Khanyiso’s story is one of those that shows the current artistic system in our country at work, in all its strengths and weaknesses. He was born and raised in the township Khayelitsha. Even 20 years into South African democratic rule, the name conjures up images of poverty, apartheid-legacy living conditions and vast expanses of living conditions that are still an embarrassment to local and national government.
Every school and church has a strong choral tradition. Every weekend there will be choir competitions on provincial and national level. And we South Africans take it seriously, it is viewed like a national sport. As a young boy treble, Khanyiso won the Soprano category in one of these regional competitions. The adjudicator happened to be Marcus Desando, at the time an employee of Cape Town Opera, a famous South African tenor in his own right, director of operas and most recently, Artistic Director of Gauteng Opera. Desando found himself directing Puccini’s one-act Opera Gianni Schicchi and invited the young boy soprano to play the role of Gerardino at the Artscape Theater. That was Khanyiso’s first taste of the stage, and it seems that he was well and truly bitten by the Opera-bug.
Khanyiso took part in the musical life of Luhlaza High School, one known for its excellent music, both in the staff that train the choirs, as well as the high number of UCT Opera School pupils and Cape Town Opera Ad Hoc- and Voice of the Nation Vocal Ensmble members that have come through its corridors. He participated in the Tirisano National School competition and was crowned National Champion in the Ensemble Category in 2005. He was 1st runner up in SACMA Post Office Competition Baritone Section in 2007.
Not having much support in his environment for the “fancy dreams” of being on stage, Khanyiso enrolled for a more “practical and career driven” Human Resource Management Degree at UCT, but by the end of the year his frustrations had got the better of him. Here I met Khanyiso as he joined the Isango Portabello company of Mark Dornford-May. I was the vocal coach for this company’s acclaimed international touring production of Impempe Yomlingo, an African re-interpretation of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, done to Marimba accompaniment with colourful African costumes, dances and even traditional African music that even had Sir Simon Rattle enthralled when he visited the cast in rehearsal and performance at the Baxter Theater. A tall, handsome fellow with an easy-going personality and a quick smile, he was a big success in the company’s many overseas tours, playing to sold-out houses on London’s West End, culminating in the production receiving the London Theater Critics’ Olivier Award. Read more HERE.
Khanyiso credits his experience with this touring company as the light bulb moment in his career. He just knew he wanted to be on the stage, singing and acting (the Isango Company also put on plays and films in addition to its musical profile.) The experience also showed him that if he was to achieve any lasting success as more than just a member of a large company, he would have to “go back to school” and acquire the technique required for a life of singing.
Khanyiso has one of those particular qualities I have often found in young South African singers, male and female: an extraordinary range. In an audition, when asked what voice-type a singer is, the answer is usually forthcoming and straight forward. Bass, Baritone, Tenor. In South Africa, the answer is often ambivalent. Singers do not always know their own voice-types. In choirs, they are called on to fill the gaps, and it is often pretty much a case of, if you can get the notes, then this week you sing tenor, but if we need a bass soloist next week, be on stand-by! This phenomenon can be attributed to the choral tradition, but also the language. Here in South Africa, we have indigenous languages which place the speaking voice very comfortably and naturally in the mouth, with an open throat. Xhosa and Zulu – even pronouncing their names gives one an indication of the round open mouthspace required to speak them. Try to pronounce Qunu (Nelson Mandela’s last resting place) or our tenor’s name (Click and all!) correctly with a tight throat, a stiff tongue or an unrelaxed jaw, and you will know what I mean!
Sopranos here just seem to have limitless low notes and Mezzos can flip up to Soprano with ease. A case in point is Pauline Malefane from the Isango Company who sings Carmen in one production and Queen of the Night in the next. However, for absolute vocal health, one has to establish not where the voice can get to – at the extremes of high and low range, (like an airplane dipping up or down) – but where it can most comfortably “reside” for longer periods of time (more like a glider floats on air). That place is called the natural “Fach” of a voice.
Khanyiso is and example of a transition from Lower Baritone to Higher Tenor. The “Fach” of Baritone singing came easily to Khanyiso, as he feels he doesn’t have to exert himself so much, he can just open his mouth and sing. Yet, the tenor voice requires much more focus and physical discipline. It is like shooting with the same size arrow, except that the target appears to be smaller.
He ended up studying at TUT (Tshwane University of Technology) in Pretoria, where the transition was supervised by singing teacher Pierre du Toit. Evidently the right choice, the young tenor soon started popping up in many productions: Léhar’s The Merry Widow (Black Tie Ensemble), Haydn’s Creation (Gauteng Choristers), Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte (TUT Vocal Art), and even the Reneé Fleming Gala Concert.
Khanyiso is currently in his Second Year Postgraduate Diploma in Opera Performance at the UCT Opera School where he studies under Hannah van Niekerk. Back in his birth-town he has attracted much professional attention, singing lead roles in Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang for the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Mozart’s Don Giovanni for CTO, and the murderously taxing tenor part of Beethoven’s Symphony Nr.9.
In 2014 Khanyiso will be singing the role of Faust in Stockholm, Sweden
WHAT IS KHANYISO’S ADVICE FOR YOUNG SINGERS?
“If you know you are passionate about your music and have the talent, make it your job to research HOW you are going to make this happen. You need to know the “machinery” that will lead you to a professional career, and you must build a strong family support base. You need a good technique and you can only get this from a good teacher. You need to learn the languages, to pronounce and understand them properly as this career is about even more than if you have a good voice or not. It is your responsibility to let your family know that you can make a living in this career.”
Please watch this space for more news from this talented gentleman!