WATCH: Opera star returns to roots


Visit home from US gets off on high note for former PE singer

It was a 1970s video of a Jamaica born British opera singer that made Musa Ngqungwana sit back and say: “What? A black man can do this?” Yesterday, Ngqungwana, now a hugely successful opera singer himself, returned home to the sound of music as jubilant members of the PE Viola Men’s Choir filled the Port Elizabeth airport building with song.

Bass-baritone Ngqungwana, 31, who was born and bred in Zwide, has lived in the United States since 2007, forging an impressive career along the way.

He is in the Bay to visit his family and catch up with old friends.

Ngqungwana’s musical career began when he was 16 and became fascinated by the performance of operatic bass singer Willard White through a video he was made to watch by a friend.

“He showed me a 1978 production on VHS of a festival outside London and there was a black man by the name of Willard White who really captivated me with his performance.”

That was the light-bulb moment when he decided “I want to do this”.

“Because of our history and how complicated it was, black [people] wouldn’t necessarily participate in classical music. We always had this thing that it was a neocentric thing that we were not part of, or supposed to be part of,” he said.

“After 1994 . . . the gates were opened for us [and] we flooded to Johannesburg and Cape Town.”

He then joined the PE Viola Men’s Choir – which had been formed in 1991 – and developed his deep, vibrant voice.

“We were different from any other choirs in PE because we always focused on classical music, concentrating on technique and different styles of singing.

“So that was the foundation for me to start listening,” he said.

“If you are singing in a choir [you must ask yourself] can you hear the different parts, can you harmonise, can you blend in with that?”

After completing a music degree at the University of Cape Town, Ngqungwana landed a spot at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia in the US, where his solo performances were a focal point.

His career started blossoming and he snagged his debut role – Queequeg in Moby Dick. That was followed by the role of Zuniga in Carmen.

Ngqungwana is able to perform in several languages, including Italian, French and German.

After a very busy year, he is pleased to be home, where he plans on enjoying traditional food and hearing the noise of taxi conductors.

“I have not had a breather since December last year. The past two years have been really packed with performances.

“I missed a lot of things about South Africa, like the taxi conductor shouting and the drunken man singing in the street on a Sunday morning,” he said.

“I am looking forward to some home cooked meals, like tripe and smileys [half-sheep head].”

Awed by the surprise hero’s welcome from his former choir mates, Ngqungwana joined in the singing and dancing, bringing the airport to life.

“It was great. It unearthed all those roots of where it all started.

“We speak the same language, we understand each other,” he said.

Proud PE Viola Men’s Choir spokesman Jongisizwe Gomo, 44, said they wanted to welcome Ngqungwana home in a special manner because their relationship went beyond the music. “We are a family.”

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