Theo Magongoma baritone

Theo Magongoma, baritone

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I am the son of two Xhosa migrant workers from what was called the Transkei, an unrecognized state in the southeastern region of South Africa, the so-called ‘homelands’ under apartheid which were set aside for Africans at that time. There were no concert halls, opera houses nor theatres as I grew up in a rural township where such things were neither encouraged, nor were there the financial resources to build or maintain them. But township life introduced me to singing, it embraced strong musical traditions as part of its culture. There is a sense that the Xhosa people have carried their own songs for generations. These ancient melodies together with the introduction of formalized choral music to South Africa through the Apostolic Church and other faith missions, inspired the choral tradition in which I grew up. The church choirs (as well as recreational choral music at my schools) provided opportunities to hear four-part singing that allowed me to develop my musical skills and tap into a dream to sing more. At ten years old I discovered the radio and was also fortunate to discover a collection of second-hand classical music and jazz vinyls. I spent endless hours as a young child and teenager absorbing the music of leading composers, conductors and musicians of the world. It was an extraordinary free portal into a sphere of astounding musicians that shaped my understanding of this art form and educated me beyond the limitations of my circumstances at that time. These experiences of listening to the voices of the golden age inspired me to pursue a career in opera myself.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

A lack of opportunities and undergoing financial hardship hampered the initial growth of my career. Furthermore, being a dramatic operatic baritone necessitated the patience to wait for my voice to mature. I had to wait to grow into my voice. The challenge for a long time was to keep training and believing in my future as an opera singer despite the myriad difficulties along the way.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

No specific performance of mine stands out for me as more important than any other. I am proud of every opportunity I have had to perform and the chance to try to do justice to what the composer wanted to convey.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

It is the Verdi fach, in particular, that I am currently working on and performing the most. I am naturally drawn to Verdi’s music, as he was the one composer who elevated the baritone voice more than any other composer. I am enjoying every moment of Verdi’s music as it allows for a broader colour and weight of the voice and presents complex powerful characters for me to portray. Baritones were traditionally cast in more supporting roles, but Verdi created phenomenal baritone music with each of his operas requiring at least one significant baritone role. Verdi’s music encompasses everything one might experience in life: love, loyalty, envy, hatred, fear and despair. These roles cover a gamut of intense emotions which resonate with me. Being of Nguni descent, my first language is isiXhosa which, like Italian, encourages a natural vocal placement. Its pure vowels (avoiding diphthongs) means both languages share a similar soundscape. This mutual tonal aspect makes Italian a language close to my heart.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I have a core dramatic baritone operatic repertoire which I am constantly refining and expanding. But it also depends on what I am approached to do from season to season. I enjoy challenges and love learning new works. The Art Song is also a form of vocal composition that I love to perform for its more intimate chamber music character.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Having any opportunity to perform and communicate with an audience is what matters most to me. But if I had to single out one specific concert venue it would be the historic Palais Ehrbar Concert Hall in Vienna. I sang in a New Year’s Gala Concert there in December 2022 and was blown away by its exquisite Italian Renaissance decorative style and beautiful acoustic. It was a special way to ring in the new year on the stage which played such a significant role in the music world of Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I look forward to singing there again in a Meistersinger Gala Concert in July.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The majority of the concerts I have done to date have been memorable for me in different ways. However, one concert I participated in recently was a highlight for me as a unique event. I performed in a Sunset Gala Concert last month with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra on the slopes of the iconic Old Harbour in an historic village town called Hermanus, nestled between lush green mountains and the ocean close to the southern tip of Africa. It was a welcome change of scenery from the usual indoor concert hall venue to sing for an al fresco audience in a natural amphitheatre carved from rock with panoramic vistas overlooking the breathtaking Walker Bay. Singing amidst the spectacular kaleidoscope of sunset colours, with seagulls circling, was a milestone in itself. But when suddenly, by chance, a pod of dolphins emerged frolicking and swimming towards the shore, it became a magical moment of gesamtkunswerk proportions that has left an indelible impression on me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

At this juncture in my life, I consider success the achievement of a distinctive artistic identity within one’s fach and becoming a viable artist who is both identifiable and marketable.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

I would recommend they do whatever is necessary to grow and develop as classical musicians: to find the right teacher; to seek out good advice, support and assistance; to be mindful of their strengths and weaknesses; to listen to musicians of all genres; to study languages; to consolidate their techniques: to perform everywhere and anywhere to hone their craft; to collaborate with others; to cultivate discipline and perseverance; to enter vocal competitions and attend auditions; to keep observing and learning and to never ever give up on their dreams.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I try to live a full life in the sense of being fully engaged in everything I do. It is for me about connecting with others, so as to truly understand the required emotional attachment to whatever music or dialogue I need to impart on stage. I absorb classical music culture through reading and listening to recordings, learning new operatic roles and researching everything around those roles through literature and art. I find inspiration from great performances of others. I enjoy meeting people from the classical music industry, to share ideas, and hear of their own musical journeys. It is also important to me to keep up with current global affairs beyond the operatic stage to ensure I present my voice as an artist in an engaging and relevant way.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

As classical music’s listenership gets older, I agree we always need to be mindful of the education of the next generation of both the artists and concertgoers. Classical music needs to be made an integral part of general school curriculum in an accessible way. Music appreciation classes could stimulate young minds. Public performances should be made more affordable and be subsidized. My base line understanding of the matter is that although classical music is not for everyone (not everyone is going to like or want to engage with it), it is nevertheless essential that everybody has access and opportunity to experience it at some point in their lives.

I also feel that if classical music was able to penetrate a mainstream television audience it would raise its profile exponentially and appeal to the wider public across all demographics. The dearth of classical music programs on television schedules as opposed to the glut of, for example, cooking and sporting programs means classical music is relegated to diminished status. Marketed along the lines of previously successful television contest series shows like The Voice UK, Last Choir Standing or Pitch Battle, it could feature different classical musicians as they strive to showcase their talents.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

I think it is the dialogue around the sacrifices to become a successful classical musician. The immense dedication, psychological fortitude, emotional stamina and relentless financial resources needed to make a solid productive classical music career are too often ignored or glossed over by the industry at large. I feel it is important that the sacrifices involved with this specific career are unpacked within the music industry so that in some ways these obstacles can be minimized or eliminated.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

My greatest wish is that I will still be contributing operatically to the music industry by working consistently, giving quality performances and being continuously inspired by the unique ways composers tell stories through music.

What is your most treasured possession?

My heart. Not just in the physical sense, but in the Aristotelian philosophical sense that the heart is also the spirit and ‘the sensory soul’. Material things come and go but my heart is my essence, it represents the core of my being and my artistic passion and commitment to music and the world around me.

What is your present state of mind?

Feeling blessed to be alive.

Theo Magongoma performs in The African Concert Series at London’s Wigmore hall on Saturday 13th May. Info/tickets