From South Africa to America. Between those two countries is a vast ocean and traversing from the former to the latter presents a number of major challenges, not only physical, but emotional and economic.
Opera is rife with characters battling the ocean on their way to success or tragedy. Just to name a few are the characters in Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick” and even the fisherman in “Porgy and Bess,” the world of the story set on a waterfront, their actions tempestuous as the ocean.
These are but two operas that bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana will take on in the coming year, the overcoming of oceanic challenges, reflective of the artist himself.
He grew up in the South African ghettos in the care of his grandmother, barely seeing his mother as she went about trying to make ends meet and never having a relationship with a father who had “no interest” in getting to know him. But through a series of fortunate events, coupled with tremendous hard work, Ngqungwana is making a solid career in the US.
Deep in the Depths of the Ghettos
It all started with Sir Willard White for South African opera star Musa Ngqungwana.
The bass-baritone, who this week makes a huge debut as Porgy in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Glimmerglass Festival,” was only in high school when his destiny dawned upon him.
He was already primed for a career in music.
“I grew up in a neighborhood and town that had a strong influence on huge choir and festivals which originally emanated from the amalgamation of traditional music and choral music from the early British missionaries at the turn of the 19th century,” he told OperaWire in a recent interview. “Music surrounded me, but it wasn’t until middle school that I took part in the school choir and it wasn’t until I was sixteen years old that I started to take full interest in music as a vocation.”
That’s when White stepped into his life. The Jamaican-born British bass-baritone appeared in a video of “The Magic Flute” from the Glyndebourne Festival, opening up a world of possibilities for Ngqungwana.
“That a black person had an important and commanding role triggered my interest because before then, to my limited knowledge at least as far as South Africa was concerned, black people didn’t do opera or even classical music, for that matter.”
But life wasn’t quite so straightforward for Ngqungwana.
Raised in a ghetto, he struggled with opportunities, dropping out of engineering school because he simply couldn’t afford it. And after that, he struggled to find work until he scored some luck, getting an opportunity to audition for a theater in Pretoria that allowed him to study at the University of Cape Town, where he graduated with Honors in performance.
From there, he headed to Philadelphia to enroll in the famed Academy of Vocal Arts. Since then, his career has taken off with performances all around the world and even a memoir that has allowed him to chart his path.
The book, entitled “Odyssey of an African Opera Singer: From Zwide Township to the World Stage,” was not in the bass-baritone’s plans.
“Many opera patrons in the US had been asking me about my background, but they weren’t just interested in the proverbial conversations about ‘Oh, you come from Africa, how lovely. Is South Africa in Nigeria? type of puzzling questions and statements, it was more like ‘Tell me more about your city, your childhood experiences. I want to know more about your language, Xhosa, and so forth,’” he noted. “This genuine interest from many patrons finally convinced me to start jotting down memories I could recall, and as I started doing that, my memory bank started being generous and I was able to remember many deeds and experiences.”
While jotting notes down was not much of a challenge, constructing it into a cohesive narrative certainly was. But he had some help.
“I had my friend Amanda Edelman, who has a writing background, read my drafts and serve as my shadow editor. She challenged me a great deal to paint more pictures and worked with me in the formulation of chapters. I also had another friend, Asanda Notshinga, from South Africa, do the same, especially since he knows my background so well. It took me a few months to complete the book, and then I worked with a professional editor,” he noted.
And in five months, the book was out.
On the Waterfront
Now it is time for “Porgy and Bess,” which will open on July 7th at the Glimmerglass Festival. Taking on the role of Porgy comes with tremendous challenges for the bass-baritone, who couldn’t help list off the many obstacles he will have to overcome to truly do the part the justice it deserves.
For him, the first major challenge comes from the language itself. The opera employs Gullah, an English-based Creole language which consists of many other languages from the slaves taken from West Africa, some of whom were situated in South Carolina and the Sea Islands of Georgia. As Ngqungwana noted, “this blend of languages includes Gola, Kissi, Twi, Temme, and more from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola thus making the accent and English pronunciation itself a difficult matter for English-speaking folk.”
He noted that many productions have attempted a shortcut to the language challenge, opting for a Southern Accent.
But for Ngqungwana, this presents yet another challenge.
“As to which region of the South is the right one to do is anyone’s guess and certainly debatable,” he noted. “Then put into the mix, a South African singer, with his own accent and pronunciation and set of inherent inflections, and this adds another layer of challenge. I’ve been working with coaches on trying to do a central ‘Southern accent’ as much as possible.”
But the challenges with Gullah language don’t end there. The culture itself is yet another layer to consider.
“It’s really foreign not just to me, but to many Americans,” he noted. “Anyone who takes on the role of Porgy has to understand the spiritual aspect of the Gullah people and their Pentecostal style of worshipping. It’s totally different from the mainstream church’s way of worshipping.
“There’s dancing in a circle with the worship leader inside the circle moving counterclockwise to the other congregants, adrenaline-rushed rhythms, hand-clapping, lots of shouting, speaking in tongues and other aspects of deep spirituality.”
Once you immerse yourself into this world, then comes the immersion into another challenging landscape – the musical one.
“Musically, Porgy is not an easy role to sing, especially in the second and third acts. He has a lot of singing in the second act, and the Buzzard Song alone is hefty and demanding,” noted the bass-baritone. “Plus there are the two Duets with Bess. The sustained E-naturals in the trio in the last scene of the third Act, when Porgy returns from jail, only to discover that Bess has skipped town with Sporting Life, is enough to challenge any baritone or bass-baritone. ”
Finally, Ngqungwana noted that physically, Porgy is not easy for an actor either.
“He’s a cripple, and trying to sing and work with the movements bring their own unique challenges,” he said.
In interpreting the role, he is turning to some of his favorite recordings. Among those are the Houston Grand Opera production from 1976 featuring John DeMain and the 2005 version with Sir Simon Rattle in the pit and none other than Sir Willard White in the lead role.
After “Porgy and Bess,” the bass-baritone heads over to make his English National Opera Debut in “Aida” as Amonasro. Then his schedule turns toward a modern opera, Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” which he will take on in March in Pittsburgh. Ngqungwana has actually performed the works of Heggie of late, recently performing “Moby Dick” in Dallas and Los Angeles over the last few years.
“I just love the story. Heggie and [librettist] Gene Scheer managed to condense the long novel and fit it for the stage,” he enthused. “The score is very tonal and easy to the ears, which is a great thing for a 21st-century opera. It is also kind to us singers, though challenging at times, but kind nonetheless. Yes, you have dissonance at times and some influences of Benjamin Britten, but the music is still beautiful and original. It is just pleasantly crafted for singers.”
He has repeatedly taken on the role of Queequeg, which has grown on him with every interpretation.
“The first time I did it, it was totally new to me, so for the most part, at least when I prepared for it, I was focused more on learning the huge score and memorizing it,” he revealed. “But then working with Keturah Stickann, who is associate director and choreographer in the Foglia production, made it easier to connect with the role and learn more about the relationship of the characters, including differences from the book and now the opera. Then as I did the role again, it became familiar territory and I’ve seen more growth and resolve.”
Looking ahead, the bass-baritone was quick to point out which opera he has on his horizon as a dream role. Ironically, it isn’t too far from Heggie’s sea-wandering folk in “Moby Dick.”
“The Flying Dutchman. It’s Wagner, and that in and of itself should be self-evident of the difficulty in the repertory,” he exclaimed. “I want to sing it because it’s challenging but it’s also a mega-role.
“It’s a role you have to work at preparing for no less than four years until you’ve matured to it before you present it for auditions or performances. It’s also a role you can’t suddenly start at age 40, as by then it’s too late. It must be part of your vocal chords for a good while.”