Metropolitan Opera Baritone Luthando Qave

I first met Luthando when he was a young, (very young – 17 going on 18) chorus-member for Cape Town Opera, where I was the repetiteur. His beautiful voice and gentle nature makes him instantly likable. It is therefore a double bonus for me to rejoice in the success he has already achieved. He initially became a chorus member as his application to study opera at UCT had been unsuccessful. In the opera chorus he was given roles to understudy, such as Jake in Porgy and Bess, and he took bit-parts such as Marco in Gianni Schicchi, but we were denied the chance of seeing him in something substantial. When the company took this production on tour to Berlin, he had to step in unrehearsed for an indisposed colleague, singing the role of Crown, and by all accounts, did a sterling job.

But his professionalism and potential was noted overseas more than locally. He was chosen to sing in the chorus of the NorrlandsOperan’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). The Norrlands Opera House has a relationship with Cape Town Opera, collaborating on productions. During the Swedish run of one of these collaborations, Poet and Prophetess , Luthando was encouraged by the director Magnus Aspergen to audition for the University College of Opera in Stockholm, Sweden. This he did, despite some local consternation, and in 2008 Luthando moved to Sweden where he studied with Anita Soldh until 2010.

He has had master-classes from Lauren Flanigan, Johan Botha, Sussana Eken and Helmut Deutsche. He also credits coaching he received from Prof. Kamal Khan who conducted various productions for Cape Town Opera while Luthando was a member of the chorus, or Vocal Ensemble, as they were known. Luthando feels that the encouragement and positive response from Khan fed his self-confidence in seeking a singer’s  life beyond the chorus. He started his musical life as a school-choir boy, and there was a time where he did not really consider solo singing as something that anyone did. He knew the choir and that was his field of reference. However, Gwyneth Lloyd, an East London singer and teacher who runs her own music training programme,  gave Luthando his first taste of opera.

Luthando has attracted the attention of the international music world. In 2009 Luthando was a finalist in the prestigious Neue Stimmen International Singing Competition in Gütersloh, Germany. In Austria he was finalist of the Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition 2010, winning the special prize of the Washington National Opera and the Houston Grand Opera. And in April this year he was given a position at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, as part of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

I caught up with him briefly en route to New York, on a short visit to South Africa, where he will be performing in the “Pretty Yende & Friends” Gala Concert.

What was different for you about studying in Sweden to working in South Africa?

Luthando: Their patience. The calm way of studying. No one screams at you. They expect you to make mistakes because you are a student, they do not expect you to know it all. If there is something you do not know, they expect you to learn it, but they give you time. There are also many more teachers to choose from, if one does not work for you, it is easy to change teachers without fear.

Also the teachers work very hard to open the possibilities of success for their students. Information about master-classes and competitions are always freely distributed and it is not so easy to miss chances as it is in South Africa. Often, the people who audition for competitions or overseas productions have already left South Africa before you even hear about it.

What were the main technical lessons you learnt about your voice?

Luthando: I was taught to sing with the whole body, not just the voice. You need stamina to sing the whole night, and if you only use your throat you will not get far. Working on the voice without putting pressure on the vocal chords, it’s an ongoing process. Also baritones have darker voices and one is tempted when you are young, to try to sing “backward” in your throat, to make it sound older or bigger. But with my teacher I spent a long hard time on the job of projecting my voice forward. Also, in Sweden they like to work on lieder – all that beautiful music! It is so focussed and takes so much concentration. It really teaches you how to use your voice properly!

How did you cope with the pressure of the International Singing Competitions?

Luthando: I was a bit paranoid the first time. There are so many singers out there, and they are so good. It is like the United Nations when you go to one of these things! It is so different to sing your programme with a piano accompaniment in one round, and then suddenly in the next round you are singing with a whole orchestra. You can not prepare for that, except by doing it. With “Neue Stimmen” I was the only baritone in the semi-finals. I did well, but I was not myself. The nerves were terrible. It was all so foreign and different. I sang the best I could, but I knew I could do better. But last year, with the Belvedere Competition, I felt a lot more comfortable. The work on my voice was paying off, and I had some experience from the last competition to draw on. It feels good to be chosen out of 3000 entries internationally even to go and sing, let alone get into the finals. 150 singers sang in Austria and I was in the final 12. I worked so hard, I must feel good about that.

How do you feel about singing in Cape Town next week?

Luthando: I am so happy. Every singer wants to sing for their “home crowd”. It is sad that there are not more opportunities for South African singers to return home to perform. In Sweden, I would see the other singers “go home” to Latvia, Istanbul, China, and they are applauded and welcomed back with concerts and performances. It is not like that in South Africa, we still have to work so hard even to get to sing. So I am really happy that I can come and show people that I have learnt and worked hard.

What advice would you give a young singer?

Luthando: Believe in yourself. If you want to progress on that road to success, you first have to believe that you deserve to be on that road. Always work hard and always be open to criticism. Even sharp words can be turned to your advantage and make you stronger. But don’t allow the negativity around you to break you down. Sing with your soul and all you have. That is the only way I know.

You can listen to the following recordings by Luthando Qave:

Largo de la Factotum from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia recorded at the Neue Stimmen 2009 Singing Competition.

Ya vas Ljublju – from Thaikovsky’s Pikova Dama.

Questo amor vergogna mia – from Puccini’s Edgar.

You can read more about the Pretty Yende & Friends Gala Concert HERE.

You can read more about Pretty Yende’s success in the Savonnlina Singing Competition HERE.