Opera is one of those genres of music that takes us by surprise. For many of us who become opera singers, we never expected this music to have quite the effect on our lives the way it does. For Pumeza Matshikiza, this was certainly the case. Born in Cape Town, Matshikiza is currently taking over opera stages across the world, working for Stuttgart Opera and making her La Scala debut as Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the end of the year. Recently in Australia promoting her new album Arias and singing for the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation, we were given the wonderful opportunity of interviewing this brilliant soprano about all things opera.
There is such a diverse tradition of music making in South Africa. Of all the different genres, what made you pursue opera?
I was already singing in choirs, so when I heard opera for the first time as a teenager it quickly became the thing I would like to do. For me, opera comprises of three elements I really like: music, acting, and the orchestra. It’s great to tell stories in this kind of way.
Opera is something you can be proud of because it takes a lot of training. I have a fascination with the natural voice and how it works and how it can express all different emotions, whether they be subtle or strong. It’s fascinating that we can do this using just this instrument that is inside our bodies. You learn a lot about the natural voice without microphones. You also have to learn different languages and it’s a very skilled way of expressing yourself. But it’s fun!
You began studying Surveying and ended up studying opera! What inspired the change?
I didn’t like surveying. It was not my passion. I just did it because a teacher suggested I do it. My passion was always music. So I registered myself at the South African College of Music and then things started from there!
And it certainly did start! Pumeza Matshikiza was awarded a three year scholarship to the Royal College of Music. She then took part in the Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Winning the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in 2010, Pumeza then joined the Stuttgart Opera as full time ensemble, performing roles such as Pamia (Die Zauberflöte), Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro), Mimi (La Boheme) and Micaëla (Carmen).
What advice would you give to Young Artists? And if they are not from Europe, what suggestions would you give to help them with the language barriers?
I would say one needs to find a really good singing teacher that nurtures them from the beginning. Take your time and don’t be in a hurry! It’s not about being famous and it’s not about the glamour. You need to do it for the love of it.
Languages… Go to Europe! I travelled to Europe because I wanted to learn these languages which I know I’ll use in opera. So I speak German now because I’ve lived in Germany. I’ve learnt Italian because I’ve studied the language and sung it so often. Go abroad for 2-3 months. Stay in the country where the language is spoken and practise. Now we live in a time where you can go on YouTube or find a friend who you can Skype with from time to time. It’s a beautiful thing to do in this time that we live in. Knowing many languages also helps you to appreciate other people’s cultures. You can communicate with them, learn a few things and have an understanding.
What does the opera world need to see more of to see it survive and why is this music still relevant in the 21st Century?
It starts from the children. I think more children should be introduced to this music. They need to be introduced to more culture so they will pass it on to their children. Not just opera but ballet, plays, puppetry and all kinds of things. We need to stretch their imagination in an artistic way. We need more people who are creative in this kind of way to perform and we need even more people who appreciate it, as we need audiences as well.
Why is it still relevant in the 21st Century? You have this wonderful music by so many composers that we’ve had for hundreds of years who have left all of wonderful tunes and pieces. It would be a shame not to do anything with it.
If you could see any book, movie, tv show, novel, life event turned into an opera… What would it be
Oh wow, an event… I think the migration of human beings right through history would make a great story.
We then cheekily asked if Pumeza Matshikiza would be returning to Australia anytime soon. She said:
There are some people who are working on that.
So we better keep our eyes and ears peeled! What a lovely woman and an incredible talent. If you haven’t heard this incredible performer, do yourself a favour and have a listen to her new album Arias and do a YouTube search to listen to this stunning soprano. You won’t regret it!
Interviewed by Katherine Goyder and Louis Hurley