From destitution to international opera stardom

From destitution to international opera stardom


Johannesburg - He was a poor 16-year-old with no plans to travel overseas, but Musa Ngqungwana applied for a passport anyway.

The now world-famous operatic bass-baritone was inspired to travel by pictures of places in magazines that he read, particularly New York City in the US.

The man who started singing in high school after joining a choir to get closer to a girl he liked has sung in New York and around the world.

He has received praise from The New York Times for his “rich, glowing voice and elegant legato”, and The Wall Street Journal called him “a powerful bass-baritone”.

Born into poverty in Zwide township in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, Ngqungwana is launching his memoir, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer.

“I had my passport for eight years and I travelled for only two years before it expired. It was tough holding on to my dream, but the idea of travelling was what kept me afloat,” he told City Press this week.

“The book helped me to express my anger and it has become therapeutic when I’m despondent. It is also a reminder of where I come from,” Ngqungwana said.

Now based in Philadelphia in the US, Ngqungwana tries to visit South Africa at least twice a year, and does his best to pop into Cape Town. He could not read a note of music when he arrived at the University of Cape Town’s music school, but he later graduated cum laude. It took him a while to get used to the city when he was a student.

“At university, half of the professors were gay and I realised I was judgmental towards people I did not know,” he says, adding that travelling to secular societies abroad changed his world view.

Ngqungwana also visits his home town, where his mother still lives, but he no longer has any friends there.

“I feel like a stranger in Port Elizabeth and I get lonely when I am there. It is like visiting a foreign country,” he says, adding that most of the people he grew up with are either dead, unemployed “or in bad shape”, and he has trouble relating to them. His beloved grandmother died 10 years ago.

“What I miss the most about home are the memories that no longer exist. I miss the warmth of the people and the spirit of ubuntu; of having to greet a stranger,” he says.