April in Africa

922941_10151630156587792_29381106_nSometimes it’s hard to believe that it really happened.

The whole experience was so overwhelming that it took me a long time to even post about it. But here at last is a summary of this amazing, beautiful thing we got to do.

These are the highlights of our enchanted April in Southern Africa, where we launched the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival.

So what really happened over there? If you were following our hilarious adventures on Nani’s blog, or Bogdan’s blog, or here on the Globetrotting Soprano, then you know that we were never able to post as much as we wanted to post.  There were power outages and bandwidth emergencies …. and the day our video footage got stolen by an angry baboon (just kidding) … Anyway, we couldn’t tell you the whole story. But now we can.


We came to Botswana to meet this dynamic group of singers:

DSCN0918These talented young opera singers live and work in the capital city of Gaborone. If you’ve read the best-selling detective novels by Alexander McCall Smith, then you already know that Gaborone is a special place. But you may not know that McCall Smith also founded an opera house there! With the help of their coach David Slater, this group of singers had been performing full-scale opera productions at the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House.  In addition to showcasing their vocal talent, these productions were quite original in how they presented opera in the context of Afrocentric themes. But in December 2012, they lost their lease and Botswana’s only opera house had to close its doors.Hm70SM

By establishing the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival, we wanted to bring some momentum back to the opera scene in Gaborone.  So we offered master classes in vocal technique, vocal repertoire, opera history, piano technique, acting, stage skills, musicianship, social media and career management. It was a labor-intensive two weeks, both for us and for our students!  But we discovered some tremendous voices.

By the end of the festival, our singers were doing some very exciting work.  They showcased their talents at a concert in Baobab School Hall.  The students who attended all eight classes graduated from the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival.  And at the finale of the Maitisong Festival (Botswana’s largest arts festival), they delivered a rousing Brindisi from Verdi’s La Traviata (featuring tenor Boyce Batlang & soprano Tshenolo Batshogile). It sounded like this:


We also had a wonderful time making music together.

We presented two full opera recitals in Baobab School Hall, including both the Power Ladies of Opera (a show that Nani and I opened in Los Angeles in February) and The Jewelry Box, a recital featuring some of Bogdan’s virtuosity on the piano, as well as a lot of coloratura pyrotechnics from Nani and myself.

We also gave a guest lecture at the University of Botswana about empowering women through opera.  We performed some of our “Power Ladies of Opera” program and facilitated a discussion about gender issues in Botswana, and how European opera relates to the African female experience.

QSeML0_2But some of our coolest musical experiences happened at church! I’ve already blogged about the amazing church service where the congregation made my rendition of Mozart’s Alleluia into a call-and-response song! And where dignitaries from all over South Africa (including one Zulu king) came to worship God together in a huge white tent on a sunny Sunday in Rustenberg.  Unforgettable.

But I didn’t tell you about our church concerts in Cape Town! Throughout our time in Cape Town, we were hosted by the Global School of Theology. One of my sweetest memories is singing sacred music for a chapel full of energetic theology students.  Later that day, we had the chance to sing at a benefit dinner for a recovery program for drug addicts.chapel This successful program is run by Mt Hope Worship Centre in Mitchell’s Plain, South Africa, and they are doing some great work.

Meanwhile, back in Botswana, we got to participate in the closing ceremony of the Maitisong Festival, singing a few arias from Tosca and La Cenerentola before introducing the graduates of the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival.  The concert was attended by the United States Ambassador Michelle Gavin.  Ambassador Gavin said some very encouraging words that night about the importance of musical and cultural exchange between Botswana and the United States.DSCN1665

We also performed as dancers at the closing ceremony. That’s right!  Nani and Bogdan and I sang and danced a Zulu folk song with the famous Witts Choir of South Africa.  There is video to prove it.  But that footage is far too precious to be released right now.  You’ll just have to wait for the official documentary. 😉


DSCN1206_2Sadly, AIDS is still a terrible reality in Botswana.  There have been great advances in drug therapies, and the government of Botswana is doing a good job with distribution.  But that doesn’t solve the whole problem. Some experts estimate that one third of the adult population of Botswana is infected with HIV. And the group most affected by HIV is women between the ages of 25 and 45.  So as you can imagine, a lot of young children are losing their mothers.

We decided to create a music workshop for AIDS-affected children (ages 2-6) in Botswana.  Many of these precious children have lost their parents to AIDS, and some of them are HIV-positive themselves.  But they are full of energy and just bursting with music!DSCN1197

We collaborated with a certified music therapist to design our Joyful Noise! workshop. One morning, we traveled to the village of Kanye to play with 60 children at Kgodisong Centre. And then we spent three mornings at St Peter’s Day Care Centre to work with 76 at-risk pre-schoolers! We wanted to give these precious children a fun-filled week of music games.

DSCN1369Some of our generous donors provided streamers and rhythm toys for the pre-schoolers in Mogoditshane.  You should have seen their little faces light up when we gave them their presents.

My sister and her family helped with this part of the festival.  (They had spent the previous two weeks doing a special service project for orphans in rural Swaziland!) So my two nieces, ages 11 and 6, helped us play musical games with the Tswana children.  That was a special joy for me to see!!DSCN1364

Meanwhile, my mom was conducting some exciting academic research towards her master’s degree. As Vice President of Clubs & Mentoring at Royal Family KIDS, she directs a mentoring program for abused and abandoned children in the United States.  DSCN1260While in Botswana, Mom arranged and facilitated a panel discussion with several African church leaders, authors and experts on the subject of  “Church Response in Botswana to Children & Families Affected by HIV/AIDS.” She returned with some very interesting findings about the kinship care model of foster care.

I’ve already blogged about Jackson’s Ridge, a beautiful campground in eastern South Africa dedicated to serving disadvantaged children. It’s the kind of place where you wake up in the morning to the sound of monkeys dancing on the roof of your cabin – pure fun. We met with Royal Family KIDS leaders at Jackson’s Ridge to discuss launch a mentoring club for abused children in South Africa in 2014!images

And we were able to make a very special donation towards a program called Jway Children’s Ministry. They train local churches in ‘child friendly’ outreach and education (40% of Africa’s population is under age 15), using puppets and magic shows to entertain kids from all backgrounds. When you’ve met these kids, you just long to bring joy to their little hearts.  So we decided to donate our last money from the festival towards… a bounce house!


Yes, we went on safari.  How could we not??  We spent three days in Kruger National Park (South Africa). Here are some of our animal friends:


And the beauty of Cape Town deserves its own post, but I’ll tease you with a few images:

IMG_4731IMG_4727IMG_4785This wonderful trip would not have been possible without the support of so many wonderful people.  We want to thank David Slater, our chief musical collaborator in Gaborone!  And Gao Lemmenyane, the director of the Maitisong Festival.  Our sponsors: Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Water’s Edge Church, First Presbyterian Church of San Pedro, and Empower International Ministries. Our dear friend Karen Torjesen at Claremont Graduate University.  And Professor David Kerr at the University of Botswana. And all of our singers… and all of the pre-school kids!  Thanks to our dear friends Father Andrew and Gladys Mudereri at St Peter’s Day Care Centre. Also, our best buddies Charmaine and Donovan Manuel with J-WAY, and Neville and Gail Fannin with Royal Family KIDS at Jackson’s Ridge.  And finally a big shout out to YOU, our faithful readers and supporters!!!

We are in the process of making a documentary about the festival.  Our brilliant videographer CAROLYN RAFFERTY got the whole thing on tape. So we have our footage already, but editing costs money. So there will be a Kickstarter campaign next month.  Please consider donating. The world needs to hear the beautiful voices of Botswana! Thank you.IMG_1255


Top 10 Reasons Why Safari Photos are Hard to Take

After our opera festival in Botswana, we took a three-day camping safari at Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And yet my photos just don’t seem to capture it.  Why not?  Here are my top 10 reasons:

10. The animals are usually walking away. (Was it something I said?)





9. It’s impossible to get a photo that does justice to an African sunset… or an African sunrise. The orange-gold color is emblazoned forever in your mind, but not in your digital library.IMG_4588






8. Giraffes are the ultimate photo-bombers. (What you lookin’ at?)


7. If the animals are sleeping or hiding, it’s more fun to take pictures of your friends goofing around inside an open-top vehicle. (It was a very windy day.)



6. When a monkey jumps in your car and steals your food, you start yelling at him, and you almost forget to grab the camera.IMG_1408








5. It’s hard to believe that these beautiful wild animals are right there… almost close enough to touch…









4. … but if you stop to blink, they’re gone.








3. The night shot you take of a baby elephant crossing the road with his mother in the moonlight doesn’t come out at all.  So you have to use one from the daytime, which just isn’t as magical.







2. As you drift off to sleep, you can hear lions roaring, hippos grunting, crickets chirping, and hyenas laughing outside your tent — but no photograph in the world can communicate how it feels to hear those sounds, so you just take a picture of the campfire instead.


1. Then at last, after three days of waiting to see a lion, you suddenly catch this soulful expression from behind some tall grass… and you almost stop breathing!


For the Love of Penguins

IMG_4878There’s just something about penguins.

In her post, “the things you do for penguins,” Karen Jane Barlow describes the harrowing adventures she had in Tierra del Fuego — braving freezing temperatures and violent waves — in order to visit a penguin colony.IMG_1525

People will do a lot for penguins. “Play with penguins” is actually a pretty typical entry for a bucket list.  Because penguins are cute! Especially when they are not biting you.  (They are much less cute when they are actively biting you.)

Now when I travel with Nani Sinha, I know that birds will (literally) flock IMG_4891to her.  She just has a knack with birds.  In addition to being a first-rate opera singer, she has a special bond with her feathered friends. Nani loves birds and birds love Nani. But when she reached out to a nice-looking penguin at Boulders Beach, he tried to take her finger off with his sharp little beak.  Fortunately, Nani has good reflexes. (Nani 1, Penguin 0)

But even after that little kerfuffle, we still thought the penguins were adorable. (Nani is also very forgiving.) So if you ever get a chance to visit South Africa, go to the Cape Peninsula and watch the cute little guys scrambling IMG_1532around the granite boulders of Boulders Beach.

Penguins are inspiring. After all, they do very well at the box office.  Whether it’s the tap-dancing penguin from “Happy Feet” or the melancholy pilgrims in “March of the Penguins,” these little tuxedo-birds always capture the imagination.

After watching wild penguins play on the beach, I felt like I was living in a movie narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.  So I turned on my iPhone video camera. Check out my fabulous cinematography here.  (Yes, our star videographer, Carolyn, had already flown back to L.A. before we arrived at Boulders Beach and that’s why you have to suffer through my crazy camera angles):

It was just a great day at the beach, and nice ending to our opera festival. I’d definitely do it again.

All for the love of penguins.


A Wagnerian Birthday

RWuHxZToday is Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday!

To celebrate, I just uploaded my rendition of his song Traüme (“Dreams,” Op. 91, no. V) along with a slideshow of original photographs of Cape Point, South Africa. I hope you enjoy it.

And please stay tuned for more posts about Southern Africa… coming soon!

Making New Friends

554783_10151596392227792_1019184033_nThere is a magical place near Magdaliesburg, South Africa, and it’s called Jackson’s Ridge. It’s a campground for abused and neglected children, and it’s run by some wonderful friends of mine. The campground is full of beautiful vistas and it is teeming with wildlife. It’s an African paradise!

We arrived here Saturday in time for a South African braai (barbecue party). We indulged in some delicious traditional foods while trading stories with our friends.

The next day, we went to a worship service at the Excellence Christian Centre. And it rocked! The church was inaugurating a brand new chapel, and the service took place in a huge tent right on the building site. People came from far and near to help celebrate.There were several visiting dignitaries, including His Majesty, King Motlotlegi Kgosi M.E. Molopyane Mabe!

After three hours of singing and dancing and speeches, we were asked to join in the fun. Bogdan grabbed a seat at the synthesizer and off we went. I sang Mozart’s “Alleluia” and the congregation cheered after every phrase — it felt like call-and-response Mozart! Nani sang Bach’s “Bist du bei mir” beautifully. We also delivered a duet, “How Can I Keep from Singing.”  And the crowd went wild, praising God! It was a big praise party. (A video clip of this event will appear here when we have a faster internet connection!)

At the end, the pastor asked us to learn a song in Zulu to take back to the United States. We joyfully accepted this commission!  Then I got to sing Amazing Grace a cappella while the congregation filed out of the tent and walked into their brand new chapel for the very first time. What a beautiful moment.

After church, our friends took us to see the local Lion Park in Johannesburg. We spent the afternoon feeding giraffes and petting lion cubs.  It was pretty awesome.  But Nani did cause a small scandal.  Just so you know, it is NOT okay to feed potato chips to a giraffe.  (Who knew?)

By the time we came “home” to Jackson’s Ridge, it was after dark. I couldn’t stop gazing up at the night sky, marveling at the sea of bright stars.  The Southern constellations are spectacular. an unforgettable day

The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival

I have never been to Africa. But that’s about to change.

In April, I’ll be heading to Botswana to launch the No. 1 Ladies Opera Festival!

If that title sounds familiar, then you have probably read the best-selling mystery series about the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.  Or maybe you caught the brilliant HBO series by the same name, with superstar Jill Scott in the role of Precious Ramotswe, the best detective in Botswana.

But you may not be aware that Alexander McCall Smith also founded an opera house in Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone, called the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House.  He established the opera house together with his friend David Slater, a marvelous musician who has been at the center of Gaborone’s classical music scene for more than thirty years. They assembled some talented singers and began to sell tickets.

My connection to Botswana is through my friend Karen Torjesen, professor of Women’s Studies at Claremont Graduate School, who is also a frequent guest professor at the University of Botswana.  One day last year,  Karen was filling out paperwork at the university when she suddenly heard a beautiful soprano voice singing classical music! It turned out that the young woman handling Karen’s work permit was an opera singer, a student of David Slater’s. Karen told her about the workshops I teach for young professional singers and my recent festival in Nepal. The young soprano was delighted, and several e-mails later, I was asking David Slater if his singers would like to have their own opera festival. He said yes.
And that’s how the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival was born.

Over the next few months, this captivating little idea began to gain momentum with breathtaking speed. I was delighted when the award-winning pianist Bogdan Dulu accepted my invitation to perform with me in Gaborone. And then the fabulous mezzo-soprano Nandani Maria Sinha told me she was available to go to Africa, as well! In fact, we are planning to give concerts on the theme of “Powerful Women in Opera” in Namibia and South Africa as well as Botswana! We will also teach workshops for the singers in Gaborone, and organize some exciting concerts for them.

So the festival will feature performances by both local and international artists, as well as workshops in vocal technique and operatic repertoire.  It will culminate in an energetic closing ceremony including both classical and traditional music. By a happy coincidence, we will be there at the time of the Maitisong Festival, Botswana’s largest arts festival, so we’ll get to experience Southern African music like never before!

And we’ll get it all on film. I’ve asked the filmmaker Heidi Burkey to create a special documentary about this festival.  These young singers are already following their dream of being professional opera singers, but they face enormous odds.  It is hard to sustain an opera career in any part of the world, but it’s even harder in Botswana, and it would be so easy for these talented artists to feel isolated and discouraged. So we want to help them use media channels to gain real traction for their careers. We’ll be spreading their music across the world.

The goal of the festival is to equip and inspire emerging artists in Southern Africa while bringing attention to women’s issues through musical performance. We also hope to cultivate sustainable funding sources for local arts programs in Botswana. We are thrilled to collaborate with Claremont Graduate School, David Slater Music, the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House and the Maitisong Festival to create an exciting new cultural event in Gaborone.

To raise money for this exciting event, I’ll be organizing a series of benefit concerts and one complete opera production in Los Angeles, so stay tuned for more details! In future blog posts, I’ll tell you even more about this wonderful group of singers in Botswana.

We do need help to fund this festival, so if you are able to make a donation, please donate here.  Every little bit helps!  Let’s make this happen.