Soprano superstar wins Vienna prize

21 August 2016 - 02:00 By Shanthini Naidoo

Eastern Cape soprano Zandile Mzazi is on her way to becoming SA’s latest opera sensation, writes Shanthini NaidooNot many of South Africans have yet heard of opera singer Zandile Mzazi. Anyone who hears her sing, however, will never forget her.Petite, defying the stereotypical bulkiness sometimes associated with opera artists, Mzazi is a soprano who fills a room with her auditory presence. And last month the 32-year-old from Elliot in the Eastern Cape won first prize in the newly established Ljuba Welitsch singing competition in Vienna, named for the celebrated Austrian operatic soprano.Why would we not instantly recognise Mzazi, as we might recognise Pretty Yende or Pumeza Matshikiza? "South Africa is a country that does not recognise its own until we are celebrated elsewhere," Mzazi says.story_article_left1"Then only will the country say, 'Now, I can look at you.' These singing competitions are important, like the Olympics in a way."She says her triumph in the Ljuba Welitsch competition was a morale boost."Winning in Vienna was about being recognised by the international community. These people were not familiar with me, and there were 80 competitors from all over the world, but they heard something special in my voice. It gives me hope, as a singer."Sitting at a piano, Mzazi practises her scales, her voice rising higher and higher."It is like being an athlete, you have to warm up the voice and train it to do more. I exercise, for stamina, and meditate to concentrate on the breath. You have to perform a role for up to three hours and it is physically taxing."She has come a long way from Elliot, where as a girl she and her friends staged their own talent competitions. "My friends would say I kept winning, so I had to be a judge and give the others a chance," she says. She speaks quietly, preserving the powerful notes for the stage."My mother is an English teacher, but she was my singing teacher. She was not trained, but she is talented. We sang at church and in choirs, I won eisteddfods. But I didn't know about opera, I knew Mariah Carey."My late aunt introduced me to auditorium music, Messiah by Handel. And then I learnt an operatic piece by Sibongile Khumalo, without understanding the technique. There was a group of musically educated people who discovered me at my mother's school, and that is when I started voice lessons. I won a national competition and that is where it started," Mzazi says.She was also awarded a scholarship to study music at the University of Cape Town. When she moved to Johannesburg, she auditioned to train with Emma Renzi, 90, who was the first South African singer to land a leading role at La Scala in Italy. My resilience shows in my voice; whatever once broke me apart shows in my music, it is not luck, it is grace Renzi says: "This young woman is extremely talented, first class. She has a voice of real quality and was well prepared educationally. Also, she is a good actress. That is what is needed to be successful in the field."Locally, there is nothing in her league to compete in. If Zandile sticks at it, she will have to go overseas and with a bit of luck, she will make it. The competition she won in Europe is a step in the right direction."Mzazi is a lyric coloratura soprano, a "light" soprano with a darker tone."You use your whole body to sing," she says. "The mind must be focused. And as you train, Emma says the muscle memory helps the body remember what to do. The voice, brain and muscles are closely connected. Mentally, there is so much to remember. It is melody, the character's expressions. And it must look effortless. The audience must not see you struggling with the top note."She looks tall and strong on stage, performing Bellini's La Sonnambula. "That is one of my favourites, and his aria, Ah! Non Credea Mirarti," she says.But there is work to be done. Mzazi hosts private concerts to fund her international competitions, she has entered many before this."Friends and family are supportive, as is the business world. I am proactive in finding out what the Arts and Culture Department is up to, and I knock on those doors. I go to them and say I would like to feature. If I don't empower myself, I won't be chosen. In South Africa, there is not enough work for the number of singers we have."I go into Africa, I do corporate events. One of my biggest performances was for the Presidency, I performed for 50 heads of state. I took pride in doing that, but it took a lot to get that gig. The government must recognise that arts is important. It saves lives. It brings people together."She questions why opera singers have to excel overseas before they are taken seriously at home. "I know I have to go overseas to make a living but I would love to work and live at home."She travels with her daughter, 5. "She is my cheerleader. She tells people I am very good and then tells me to be calm. She makes it easier for me."Mzazi says she brings her past and her present into every performance. "Everything good or bad in my career has shaped the musicality and artistry in me: being a mother, successful and unsuccessful auditions and competitions, knocking on doors. My resilience shows in my voice; whatever once broke me apart shows in my music. It is not luck, it is grace." 

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