In South Africa, if the lyric and the opera have long been the privilege of white singers under apartheid, things have changed with the end of the segregationist regime, and black voices are emerging more and more. Some, like the soprano Pretty Yende, have already conquered the world. A whole generation hopes to follow in her footsteps, like Khayakazi Madlala, a young singer in the making. Claire Bargelès met her at the Potchefstroom Conservatory, an hour from Johannesburg.
It only takes a few vocalizations before Khayakazi Madlala’s voice envelops the entire room. Off stage, her big smile, her calm and unassuming demeanor give no idea of the power she exudes when she starts singing.
“This is my favorite rehearsal space. I really like the sound of this piece and it’s great to rehearse here, to rehearse in front of the mirror as in front of an audience. Lyrical art is very strict, but I like the difficulties , which comes along. For gospel singing, I can just grab the microphone and go, but for those opera arias, I really have to take the time to study, master the work well, and also know how to play a part. But it’s all these challenges that make me love this art.”
A unique voice in opera She is now far from her village in the Eastern Cape, where she was lulled by lyrical melodies in her family of music lovers. From school choirs to church choirs, Khayakazi gradually discovered a passion for these forms of music. After embodying Mimi in the opera La Bohème by Puccini, a role in which she was noticed, the 27-year-old singer moved on to concerts to make a living from her art.
“I decided to perform after my mother died. I had to take care of my brothers and sisters. As I am the eldest, the four depend on me financially. And little by little I made myself known and I was asked to come and sing for different companies.
When not performing, the young soprano spends her days away from rhinestone dresses and the limelight at this conservatory in Potchefstroom, south of Johannesburg, where she is finishing her studies. She came there to take lessons from her teacher, Conroy Cupido, who discovered her during a singing competition.
“Oh, he’s a superstar! I can totally imagine him on any international stage,” he enthuses. “She has the voice for it, and the ability to work. His voice is truly unique, in opera we call it a ‘lirico- spinto” voice, an impressive voice that can sing Verdi and Wagner, and whose sound has a certain beauty. It is very rare.”
Talents forced to travel abroad After the end of apartheid, many black singers were able to express their previously unknown talent. They now shine on world stages, like the soprano Pretty Yende or the tenor Levy Sekgapane.
Conroy Cupido is not surprised to see new voices like Khayakazi Madlalas continue to emerge: “Many singers in the country develop a taste for classical music and opera through the choirs of their communities. And then we have good courses that they can follow”.
Despite this new dynamic, the young singer does not see her future in South Africa, while the country has only one company, Cape Town, which performs operas on a regular basis. Due to lack of funding, the Johannesburg company with which Khayakazi Madlala performed most often had to close its doors in 2018. One of its members brought it back to life from the ashes, but in a much more modest form.
“Imagine how many singers there are in South Africa looking for work. So it forces us to go abroad, she laments. It’s quite sad, because it consists of taking the riches from here and giving them to others.
To break through, Khayakazi Madlala now intends to enter international competitions to perhaps get noticed and hope to one day sparkle on opera stages around the world, like other compatriots before her.