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Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Set to deliver in his chosen field – (Interview with new head of OSCA by William Charlton-Perkins)

Hearing good things about the new man on the block, I decided to get a closer look this week at what is going down at the UKZN’s Opera School and Choral Academy these days. I met with Lionel Mkhwanazi, 34, the Soweto-born lyric tenor who was recently appointed to the key post of OSCA’s Voice Lecturer.

When I arrived to interview him during a lunch break, the place was buzzing as a KZNPO campus concert had just ended, and students and players were thronging out of Jubilee Hall on Princess Alice Drive on the University’s lower campus. We made our way downstairs to Mkhwanazi’s rather cluttered rehearsal room-office space to chat. My first impressions included a strong sense of purpose, a quiet, pragmatic way of ‘getting on with life’, and a refreshing absence of ego-building, so prevalent in the theatrical world.

Mkhwanazi was driven to develop his talent while singing in choirs as a youth. Heading for Durban as an eager 20-year-old, he landed the plum role of Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, staged by Opera Africa. Then, like so many young singers, he furthered his studies for four years at UCT’s School of Opera. While taking his diploma he gained invaluable experience appearing regularly in productions staged by Cape Town’s Opera Studio, a bridging body affiliated, under the aegis of Prof Angelo Gobbato, to both Artscape and UCT.

With the help of bursaries, Mkhwanazi undertook post graduate studies for his Master’s degree at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. During his time in the US, he made the most of performance opportunities that came his way, as well as teaching at middle schools. After two years, home called, and he returned to South Africa to put back into the country his energy and newly acquired professional skills.

A personal highlight for Mkhwanazi back home was being invited to perform in the 50-year celebratory concert staged in Soweto given by the Oppenheimer Foundation as its salute to the many beneficiaries it has supported down the years. “I felt so proud to be up there, singing for my own family and friends in my home city, to be able show them what I have achieved with their support and the faith they showed in me when I was starting out.”

Mkhwanazi was teaching Voice and Performance for the Pretoria based Black Tie Opera Ensemble’s development programme when he applied for and got the recently advertised post at UKZN. Clearly, Pretoria’s loss is Durban’s gain.

He is palpably excited about the talent waiting to be developed at OSCA, and at the prospect of working with a professional musician of the calibre of Andrew Warburton, an accredited UNISA International Singing Competition accompanist. He also relishes the prospect of performing alongside his students, an experience he himself cherished as a student, singing with his own teacher, Brad Liebl, in Cape Town.

Refreshingly too, Mkhwanazi, I intuit, concurs there is room for more high-quality teachers to join the staff at OSCA, in the light of the broad scope of work being undertaken on other campuses, notably Cape Town’s.

In any event, we now we have a man in our midst, it seems safe to predict, with an unswerving belief in his chosen field, with performance experience behind him, and with the essential determination to serve the cause of Opera, that universal, most demanding and most magnificent of all performing art forms.

Opera and Choral singing belong to the world, we agree. Classical opera, with its wealth of musical and dramatic riches, deserves to be shared with our people, showcasing our own artists in Africanized settings such as that of Opera Africa’s Carmen a decade or more back.

Just so, new indigenous opera and choral music needs to be commissioned from our own composers. The Playhouse Company made a significant step in this direction, staging Ingqayingyayi E-Afrika, its Phelelani Mnomiya-Themba Msimang commission for the opening of the first African ISPA conference at The Playhouse in June. This work was designed for future development, said Playhouse CEO Linda Bukhosini while work was in progress on the project. The Company held auditions earlier this year for OSCA students, with an eye to fostering future work opportunities for young talent, so more could well follow in this direction.

“Durban is a big city,” says Mkhwanazi. “We need to think big in our field, and work together to turn ourselves around.” Internationally, KwaZulu-Natal is known for its untold vocal riches. To an overwhelming extent these are still waiting to be mined and developed for the benefit of our artists themselves, while fulfilling the vast cultural tourism potential of our city and our region. We need to help create an industry for this to happen.

Local opera, along with its indigenous sister performance art forms, can and will thrive if nurtured it from within. - William Charlton-Perkins