Kelebogile Boikanyo: Opera songbird

Tell us a little bit about how you got into music and what attracted you to this art form?

At school I sang in the choir, performed as a soloist in competitions where opera pieces were also prescribed. We all came to love the famous opera tunes.

You have recently won the Standard Bank young artists of the year award, tell us about what this means for you as an artist?

To be a Standard Bank young artist of the year is wonderful achievement that I will always be proud of. I am sure the award will open doors for me.

Tell us a little bit about your creative process, how do you go about preparing for a role or a performance?

Studying a role is a huge challenge. I need to understand the character, and therefore have to use every means at my disposal to achieve this. It is very necessary to pick the brain of my mentor Hein de Villiers, the stage directors and eventually the conductor. Understanding eg an Italian French, Russian text word for word is a long and challenging process.

Music is such a readily available art and there are so many musicians out there, I want to ask then how does Kelebogile claim her space in this maize of voices?

I have the belief that I have a good voice and I understand the demands of mastering my roles, which also includes the ability to be very focused and disciplined and to see that you are in excellent health.

You have performed in most of the major operas, which would you say has been your favourite and why?

Without question Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, it is such great fun for the cast and Susanna is a key role where she is almost in command as the manipulator of the Count Almaviva and Figaro. Our stage director Angelo Gobbato has also been a great inspiration during the July 2011 rehearsals for Opera Africa’s recent production at the SA State Theatre.

Who would you say are some of the musicians that have had the strongest influence on you and how?

Sibongile Khumalo is most surely someone I greatly admire for her wonderful voice and musicianship. I was also fortunate to hear and see Renee Flemming at the SA State Theatre 2 years ago. She made a lasting impression on me and I love to attend the Cinema Nouveau Metropolitan (NY) productions where she is featured.

A lot of people know you as a musician primarily but you are also an actress, tell us a bit about that?

I prefer to be known as an opera singer where acting and singing cannot be separated. Every movement is an expression of what the character feels and sings about. On stage the interaction between singers during a performance is uplifting and fun and unexpected moments like forgetting and having to make up words, or somebody that enters late or from the wrong end of the stage requires quick thinking and teaches you to cope. I love to play and sing a character with many facets.

How do you think that these two genres of performance complement each other?

Well, I think they are inseparable….and the text is central to both.

I am sure being a musician or an actress requires very high levels of dedication and practice, how do you transition between the two and how do you actually make time for each one?

My preparation as a singer is a non-stop affair. I have to vocalize daily to ensure that I can meet the technical demands of the roles offered to meet. As lyrical coloratura soprano I face singers with outstanding technique and voices that compete for roles and I need to be at a peak when I do auditions. In addition to the technical side and the composer’s music, the dramatic aspect is a never-ending learning curve. To do research on your character and place it historically in the right period requires every bit of help from wherever you can get it to avoid stereotyping. Even if one repeats a role there are always new dimensions to explore.

Opera is not often seen as a very ‘African’ musical form, what relevance then do you think this music has to South African audiences?

I am not really fond of this perception that opera is a Western ‘thing’. Opera became very popular during the past 10 years and is sung by hundreds of community choirs in competitions and concerts. I really hope that there will be a future for the many opera students at our universities to make a career. My company, Opera Africa is attracting new audiences that include townships and people that have never seen an opera before – who give us standing ovations!! You could mistake some of our performances for a soccer match!

You have also performed in the critically acclaimed Princess Magogo, tell us a little bit about that experience and what it was like?

I must add that besides Princess Magogo I have just sung in a newly commissioned opera Ziyankomo and the Forbidden Fruit at the SA State Theatre and Joburg Theatre that was a huge success. I am proud tb associated to Opera Africa as an Associate Singer because of their dedicated efforts to create new works incorporating our heritage. My biggest challenge in both operas was to sing in Zulu as a Tswana speaker it does not come very easily.

What do you think needs to be done to create more original opera works such as Princess Magogo?

I am told that funding for new works is a huge problem. There are many composers and text writers who are very keen to become involved in a major stage work such as opera.

What can audiences expect from you this year in Grahamstown?

For my recital programme a selection of opera arias and songs form the basis of my performances. I am very excited that the programme also includes songs by Rimsky- Korsakov and Cesar Cui as well as Manual de Falla which will be sung in Russian and Spanish respectively.

What are some of your future plans and initiatives that you are working on?

I am fortunate to be a full-time Associate Singer under the wings of the Opera Africa Company where I get opportunities to perform, and to work and study with my mentor and coach, Hein de Villiers and the company repetiteur Paul Ferreira. This means that I can learn new roles, prepare for major competitions. And,  my dearest wish is to follow in the footsteps of SA singers Pretty Yende and Fikile Mvinjelwa who have made their mark at the La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera .

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