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African Soprano Journeys from Village to World’s Great Concert Halls

  • Darren Taylor

Zandile Mzazi poses during a break from practice at a concert hall in Rome.

Zandile Mzazi poses during a break from practice at a concert hall in Rome.

She has performed for heads of state and at royal weddings around the world and impressed audiences at some of the great concert halls. But Zandile Mzazi remains virtually unknown in her home country, South Africa.

Mzazi, 32, comes from the tiny, rural town of Elliot in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

She is petite and soft-spoken, but Mzazi said she is “on this Earth to make a noise.”

“My mom said when I was born, the first day I cried so much! She said, ‘My gosh! Those lungs!’ The nurses from the entire floor of the hospital, they came because they thought maybe we were slaughtering this child, you know!" said Mzazi.

As a girl she and friends would stage their own talent competitions.

“I always thought I was going to be a pop singer, because I always loved music. I always loved imitating singers [like] Whitney Houston. And I was good at it,” recalled Mzazi.

But Mzazi’s family’s musical interests stretched further than just pop hits.

“Opera music was not something that I knew, or was familiar with. However, I knew about oratorio music because my aunt used to play a lot of Messiah, you know, from Handel. So I grew up listening to the Messiah,” she said.

Zandile Mzazi on stage during a recent performance in South Africa.

Zandile Mzazi on stage during a recent performance in South Africa.

“And I could sing the Messiah, jeepers; from the age of nine! I listened to opera recordings, and I imitated the sound that I was hearing. Little did I know that actually I had something very special,” said Mzazi.

But others recognized her talent. Mzazi attended the high school where her mother taught English. One day her mom was in charge of auditioning pupils for a particularly difficult singing part in a school play.

Mzazi said her mother invited a colleague to help her to identify a child who could carry the part.

“And she said [to my mother], ‘Why are you stressing? Because that skinny little girl there can sing this.’ And my mom said, ‘Who?’ And then she pointed at me and said, ‘Come here, come here.’ And then my mom says, ‘This is my daughter.’ So that is how I was discovered,” said Mzazi.

After winning several national singing competitions, the University of Cape Town offered her a scholarship to study music.

Mzazi said she is attracted to the “sadness and drama” of opera. “I can not say I have got a big voice; my tone is a little bit dark.”

But her soprano voice has taken her to the great concert halls of the world, Rome, Vienna, London, New York, where she has performed great classic opera pieces.

“Whenever I perform and I hear my sound ... it shocks me, because it is really incredible that I am so blessed with this instrument,” said Mzazi.

One of the world’s legendary opera singers, Montserrat Caballe, selected her to perform in Italy last year.

She does not spend much time in South Africa, but one of her most memorable performances was at last year’s summit on cooperation between Africa and China, in Johannesburg.

“At Sandton Convention Center, where I sang for 50 heads of state ... I got this job, and they want me to sing ... In Mandarin! So I have to sing in Mandarin. And I did it ... It was on television in China, because the president of China was there, so it was live in China. So there was no way I could make a mistake. No flipping way!” said Mzazi.

Zandile Mzazi said she is planning a move to “somewhere in Europe,” to embark on the next leg of her journey into the opera stratosphere.

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