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Rising South Africa Opera Singer Steps on World Stage

Bongiwe Nakani and Thesele Kemane, graduate students at the University of Cape Town Opera School, sing at a special UN event honoring Nelson Mandela, 18 July 2012. (UN photo/Devra Berkowitz)
Bongiwe Nakani and Thesele Kemane, graduate students at the University of Cape Town Opera School, sing at a special UN event honoring Nelson Mandela, 18 July 2012. (UN photo/Devra Berkowitz)
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— Rising South African opera singer Bongiwe Nakani had an international audience at this year's United Nations General Assembly in New York when she performed for world leaders celebrating Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday. 

Bongiwe Nakani is one of South Africa's rising opera stars.  Although she has sung in front of heads of state, she seems embarrassed before an audience of family and neighbors.

Pursuing her dream

Nakani grew up in Cape Town's infamous Khayelitsha township, an area known for high crime, unemployment, teenage pregnancies, and high rate of HIV/AIDS.

The 21-year-old mezzo-soprano lived in a small house with her foster mother and three sisters. Nakani says growing up, she had to fight to beat the odds to pursue her dream.

"When you grow up in that kind of environment, you must have two choices: it's either you're with the bad side, or you choose your own way to survive, so I choose the other way," she said. "I wanted to study;  I wanted to make something out of myself, because few people from here who have made it out there.  That's why I chose to go the other way and forget about what is happening here.

Nakani started singing at a young age.  She joined a choir and was introduced to opera when she was in high school.  Nakani says she likes the acting that comes with an operatic performance.

Nakani's biological mother, Nobambo Nakani, said she did not expect her daughter to choose opera as a career.

The elder Nakani says she was surprised when her daughter said she wanted to become an opera singer.  Nobambo Nakani says she herself and others in the community considered opera too sophisticated.

A challenging environment

Bongiwe Nakani says her community had limited exposure to opera.

"South Africa does not have a lot of opera.  Like here in Cape Town, we only have one opera house; it's just the Cape Town opera, unlike overseas.  So people here were not very exposed to opera music.  We were told it's from Europe, America.  So people still think it's not our music.  It's like foreign music," she explained.

Here, at the University of Cape Town's music department, Nakani is in her element.  She is still a student, but her career is advancing quickly.  Earlier this year, she was chosen to sing at the United Nations General Assembly in celebration of Nelson Mandela's birthday.  And then she spent three months in New York, selected for an exchange program during which she performed on stage.

Hard work paying off

Patrick Tikolo has been Nakani's teacher the past four years.  He says she has special qualities that make her stand out.

"She never takes education for granted," he said. "She is one of those students who are so hungry to know, she wants to know more.  One thing I know for sure about Bongiwe as well, is the fact that she would to anything to be on stage.  She loves being on stage; she loves to sing."

Tikolo says that singing opera takes more discipline than any other genre.

"One has got to be dedicated," he said. "You can be a singer, you can sing jazz, you can sing pop, you can sing gospel, all of those.  But for being an opera singer, it calls for a little bit more."

Nakani's dream is to play Rosina in the Barber of Seville at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  And nothing seems to be able to stop this young woman from Khayelitsha from realizing her dream.

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