven” whenever Gilda is near.

Artscape Theatre Centre building · Photo Niel Roux
Artscape Theatre Centre building · Photo Niel Roux

During intermission, the jury and media jury meet up in their respective conference rooms to count up votes. Behind the scenes, everyone agrees that the level is high. A total of three singers will take top prizes, while jury members—who represent opera houses from the Theater Erfurt to La Scala—will award engagements, some of which won’t be announced immediately.

Back inside the theater, the 16 finalists line up in the front row, beaming but occasionally twitching in their seats. Even as a member of the media jury, the suspense is making my heart race. Coming in second and winning the audience prize is the local diva Noluvuyiso Mpofu, who managed to make her own stamp on the admittedly hackneyed aria “È strano” from Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

The American mezzo Raehann Bryce-Davis takes third with a fierce, at times over-the-top, rendition of “O don fatale” from “Don Carlo.” And the American bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee wins top laurels with Banco’s aria “Come dal ciel precipita,” from “Macbeth,” his polished technique coming together with sensitive dramatic skills. The media jury has chosen the soprano Selene Zanetti, who delivered the aria “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” (“Song to the Moon”) from Dvořák’s “Rusalka” with rich dynamic shadings.

At a post-competition reception upstairs, I catch up with Moyake, who is enjoying refreshments and chatting with friends. I hear the open, round vowels of his native language, Xhosa, first-hand as he and another singer exchange notes about singing under Khan. He then switches to English. “I have to change so that I can party,” he says with a smile.

And Moyake has enough to look forward to in the coming months. This October, he sings the role of Don José in “Carmen” at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Lisbon. In December, he appears at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, in “Porgy and Bess.”

“You are not singing for yourself,” he told me the evening before. “You are singing for the country.” ¶

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