Young woman dressed in red, sitting in an armchair and smiling
Art and culture

A South African soprano fuses technique with raw emotion

December 12, 2019

From township girl to opera powerhouse, Pumeza Matshikiza’s dramatic life story is echoed in a voice that evokes her unusual beginnings and decades-long devotion to her craft.
A pianiste playing with a score in front of her

Whatever you imagine a typical opera singer to be – perhaps involving a Wagnerian costume or Viking-style horns? – it probably won’t be a spitting image of Pumeza Matshikiza.

“I don’t even know if it’s O.K. to eat these before singing,” says the lyric soprano, nonchalantly snacking on some goji berries inside the Strasbourg Opera House in France. Wearing skinny jeans and a roomy sweater, she flips her hair, braided and in a loose bun, as she goes into rehearsal for Dvořák’s “Rusalka,” where she plays the eponymous water nymph who falls in love with a human prince.

“When I look at Rusalka, I see someone who is going through the typical growth process of being young and of experiencing love,” she says. “In the end, she is not the woman we started with. It’s the story of all women – a story about growing up.”

The South African singer is unfazed by the traditions that have long followed this storied music genre. “You’d have some sopranos where you get into their dressing room and there is steam and oils everywhere, and you feel like you are in a Buddhist monastery,” she says as she buzzes about her love of Lizzo, the audacious American singer/rapper. “When I take a shower, I put some Lizzo tunes on!”

Two seamstresses in a sewing workshop
Polaroid photographs taped to a black wall

A lot of opera singers are not into popular culture. They find it degrading, but I don’t because popular culture is real and it’s here.

Pumeza Matshikiza Soprano

From township to opera house

Despite her down-to-earth demeanor, for Matshikiza the pull of opera was in the discipline and dedication to the craftsmanship involved in elevating the humble human voice to new heights. “The reason I sing opera is due to my fascination with the development of the operatic voice – to be able to do something I couldn’t do three years ago,” she says. “If, technically, you don’t know exactly how to reach those top notes, you won’t be able to grow as an opera singer.”

Yet learning operatic technique is something that came to the soprano relatively late. Matshikiza’s childhood, spent in the townships around Cape Town, was a far cry from the European opera houses in which she is now a regular figure. “I lived in the slums,” she says of her years growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era.

I’d come home from school, and sometimes police cars and ambulances would come. And we had to run.
Two women discussing next to an open book
A woman in red jacket, leaning on stair railings

As a teen, she wasn’t able to receive formal training. She even studied to become a quantity surveyor for two years after high school, following the recommendation of her math teacher. “It was the most boring time,” she recalls. “I was talking about bricks, buildings, calculating cost and doing drawings.” In fact, the soprano says she couldn’t read music until she was 21 – the year when a fortuitous meeting with the composer Kevin Volans turned into a chance of a lifetime.

Songs of home

As with many fascinating back stories, the soprano often feels weary of the attention it receives. “Sometimes, it gets a bit boring when I have to talk about my past again and again,” she says, but adds: “At the same time, it’s part of who I am, and I wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t for that.”

Indeed, the singer’s past reverberates in her music. For her first studio album, “Voice of Hope,” she combined elements of South African folk music with operatic singing – what the singer describes as a fragile balance between improvisation and strict operatic codes. “Some of the [folk] music didn’t even have written notes; the bands would improvise and a folk singer would just be singing,” she says. “[In opera] you have to sing straight, whereas in folk music where your voice sits naturally is totally different.” Of crafting a distinct artistic identity, Matshikiza says that it comes down to a delicate juggling of instinct, technique, emotion – and practice. “I practice almost every day,” she says. “To build an operatic voice takes time. There are a lot of people who lost their careers and voice because they didn’t really understand what they were doing to produce the voice they were producing.”

To build an operatic voice takes time.
Close up shot on a costume being sewn Seamstress holding in her hands a photograph of a garment model she has made
Two actors rehearsing a play

Opera should, as much as possible, sound natural. But to make it sound natural, you have to work hard.

Pumeza Matshikiza Soprano

Crafting emotion with technique

With limited resources available to her as a young singer, Matshikiza honed her craft through imitation and “just giving emotion.” Now, she sees it a bit differently. “I think it wasn’t the most correct way,” she says. “The correct way to start is to first build a technique and then express emotions – not express emotions without a solid technique.”

For the soprano, melding technique with emotion, attending to detail while sounding natural, is the crux of operatic craft. The magic, she says, is in the mixture, when your technical proficiency guides your raw emotions in song. “Technique alone is boring,” Matshikiza says.

A woman standing on the stage of a theater
A woman walking in the backstage of a theater

Even with two decades of singing behind her, the soprano remains keenly ambitious about pushing the limits of opera. “I am discovering new things in my vocal technique, which I want to solidify, so I’m thinking about other roles like Tosca, which I’m going to play in 2021.” Yet, for someone so defined by plowing her own furrow, might something truly mold-breaking be a temptation – say, a collaboration with Lizzo? “I don’t know. But don’t be surprised if I do.”

This three-part series explores the craftsmanship behind the works of exciting creative minds in stage design, opera and dance. In the same way that Dorchester Collection devotes itself to crafting perfect moments for guests, these creatives go the distance to transcend the ordinary and aim for the sublime.


This content was produced by T Brand Studio and previously appeared on The New York Times.
© Photography by Chris Saunders

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