“Oh, he’s the worst. He’s the arch-villain of #Opera, on a par with Baron Scarpia,” in Giacomo Puccini's Tosca. So says South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana in an exclusive interview with Blasting News about his debut role with The Glimmerglass Festival: the sadistic, egomaniacal Mayor Gottardo in Gioachino Rossini’s La gazza ladra.

Despicable

Mayor Gottardo is – shall we say? – chronologically advanced. Yet he puts the squeeze on poor Ninetta Villabella, the Vingradito family’s servant, already suspected of stealing a silver fork. Gioachino Rossini’s opera semiseria La gazza ladra opens at Glimmerglass Opera July 16.

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But as fascinating as that story is, first consider the story of the talented singer and published author who, according to a mentor, “possesses a very rare kind of voice: a lovely, healthy, dark bass-baritone voice.”

Roots and uprooting

Musawenkosi Ngqungwana’s name means “God’s grace” and is pronounced Moo•suh•wen•koh•see Oonck•koon•gwah•nah, with a tongue click between the “g” and the “q.” He hails from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, which means he’s 8,000 miles from family and friends. Lately, he resides in Philadelphia, where he was graduated in 2014 from its distinguished Academy of Vocal Arts.

Published author

At age 32 Musa is already making quite a name for himself. His early memoirs, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer: From Zwide Township to the World Stage, published earlier this year, covers hefty terrain, since part of his trajectory, sadly, has been enduring racial prejudice against South Africa’s “fourth-class citizens,” people of the black race.

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Writing to vent

“At first,” says Musa, “I was writing from a place of so much anger, not just because of social injustice, but mostly because of my absent father, and how his absence caused my mother so much suffering. I used my writing as a sort of punching bag. It was only after the 20th draft that I finally calmed down, and the writing became therapeutic.”

A story to start conversations about racism

In the works now is “a historical fiction novel, whose protagonist is born in 1946 South Africa, and whose life spans from Apartheid until the New Democracy, 22 years ago, when the first slight steps were taken toward racial equality,” which, Musa says, ”is yet a long way off. I think it’s going to take at least another 50 years for people to change the 500-year-old colonization mindset.”

He realistically recognizes his writings will not solve all these complex problems, “but at least maybe it gets the dialogue going and moves everyone away from anger and towards peaceful, meaningful conversations about solutions to our problems.”

South Africa’s former segregation begins to end

Each step of progress met with ugly legalistic backlashes.

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A veritable walking history book, Musa explains that the then-new National Party’s first move, in 1950, was to remove black South Africans from oceanside and city dwellings into strictly black ghettos beyond city lines. “Laws adopted said ‘You are no longer citizens of metropolitan areas.’ Blacks received two passports, one for daytime workers, the other for nightshift workers. Police could stop you at any time.”

Four 'classes' of citizens

“Other laws restricted blacks from studying professions beyond carpentry, craftsmanship, and menial labor. The thinking was ‘Why give them [the blacks] hope that they will ever be able to improve their lives? Because we are not going to give them those jobs.’ Blacks as fourth-class citizens – after whites, Indians and ‘coloreds’ – could not vote, which intensified animosity.”

Part 2 of this interview series further explores South Africa’s troubled history with racism and its modern struggle to bring about racial equality and justice for all. Part 3 focuses on Musa’s work at hand with Glimmerglass Opera, where he debuts July 16.

Rossini’s La gazza ladra. Only eight performances July 16 - August 25 at The Glimmerglass Festival, 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, New York 13326.

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