“By faith I shall learn this music and by faith I shall execute it.”
– Musa Ngqungwana
This past Saturday, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana made his LA Opera debut as Queequeg in Moby-Dick. With his sincere portrayal of this pivotal character, the South African born Ngqungwana adds another role to his list of operatic achievements that include being a Grand Finals Winner in the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, as well as playing Colline in La Boheme (Washington National Opera) and Zuniga in Carmen (Norwegian National Opera).
Musa Ngqungwana’s life has always been filled with music. Growing up in Port Elizabeth and later Cape Town, Ngqungwana’s culture was infused with music. There were songs sung at births, weddings, celebrations, songs sung at death, and even gender specific songs sung perhaps to a sweetheart. With the advent of Christian culture and dogma introduced by the British missionaries in early 20th Century South Africa, a huge choral movement swept through the nation and a slew of community choirs and plays opened up. By the time Ngqungwana was born, it had become customary to have community choirs and neighborhood plays. It was at middle school that a young Ngqungwana joined the choir to be close to a girl he loved at the time. While Ngqungwana says he “failed miserably” to win the girl’s affections, the choir stole his heart and he kept singing in the years to come.
Musa Ngqungwana singing Riez, allez, riez du pauvre ideologue from Massenet’s Don Quichotte at WQXR presents The Metropolitan Opera National Council Award Winners
It was only after seeing a 1978 Glyndebourne production of The Magic Flute and being enamored of Sir Willard White’s performance as the Speaker did Ngqungwana want to pursue opera specifically. “This is when my life changed and I decided to not only be a cheerleader for opera, but to have dreams of becoming a singer.” Eventually, his pursuit led him to study opera music at the University of Cape Town, where he studied with Professors Angelo Gobbato and Virginia Davids and later with American pianist and conductor Kamal Kahn. It was Kahn who pushed Ngqungwana to study in the United States, ultimately at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
Ngqungwana’s life has been quite an adventure, which he documents in his autobiography, published last October, titled Odyssey of an African Opera Singer: from Zwide Township to the World Stage. In it, Ngqungwana discusses how he overcame “the debilitating effects of discrimination and impoverishment” (during a politically charged era in South Africa) to become a rising star on the international opera scene.
His journey led him to take on the role of Queequeg in LA Opera’s production of Moby-Dick. Jake Heggie’s melodic score drew Ngqungwana to the production, but portraying Queequeg’s character is what truly made an impact. He loves how the perception of Queequeg changes. This is reflected in Queequeg’s growing friendship with Greenhorn. At first, Queequeg is just the savage, judged for his background, but he becomes the trusted friend and equal by the end of the opera.
Ngqungwana infuses the character of Queequeg with his own experiences of discrimination and judgement, creating a fully realized character who is all-knowing and three-dimensional. “By the time I sing the first note, I know that it’s not just a note. It’s a dramatic point in the story. It has meaning,” says Ngqungwana. When asked about Queequeg’s tattoos, Ngqungwana discusses how their design is representative of the tattoos worn by Maori/Samoan tribesman. Yet, as an actor embodying the character of Queequeg, “every tattoo has meaning.” He infuses them with influences from his dual South African tribe nations (Xhosa and Zulu), so that they represent Queequeg’s life journey – a journey that’s just as fascinating as Musa Ngqungwana’s.
Through November 28, Moby-Dick transforms Melville’s classic novel into a sweeping, gorgeous opera that has taken its rightful place as a true contemporary masterpiece. The Los Angeles Times calls “a whale tale with staying power.” Watch James Conlon’s special invitation here. To purchase tickets, click here.