There are some sounds that knock you sideways.
The vocal talent in Botswana is simply phenomenal. For someone who craves the sound of rich and resonant voices, Gaborone is like a candy shop.
As you can imagine, the master classes that we are teaching are just as much fun for us as they are for our students! Our young singers are very modest and unassuming; sometimes, they are so shy that it is hard to coax them to sing. But when they open their mouths, the music just pours out of them! More than a few times, Nani and Bogdan and I have been left a little breathless by the quality of the sounds we hear.
We have even met a few voices that (if they get the proper training) might someday sing in the great opera houses of the world. But like all young opera singers, they need rigorous training in order to make that dream a reality. And it is hard to get the necessary education in a country without a single music conservatory. Despite the enthusiasm of the singers themselves, Botswana’s audience for classical singing is still fairly small.
On Wednesday evening, we opened the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival with a concert on the theme of “powerful women in opera.” Four dozen classical music lovers filed into Baobab School Hall, curious to hear an opera concert in Gaborone. There has been no opera here since December, when the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House was forced to close because they lost their lease.
With Bogdan at the piano, Nani and I sang some of the great operatic showstoppers by Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, Bizet, Verdi and Wagner. And it was a success! At the reception that followed the concert, the audience showered us with compliments, calling the show “spectacular” and “immensely enjoyable.” We heard so many kind words from local music teachers, music enthusiasts, tourists, and even from a representative of the United States Embassy! We felt honored to be able to perform for such an appreciative public.
But that was just the beginning. After the reception, we invited the young opera singers back into the theater, where I taught a master class in vocal technique. The students were brimming with energy: they studied my powerpoint slides about the lungs and the vocal cords, and they listened carefully to my sound clips of great singers, and they immediately integrated my vocal exercises for breathing and support.
Then, one by one, they came up to the front and sang for us. Many of them actually seemed quite nervous about this, but with the support of their friends, they gathered enough courage to come forward. They tentatively handed Bogdan their music and introduced themselves. Some of them were so shy that they actually hid their faces behind their hands. But then they blew us away with soulful renditions of “Un bel di vedremo” and “Nessun dorma!” It was the most amazing experience.
The very next night, they all returned to hear Nani’s master class on acting and audition skills (and vocal technique, too!). For me, it was such a joy to sit back and watch Nani teach – it is just so gratifying to watch her give these singers the tools they need to improve. And I can’t wait to see Bogdan’s master class on Tuesday! These students are so hungry to know more about singing.
Then last night, I gave a short presentation on the history of opera, and challenged them to think about Botswana’s place in the FUTURE of opera. They smiled thoughtfully, and then they went right back to work, singing their hearts out.
Our evening workshops will continue all next week, hosted by David Slater at his studio. Mr. Slater is both a conductor and a masterful voice teacher, but like his students, he is incredibly humble. It is quite evident that he has already taught his singers a great deal about technique, phrasing, languages, librettos, and the architecture of sound. But if you ask him, he will tell you that his students’ impressive sound is primarily due to their own “lovely voices” and “raw talent.”
We are hoping that our festival will bring some national and international attention to these marvelous singers. We will be featuring these voices in YouTube clips. There are some Tswana voices that you will want to hear.
Meanwhile, be sure to check out Bogdan’s blog and Nani’s blog for more about our exciting adventures in Botswana!