Njabulo Madlala is “one lucky fella”

Njabulo Madlala is “one lucky fella”

Njabulo Madlala was announced Standard Bank Young Artist for Music for 2014 on 15 October 2013. Winner of First Prize at the 2010 Kathleen Ferrier Competition, he was born in South Africa. He studied on the Post-graduate opera course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and at the Cardiff International Academy of Voice. In this interview he tells us how he made his dream of become an opera singer reality.

Please tell us a bit about your personal background.

I was born in Inanda, a township right outside of Durban. My mother was a single parent and I grew up in a hugely disadvantaged economical background, so growing up was not the most pleasant part of my life so far. However, my mother, her extended family and our community gave us the best kind of love. That love, warmth and hope sustain me to this day and is the single reason I am able to talk to you today.

The strongest force in our family was my grandmother, a domestic worker and intense lover of music. Phumzile Ngidi b.1930-2009, otherwise known as Eunice, as named by her employers, was the singer in our family. She was the one always to be found singing and humming Zulu folk songs and lullabies in the house, while doing just about anything. She was a very quiet woman, who spoke very little, but found peace and solace in her music. Her prayer was also in song. I went to bed listening to her singing. There was something so special in her voice; I used to get goose bumps each time I think about it. She could easily have been a professional singer, her voice was really that good.
She was such an influence in my life and her life and journey means so much to me. To this very day I can hear her voice so clearly - mellow, dark, so rich in texture - just like the best sort of chocolate you can treat yourself to. That was the first real voice I ever heard and listened to closely as a child. I try and find that voice each time I have to give a performance. Her voice moved you consistently. It said something you knew and related to.

How did you become interested in singing as a career?

Actually, it is kind of ironic how this worked out. My grandmother was a domestic worker and after many years of working for different families to keep us alive, she was employed by the most wonderful white family in Durban North. They loved me like I was their own and as it happened, the lady of the house loved opera and classical music. This fascinated me, because my ear connected opera to the entire choral repertoire I was being introduced to through the community and school choir.

From time to time they would throw things they didn’t want to use out and naturally my grandmother’s instinct always took over and she would collect and bring everything home. So one day we found among this stuff old cassette tapes of opera. No one else took any notice of this and each day, as all the adults left the house, I would put them on and just sit fascinated. I had never heard anything like that played in the community. We had all sorts of music during those days and we heard everything because our neighbour played everything at top volume, but no one had ever played opera.

I joined in and sang along to the tapes and before long all the neighbours knew about this, but my family didn’t.  I never dared play to play it when they were in the house. My mother liked Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone.

I became hooked ever since and one day when asked what I wanted to do after completing high school, I announced to all my family that I wish to sing opera and travel the world.

Who was/were your voice teacher/s in South Africa?

I never had a singing teacher in South Africa. I had my first singing lesson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, having been granted a full scholarship based on my natural singing voice and training through the choir. I am “one lucky fella”.

What gave you the opportunity to realize your dream of studying abroad?

Right towards the end of high school, and while all my friends were applying to different universities in South Africa, I began to think what it was that I wanted to do. My family was in such financial difficulty that it was difficult for us to even have food on the table on some days, never mind to get to school. I remember I used to go to school twice or three times a week at most. We just could not afford transport money. I started selling all sorts of things from vegetables, steel wool and sometimes sweets, to make money for my bus fare the following day. So I knew that if I managed to get through high school that would be it for me.

I was never going to be able to step through the doors of a university. I was never to become anything like that in life. It was a painful time, but each time I found myself escaping and getting lost in the music. I will never forget my choir and the people there. I figured I needed to make my life work using singing and music. Although it was not clear how, it was my only hope and it saved my life.

A chance came for me to be part of the chorus in a production of Carmen, produced by the Spier Arts Festival. It was a job and at the time I had very little option. It gave me money to buy my mother and the rest of our family food. That Carmen production went on to tour the world and still singing in the chorus, I set off for London.

I was constantly thinking of my journey, and how I could improve my life and escape the situation I was in. I thought of the situation I had left at home. If I was to allow myself to return, I would be back to where I had started. I had to do something. I have always been instinctive, curious and intuitive. I asked around about schools. Someone advised me to visit the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal College School of Music and Drama, and I did.

At Guildhall I asked to meet with the Head of the Vocal Department. I explained my journey to him and asked for his help. He offered that they could listen to me, although it was outside of the official audition period. At the time I had never sung an aria in Italian before, but I was at the right place at the right time. After hearing me sing scales, they confirmed that indeed I was a baritone voice and Mr. Robin Bowman, head of vocal studies led me to the library where he gave me an aria and a song to learn and bring back to sing for them in two weeks.

As I could not read music, I simply bought myself a recording and learnt the arias that way. After two weeks I was ready to audition. At the end of the audition, I was offered a full scholarship and the rest is history! I did a similar audition at the Royal College and I was also offered the same arrangement and in the end I went with the Guildhall School of Music. It’s a special place for me and will remain so forever. They taught me everything I know today.

When did you start and end your studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama? Please elaborate on your experiences there.

I started my studies there in 2002 on the undergraduate course and in 2006 I graduated with a Bachelors of Music Degree. This was followed by a Masters Degree in Music Performance 2009. As part of the opera course showcase I sang Le Calender in La Rencontre Imprévue (Gluck) and The King in The King Goes Forth to France (Sallinen). While I was there I made a special study of all German Lieder and French and Italian repertoire.

What was the biggest adjustment for you when you first landed in London?

I suppose one has to look, examine environments and situations and analyze what it is you are not happy about and try to adjust accordingly. For me it was the weather! There is not really very much one can do about that, so I concentrated on what London has to offer, which is so much more exciting. I love London. I am really inspired in this city as there is so much going on. There are concerts, plays, talks, and events happening all the time!

In 2010 you won the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award. How has winning this competition changed your career?

Coming over from South Africa to London and winning a scholarship, I thought things could never get better. My life was changed. But when I won this competition things got even better. I am not a particularly competitive singer and in fact I do not like competitions and have avoided them most of the time. But I am clear about what competitions can do for a young singer in helping kick-start their career, therefore I am not totally opposed to them. I think if you are good at them, then go for them. I am perhaps good at them but hate the whole experience of being judged against my colleagues who are also very talented and do not deserve failure.

I had just finished my studies in 2009 and needed something to launch my career and boost my confidence in making a start at my career. The Kathleen Ferrier is the most prestigious singing competition in Britain. At the final, all the agents, opera companies and concert promoters are in attendance, but most importantly, there is chance for a young singer to introduce themselves to a public that follows classical music. Of course there is also the prize money that is welcomed by any young singer.

My career was definitely launched since winning and I am working extensively on concert and opera platforms. This has been wonderful and I feel really lucky for this chance. Apart from having an income to keep me going, I am more specifically grateful for the opportunity it has provided me. I now have a platform from which I can continue to grow as a singer, and learn new things from different musicians and directors. I am able to work with people from grassroots level right to those at the top of their careers. So in short, winning the competition has given me a concrete opportunity from which to grow and have a life on stage. 

You regularly perform opera roles, but have also done many recitals and have made a special study of recital repertoire. Which of these two genres are closer to your heart?

I love both platforms equally. They are both special in their own different ways, but for me the reward is the same. When the audience “get’s it” and leaves the theatre or the concert hall changed, then it’s a job well done. I love to see people smile, cry, think, become soft and lose their edginess, become gentle and be moved by the power of theatre and music. It’s my greatest joy.

Which opera roles would you like to tackle over the next few years?

Definitely the lyric baritone repertoire and nothing alarmingly dramatic. I will leave anything dramatic to the big boys. I would love to start looking at the young Verdi baritones also to challenge and gently push my boundaries.

You are one of the founders of The Performing Arts South Africa Festival. Please tell us more about this project and how you are involved in it.

We want to take part in enabling the training and nurturing of young South African musicians, particularly singers, by supporting local, national and international collaborations, engaging great musicians we have met on our journeys. In doing so, we hope to act as a bridge between South African artists and professional music institutions and musicians both in South Africa and abroad, through training and professional engagements. We want to take part in educating and creating future audiences for what is perceived as a European art form. We want our people to know what we are doing and understand it, so that they will want to come to the theatre without fear. We are currently in the fundraising stages for a national competition, which will be used as vehicle for identifying the most talented youths of South Africa.

Singers in South Africa do not have as many opportunities as singers in Europe, although the competition there is just as strenuous. What advice can you give young singers who are starting out about realizing their dreams?

The most important thing I would like singers in South Africa to learn is patience. This is a hugely rewarding career if you put in the time and work. There are a lot of sacrifices, but the rewards are great. There are simply no quick routes and everything has its own time. Maturity of the voice and person takes time.

Isn’t the number of singers who have cut their careers short by agreeing to sing repertoire that was simply beyond their maturity and understanding horrific? We have to continuously remind ourselves that once damage is done, it is difficult and even impossible to fix. There is a trend of “over-singing” while the muscle allows.

The next thing is hard work and belief in oneself. If you put in the hard work now, you are sure to have some success later and for things to get easier rather than more difficult.

Lastly and most importantly, I wish for South African singers to search deeper for their humility. There is simply too much arrogance and ignorance going around. Very few people are taking enough time to listen and process what it is they are being told. Humility says someone was here before me and someone is coming here after me. Listen to the teachers, directors and those you work with, because there is always something new to learn.

Do you think is it essential for South African singers to study abroad in order to achieve success?

I don’t necessarily think it is essential for everyone to go abroad to study. Listening to some of my colleagues sing recently has been an eye opening experience, and has indicated an absolutely astonishing amount of work and dedication teachers at home are putting behind their students across the country. But what I will say is that studying in another country gives a singer an opportunity to network and build contacts while still a student. They are then able to use this network when they complete their studies.

The disadvantage with having studied at home is where do you work? There are simply not enough structures in our country to ensure long term survival of any singer. A lot of singers are turning to school teaching to keep alive and many end up dropping singing altogether. Because how do you put your kids through university with a singers salary? 

For this reason I would say every singer talented enough to get a scholarship abroad should do so at their earliest opportunity. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Maybe then someone will do something about the situation to keep some of us at home. More structures need to be created and funded to provide a platform for more South African talent.

What engagements do you have for the 2011/12 season in Europe?

I am currently in rehearsal for a new piece, The Heart of Darkness, composed by Tarik O’ragan and produced by the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio. This will be followed by Mahler’s Lieder eines farhenden Gesellen with the Aurora Orchestra as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival. Other performances in 2011 include Tippet’s Child Of Our Time, the Porgy and Bess Suite (Gershwin), Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the Handel Messiah,  a recital with Sir Thomas Allen and Malcom Martineau for Wigmore Hall and Beethoven 9th Symphony 09 with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall.

In 2012 I will sing Belshazzar’s Feast at the Royal Albert Hall, concerts in Zimbabwe, a recital tour in the UK and Strauss’s opera Intermezzo for Buxton Opera Festival. I will do further recitals with Roger Vignoles before returning to South Africa in August 2012.

When can South African audiences expect to hear you sing at home again?

Although nothing is confirmed yet, there are plans to appear in recital for Friends of Music in Durban, Richard Cock Northwards recital series, and Diemersfontein Wines Recital.

My favourite author and poet, Maya Angelou, put it so well for me and to end this interview I would like to quote from her to express what keeps me focused, inspired and happy:

“There are so many gifts, so many blessings, and so many sources that I can’t say any one thing— unless that one thing is love. By love I don’t mean indulgence. I do not mean sentimentality. And in this instance, I don’t even mean romance. I mean that condition that allowed humans to dream of God. To make it. To imagine golden roads. That condition that allowed the “dumb” to write spirituals and Russian songs and Irish lilts. That is love, and it’s so much larger than anything I can conceive. It may be the element that keeps the stars in the firmament. And that love, and its many ways of coming into my life, has given me a great deal of confidence about life.”

Originally published 31.1.2011
Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler

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