THEY may be plying their trade abroad, but two of South Africa’s popular opera singing stars think this particular art form is far from dying out in the country.The names of Piet Retief’s 27-year old Pretty Yende and Jacques Imbrailo, 34, are on everyone’s lips in Europe and the US at the moment as Huffington Post listed them both in its top 10 hottest opera stars of the year, two weeks ago.
Yende is the darling of the US press after making her debut as Countess Adele in Le Comte Ory, currently being staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
In the UK, Imbrailo is making a splash too, as he prepares for his title role in the Glyndebourne Festival’s first performance of Billy Budd this year.
So with these two, and Swedenbased Nkosazana Dimande, Njabulo Madlala who lives in London, and Bongiwe Nakani and Mthetho Maphoyi who are being mentioned as future international stars, living and working overseas, is it just a case that they earn better money abroad or do they think there is no audience in South Africa for their art?
Imbrailo, who begins Billy Budd rehearsals on June 28, said: “To put it simply, it [abroad] is where the work is.
“There are good but limited opportunities in South Africa and there are so many young singers coming through that they need to look abroad for opportunities”.
He left for the UK around nine years ago to take up a scholarship at the Royal College and has been there since – even finding and marrying his wife Cara there.
But South African upstarts face an uphill battle because of the costs of studies and training.
Imbrailo recalls his final the Royal College cost R180 000.
“I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship for my studies, otherwise it would have been unaffordab he added.
Yende agrees, but also saw the work abroad as an opportunity to increase the profile of the genre in her home country.
“Coming here gives me more opportunities to be noted by the world’s greatest opera houses and keep the South African flag high.
“Most of us are motivated to come and explore this world and go back to our country and inspire other young up-and-coming artists.”
Yende (who some may remember singing with Andrea Bocelli in New year at around York’s Central Park two years ago) was approached after soprano Nino Machaidze, who was originally cast for the role, dropped out because of illness.
Mike Silverman of the Associated Press called Yende a “gifted and ingratiating performer”, while the New York Times noted her “combination of musical talent and mental toughness and acuity”.
Phelo Bala, the youngest of the Bala brothers, who have popularised a new form of “Popera”, admitted that despite the numerous recitals especially in Cape Town, the earning potential locally was another contributing factor to singers seeking greener pastures.
“In South Africa you’d be doing it for the love of it – you won’t be making much money, so it would be about how passionate you are about the music”.