Matshikiza's career would have been unthinkable two decades ago. Today, she is part of a new generation of black South African opera singers. Small and self-contained, she cuts a glamorous figure, not least on the cover of Voice of Hope, her debut recording for Decca. With its mix of Mozart and Puccini arias, smartly orchestrated Xhosa, Swahili and Zulu songs, and the anthem she performed to an audience of a billion in the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony last week, the album is aimed squarely at a crossover audience.
Matshikiza is pragmatic about the mix, pointing out that if she can bring "something a little bit different" to the market, why not? But she is frank about the technical challenges of finding a way of singing that is "not quite operatic", and pulls a face recalling the difficulty of working on the album while also preparing for the role of Nanetta in Verdi's Falstaff for Stuttgart Opera.
The pure, wistful voice that Matshikiza used to sing Freedom Come All Ye in Glasgow is about a quarter the size of her Puccini voice. On the album, her sound in the arias is opulent, glowing. She is reticent about her long-term ambitions, but it's difficult to imagine her following in the crossover footsteps of, say, Katherine Jenkins or Russell Watson. As to Thula Baba, Pata, Pata and the other African songs on the disc, there's both a nod to the chic fusion of jazz and calypso that was Miriam Makeba's signature style in the early 60s – and a sting behind the smile. In Iya Gaduza, an unemployed man paces alone in his house while his wife works for a white family. Even Freedom Come All Ye, written the year of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, contains a reference to Nyanga, one of the townships where Matshikiza grew up.
At the centre of the album is South African composer Kevin Volans's Umzi Watsha. Volans met the soprano when she sang in an opera he wrote for Cape Town's Handspring Puppet Theatre (the company behind War Horse's puppets). He urged Matshikiza to audition for the British conservatoires, paying her air fare. Her first stop in London was the Royal College of Music, where she was immediately offered a full scholarship. The Royal Opera House's young artists scheme followed, with roles in The Minotaur, Don Carlo and Hänsel und Gretel. The decision to take things slowly was hers: "I don't understand what the hurry is. I want to sing as best as possible. It doesn't matter when or to whom." At Covent Garden, observation was as vital a part of the learning experience as performance and coaching. Its music director Antonio Pappano remains her model of the ideal, collaborative singers' conductor: "Talking to the soloists, he would say, 'What do you want to do here? I'll follow you', and only then would he suggest what he thinks. When you are a singer that gives you so much security, so much energy." (theguardian.com)