Tenor Given Nkosi
Tenor Given Nkosi

South African tenor and former Graham Beck opera ambassador Given Nkosi is back on home soil and forging a new musical path writes DEBBIE HATHWAY. See him in Calling Us Home.

Given Nkosi’s passion for music was sparked when as a young Roman Catholic churchgoer he was exposed to choral music, progressing to classical music and opera through his performances with community choirs. Listening to some of his recordings (the tear-jerking Nessun Dorma, in particular), it’s clear what grabbed the attention of competition judges in the early stages of his career.

Born in Witbank, Mpumalanga, Nkosi enrolled at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town, where he first completed the Performer’s Diploma in Opera and then the Postgraduate Diploma in Opera Performance in 2009.

“Once in Cape Town and at UCT, I got to understand and love opera. There’s just no sound like opera for me,” says Nkosi. “It makes things very easy for me.”

The Israeli Opera

In 2010 Given Nkosi joined the Cape Town Opera Young Artist Training Programme as a junior soloist, where he was able to consolidate and refine his technique and stage skills before embarking on a professional career. From there, he was afforded the opportunity to participate in an exchange programme with The Israeli Opera.

Two months became six for that first commitment, with repeat invitations being extended to play The Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto and Werther in Werther with The Israeli Opera until 2014. The Graham and Rhona Beck Foundation funded Nkosi’s participation, and has supported him in various ventures from 2010 to 2017.

How did he like Israel? “Out of all the countries I’ve travelled to, Israel is still my best. I just love the people there, I love the food… They don’t call it the Holy Land for nothing.”

His favourite role? “The one I really enjoy performing the most is Rodolfo in La Boheme, but I didn’t perform that in Israel.”

Given Nkosi, now 35, says he realised that as one of many people in this industry, success does not come from talent alone. The formula is arguably equal parts skill, luck, financial support and industry knowledge. “It’s expensive to attend auditions abroad. I was fortunate to be able to do so, but the more feedback I received, the more confused I became. It really put me off at that time, but I’m stronger now mentally.”

When Nkosi returned from his last contract with The Israeli Opera, he says it was “a bit of a struggle” to find his feet. “Being away, working abroad, people forget. I had to start from scratch. There’s not much work in South Africa, so artists have to create their own opportunities. This year I decided to celebrate my birthday in a concert style, and I managed to sell all the tickets.”

Meanwhile, he is juggling freelance assignments with an internship secured through Africa Voices Trust to work in the Shy Music production office as they prepare to open the musical Calling Us Home at the Artscape Theatre Centre in Cape Town on Sunday, 14 October 2018. This story of hope, love and home premiered in August 2017 at the Joburg Theatre with an all-star cast of 33. Nkosi says the internship has offered valuable insights into what happens behind the scenes and has helped him prepare better for the staging of his own work.

“It will also help me later in my career… to give back, to teach. I wish I’d been able to get advice earlier on how to create. This music business is so complex – you think you know, but you don’t. You think the most important thing is to sing… but when the success associated with that dream either doesn’t materialise or things change course, you don’t know what to do next,” says Nkosi.

Nkosi is also hopeful that more funders will invest in inviting experts from abroad to train young hopefuls in South Africa. That way many more can benefit from their training and knowledge.

“I would like to create those opportunities for young ones still coming up, and show them that there are other options if the one they’re after doesn’t work out. Young artists need to be equipped with all the information about a career in this business before they even start – what to do, where to go, what employment possibilities there are, where to train. People usually employ those they’ve trained. Only the lucky ones get work without that, or they’re simply that good!”

Nkosi is performing for the second time later this year with Hekima Raymond, a self-taught Tanzanian pianist and conductor who invites musicians from around the world to entertain with his choir. “It’s just amazing when you see people do things like that and realise how possible it is for one to create that work, create that job,” he says. He also travelled with Cape Town Opera to perform Porgy and Bess in South Korea last month.

“What I want to do now is collaborate, more than anything; whether it’s with a jazz musician, someone who plays an African instrument, whatever. South Africa’s ready for that now. We’re at that point where we really need to explore.”

Music in Cape Town: https://weekendspecial.co.za/whats-on-in-cape-town-music-diary/

Who: Tenor Given Nkosi
What: Calling us Home
Where: Artscape Theatre, 14 to 28 October 2018
Tickets: R150-R450, www.computicket.co.za