Q & A: Nigerian Soprano Francesca Chiejina On Taking Her Career To The Next Level

By David Salazar

There was a time when opera was little more than an European art form. That is not longer our time.

Today opera is truly a global art, with some of the world’s most famed artists not only coming from Europe and North America, but also South America Asia, Australia, and Africa. Africa is of particular note, boasting a number of artists that have established themselves in the opera world.

One of those on her way to doing just that is Nigeria’s own Francesca Chiejina who actually kicked off her musical interests by playing the violin and piano at the MUSON Centre in Lagos. Her career took her to study at the University of Michigan, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She made history by becoming the first Nigerian soprano to ever perform at Carnegie Hall in April 2018 and is finishing up her tenure at the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in London.

OperaWire recently had a chance to talk to the soprano regarding her career development and hopes for the future.

OperaWire: When did you first realize that you wanted to be an opera singer? 

Francesca Chiejina: The idea of doing music for a living or at least learning more about it happened sophomore year of college. I was two years into studying Biology in hopes of becoming a doctor while taking choir as an extracurricular elective. I strongly considered the jump when I realized that choir class became the highlight of my week. With the encouragement from some music educators, I applied to transfer to the University of Michigan School of Music and Drama. Fortunately, I was accepted with a generous scholarship, and it has been a whirlwind romance ever since. To be honest, the idea of being an opera singer still feels foreign to me…I’m taking it one day at a time. I get to sing for a living and it brings me fulfillment through the joy, adventure, and self-discipline it offers as a craft.

OW: You were recently a part of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. How were you approached to be a part of the programme?

FC: Fast-forwarding three years of my undergrad degree from UMICH, and two years for my Master’s at The Guildhall School of Music, I, with some encouragement from the artistic director of the Young Artist program, applied and auditioned to become a Young Artist at Royal Opera House. I took it as a big adventure to get first-hand knowledge from those at the very top of the game on what it takes to sustain and enjoy an operatic career. I basically wanted to not only see if I was able to do it, but also to see if I even liked it.

OW: What was your experience with the program like?

FC: The program has been everything and more than I hoped for. I’ve become an artist in my own right because I’ve been surrounded by the best from all over the world for two years. You would be surprised how much you learn through osmosis.

OW: What were some challenges you faced? What were your greatest learning experiences?   

FC: The challenges I faced were what I would retrospectively call growing pains. I learned about myself and how I react under pressure, learned how far I am able to push my body without breaking down, and just built up my stamina to sustain an operatic rehearsal and performance period. It has been a huge growing experience. Growing as we all know is necessary for progress but can sometimes be uncomfortable in the stretch it requires of us.

OW: Another major learning experience for you must have been your masterclass with Joyce DiDonato.

FC: We first met while [DiDonato] was giving a masterclass at the Guildhall School in 2015. Singing and working with her again after almost four years in New York was such a privilege. It was my first time being back in the states for two years. A tension I didn’t realize I was holding from homesickness left my body. That in itself was a euphoric feeling. I was quite nervous about the DiDonato Masterclasses but after meeting the other singers and our collaborative pianists, I really felt that we were in it together as a team.

OW: What was the biggest takeaway for you from the experience?

FC: In New York, I was in a different place as an artist and was looking for guidance and perspective on where the next steps will be in my development as a musician. I had two big takeaways: First, I was so grateful for how much Joyce poured encouragement and love into my being. I wasn’t even aware that it was exactly what I needed at this point in my life. The second was realizing that the next step is taking responsibility and ownership of what I am offering on stage. A good teacher will teach you how to teach yourself. Joyce did this. It is time for me to believe in my ability to filter through all the knowledge that has been so generously imparted, and experiment with what works and doesn’t. It is a place of vulnerability but it is also important to remember that it can also be a place of play and unbridled joy.

OW: Let’s shift gears a bit and talk a bit about the singers that have had an impact on you.

FC: My favorite singers are the ones you can tell really love singing and have a natural ease to their sound. It inspires me to embrace and love my unique quality and to courageously share it! Shirley Verrett, Leontyne Price, Sarah Vaughan, Carol Vaness, India Arie, and Eleanor Steber.

OW: And what about your favorite operas?

FC: It’s such a cop-out but I cannot pick a favorite. My top five are “Adriana Lecouvreur” by Cilea, “Tosca” by Puccini, “Dead Man Walking” by Heggie, “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni, and “Madama Butterfly” by Puccini. These are my top five right now and I fully expect this list to evolve as I go through different stages of my life. These operas have changed my life in different ways and have been good reminders of some basic but important life lessons.

OW: When you are not performing or engaging in the world of opera, what other things do you enjoy?

FC: Outside of performing, I enjoy reading! The genres I tend to reach for are biographies, personal development, and fantasy. I’m currently working out to build up my stamina to go on my first hill walking vacation in Scotland! I’m hoping this experience will build my confidence in going on more rigorous adventure vacations. The past seven years of my life have been so deeply devoted to my craft that I’m finding I’ve had to take time out to do some reflection. I’m relearning about myself outside of music and what I enjoy. I’m eager to experience a lot of new things and stretch the limits of my comfort zone. Hopefully, in doing so, I am able to share more of myself through the characters I portray on stage.



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