Musa Ngqungwana basks in the warm embrace of Dallas’ southern hospitality and 80-degree fall days. He is visiting from the East Coast, Philadelphia and New York, where the days are already getting cool, and here he can wear his shorts and golf shirts in October. He says he is enjoying "the ambiance of the great state of Texas" as he prepares to perform in the first two productions of the Dallas Opera's season.
When asked to pronounce his last name, Ngqungwana graciously says to just call him Musa. He acknowledges that his last name is difficult for English speakers because of the ‘clicks’ that are part of the language of South Africa where he grew up. He was the son of a single mother in an impoverished area that he describes as basically a ghetto. The South Africa of his youth was struggling to emerge from the system of apartheid and segregation.
The British missionary influence in South Africa was strong and Ngqungwana grew up playing rugby and singing in choirs. His high school choir director had studied at the University of Capetown and encouraged Ngqungwana to pursue an education in music. However at the time, Ngqungwana says the study of music seemed to be a "Eurocentric art form not for black people."
When Ngqungwana enrolled at university he initially began his studies in engineering. After two years he was out of money. To support himself, he began singing — "mostly small gigs," he says. Ngqungwana believes his introduction to singing was part of a divine creator's plan for him. Eventually he was able to go back to school and this time he followed his heart: He majored in music and graduated with a degree in musical performance.
Next, Ngqungwana moved to Philadelphia to pursue a degree at the Academy of Vocal Arts, where he graduated in 2014. The bass-baritone singer promptly won a series of vocal awards, including the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2013. Since then he has performed at LA Opera, Palm Beach Opera and Washington National Opera.
He has now come to Dallas to perform in Eugene Onegin and Moby-Dick. These two operas will overlap in the month of November, and rehearsals for both productions are ongoing. Ngqungwana draws from his engineering background to calculate the time he will spend memorizing the difficult Russian required to sing the role of Zaretsky in Eugene Onegin, while also preparing to play the more physically demanding role of Queequeg in Moby-Dick.
Ngqungwana says that his education and experience have adequately prepared him for the challenges of performing these two very different roles and he has found that each character is more complex than he initially thought. While studying for his role as the kind-hearted and intelligent "savage" Queequeg, Ngqungwana immersed himself in reading about the Pacific Islands and even studied the meaning of Queequeg’s tattoos.
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He digs deep into the strengths and weaknesses of his characters, and he's equally reflective about his own life and experiences. Ngqungwana is working on the second volume of his self-published memoirs, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer, and is also updating the first volume, which is available on Amazon. He wants to add more personal stories of his struggles and successes.
Ngqungwana found writing to be therapeutic as he sought to address the anger he felt toward his absent father. Now he is writing a fictional work as a sort of response to ongoing protests by students in South Africa. He hopes to establish a dialogue with these young activists and help to find a non-violent way to address their anger.
Ngqungwana repeatedly points to the people who have been instrumental to his success, such as his grandmother, choir teacher and voice coach. Today, he praises Dallas Opera’s ‘brainy’ music director Maestro Emmanuel Villaume for his enthusiasm for music and ability to bring meaning to every musical note.
See Ngqungwana perform in Eugene Onegin through Nov. 5, and Moby-Dick Nov. 4 through 20. Both performances are at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. To buy tickets, visit dallasopera.org.