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The tenor who was almost a nurse

Sunnyboy Dladla at 20 Tenors

Sunnyboy Dladla at 20 Tenors

DANGEROUS LIAISONS: Bel Canto Arias and Duets of Love & Intrigue

Beau Soleil Music School
12 Salisbury Rd, Kenilworth
Adults R50, Children R20
SUNDAY 31 MAY 5pm

I love listening to Sunnyboy’s voice. It is a clear and bright sound that goes up and down the scale without sounding tight, tense or pinched. He can reach those stratospheric high notes that are so thrilling in operatic music. Sunnyboy sounds young and fresh, no wobble in sight, without any of the suicidal gasps and chest-beating one expects from the stereotypical straining tenor. Our upcoming programme “Dangerous Liaisons” features music written for tenor and soprano (sung by Magdalene Minnaar), with the bulk of it featuring Italian opera in a style known as Bel Canto. This music is florid, with abundant runs and much ornamentation. In order to sing these, one needs a lighter voice capable of executing dazzling displays of virtuosity, flexibility and easy high notes.

Ask what a tenor is and many people may answer Pavarotti or Domingo. Yes indeed, tenors they are. But that’s only one type of tenor, the kind who sings more dramatic music. Domingo always had a very powerful voice, and started his career not as a tenor at all but the more dark sounding Baritone. Pavarotti was a lyric tenor in his youth, but eventually made the transition to more dramatic roles, superstardom and wealth. Many serious musicians and opera-lovers regret the fact that he did not stay in that lyric repertoire for longer.

Sunnyboy Dladla is such a lyric tenor. He has had notable successes in Mozart operas (Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro) in Cape Town. He was winner of the Schock Singing Competition in 2008 and he has performed in Youth Concerto Festivals with orchestras around the country. In 2009 he has made a name for himself in Oratorio with performances of Handel’s Messiah around the country. I wanted to work with Sunnyboy because I like him as a person, I respect his work-ethic and he simply sings up a storm!

Sunnyboy Dladla, a lyric tenor , very nearly didn’t become an opera singer. He studied to be a nurse, but struggled financially, and couldn’t afford to complete his studies. While working as a volunteer nurse he was brought to Cape Town by his former Mpumalanga classmates Pretty Yende and Given Nkosi. Pretty and Given had been admitted to  UCT partly because of their repeated wins in the opera category of the Tirisano Schools Music Competition. Sunnyboy had been a provincial winner in this very same competition, and so his hopes were high.

Unbelievably, given his subsequent successes, Sonnyboy’s first audition for the UCT College of Music was unsuccessful. The audition panel felt he lacked musical and operatic experience and that he would not cope with the demands of the Opera Diploma. They referred him to the now defunct Choral Training Programme, a Development Programme run by Cape Town Opera: a very worthwhile apprenticeship and bridging programme. Yet that wasn’t why he had made the long trip to Cape Town.  It seemed to Sunnyboy that his best option was to take the train back to Mpumalanga. Thankfully, Pretty Yende’s persistence ensured that Sunnyboy was able to sing another audition for Prof. Angelo Gobbato, then head of UCT Opera School.  Angelo saw potential and arranged financial assistance and went to extraordinary lengths to give Sunnyboy the chance to study. Angelo often moved heaven and earth for singers when he saw the spark of potential.

A few years later, and Sunnyboy has already sung in Verona, Italy, one of the greatest opera centres in the world. His career has taken off and he is in demand as one of the most promising South African lyric tenors in recent years. Most recently he has been chosen as one of the Twenty Tenors. Sunnyboy’s humility is striking, as are his openheartedness and his capacity for hard work. He works as a waiter and a librarian to earn money to pay for extra coaching when he is preparing for a performance – something that immediately makes him stand out from the crowd. I first encountered Sunnyboy in the roles of Basilio and Curzio in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Wedding of Figaro), where his comic gifts were recognised and encouraged by American director Chuck Hudson and critics called him “a real comedic talent… responsible for a whirlpool of comedic goings on.”

Sunnyboy is the antithesis of the temperamental tenor, and very quick to acknowledge the guidance he has received from teachers and mentors in his profession, no matter their social standing, and he attributes his success to the fact that he  has been able to put his trust in their guidance.  He still humbly acknowledges what he gained from messrs Mbamba and S’thole from Ndlela High School who encouraged him (he admits a little against his will) to take part in choir competitions.  Likewise, he  recognises the other teachers who have shaped his career. Currently his teacher is Associate Prof. Sidwell Hartman of the South African College of Music, and he has also learnt from one of the greatest Turandots in the world – Hungarian Dramatic Soprano Eva Marton.

Sunnyboy speaks candidly but fondly about the difficulties he had early in his studies. He received a lot of negative feedback, his teacher was a hard and persistent taskmaster and Sunnyboy battled with the adjustment to being a full-time opera student far from home. It didn’t help that his family was anything but supportive. How a young black man from Mpumalanga without the resources to finish a Nursing Diploma thought he could become an opera singer, was something many of his peers could not understand. Yet Sidwell encouraged him to learn from others and most of all, to be careful about his choice of repertoire. Having started his studies as a lower voiced baritone, by his third year his technique started settling and he had made the transition to tenor, where his voice felt more natural, well-placed and he produced his best quality sound.

Vocal chords are tiny little muscles, that can be trained and developed much like any other muscle in the body. But they are easy to damage. Therefore a teacher has enormous responsibility. The teacher has to identify exactly what a student’s voice will be able to do – before they can actually do it – and then has to take that voice on the road to that potential. And they often get it wrong. Singers themselves misunderstand their voices. Often there is great impatience with a young voice. The danger is that some want to push voices to sing louder, bigger, faster. Voices can be “used up” that way. Even great conductors like Karajan have marred legacies, having chosen lighter voices for heavier roles, which then left those voices permanently scarred. (Katia Ricciarelli’s Aida and Turandot come to mind, or Gundula Janowitz’s Empress in “Die Frau ohne Schatten” ).

Wobbles develop, high notes become hard and shrill under pressure, or certain notes just stop ringing properly as the vibrations of the chords are forced out of their natural synch. So far Sunnyboy has avoided these pitfalls. Prof Hartman steered him away from any heavy repertoire and big roles. He was not allowed to sing with any force or pressure, designed to camouflage the real size of the voice. While he always had an agile voice, his teacher taught him how to sing runs without force, and by lightening up the voice he can sing some impressive florid passages. His voice revealed itself to be a true lyric tenor.

From smaller roles in Massenet’s “Manon” and Puccini’s “La Rondine”, he developed steadily until his biggest role to date, as the leading tenor in Mozart’s “Don  Giovanni” , directed by Marcus Desando,  himself a tenor of note in performances of operatic roles and musicals.

Singing in the Teatro Filarmonico in Verona, Italy, is one of the highlights of his career so far.  He was invited to take part in an international competition for young artists, with finance provided by MIAGI. Nothing less than a “Turandot Idols”, singers from around the globe compete in a gruelling set of elimination rounds to win three performances in a staging of Puccini’s “Turandot” in Verona – the Lion’s Den of Italian opera, where tickets cost up to 200 EUROS, (just to keep things in perspective).  Along with fellow UCT students Musa Ngqungwana and Mlamli Lalapantsi, Sunnyboy outsang formidable international competition to win. And no, none of them sang Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” – the World Cup 2007 theme song. They took the roles of Ping, Pong and Pang, three Imperial functionaries whose “cynical, comical and nostalgical” stage business suited the three South Africans to a tee.

Sunnyboy Dladla in Turandot in Teatro Filarmonica, Verona

When I ask Sunnyboy what advice he has for young singers, he is quite clear about his answer “Know your voice, know your “Fach” (the type of music you should be singing to show your voice to its best advantage). Don’t try to sing everything. Say no to things that do not suit your voice. Go for every opportunity you can. And learn Italian! You will be performing in countries where everyone speaks it, and your language has to be perfect if you are going to be singing in Italian”.

And sing in Italian he will. Our programme “Dangerous Liaisons” will feature arias by Bel Canto composers. Sunnyboy will sing arias from Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (Barber of Seville), and “La Scala di Seta” (The Silken Ladder). Sunnyboy will also be seen at Artscape on 12 and 13 June in a revival of La Scala Di Seta, a comic farce, in a production conducted by popular South African Alex Fokkens and directed by Lara Bye, with funding from the South African Wagner Society.

Future productions for Sunnyboy include the delightful Donizetti opera “L’elisir d’amore” where he will sing the romantic young lover Nemorino’s arias in “Dangerous Liaisons”.

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The almost godlike power of twentieth-century conductors may have prematurely ended some singing careers. Riccardo Muti pushed Cheryl Studer into singing everything from Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” to the complete opposite vocal spectrum of Wagner’s “Isolde”. And then when her voice wobbled its objections, he fired her. The power to hire and fire lay with the conductor, as did the ability to shape careers, and (in the case of Karajan) to exercise total control over a singer’s recorded legacy. Not that Karajan was the only culprit. Far from it. Nonetheless, his power to make and break careers was absolute and singers followed his advice if they wanted to work in the top European opera houses.

The story of how Karajan victimised soprano Katia Ricciarelli is well known. Ricciarelli had a beautiful voice, a real ability to express the text and a tender quality in her voice that I have always enjoyed. Hence the loss of what might have been is particularly poignant in her case. I have included a few links to YouTubed recordings of her so that you can hear for yourself.

This is a young Ricciarelli in a duet from the “Stabat Mater” by Pergolesi, in 1979.

After that, in the 1980’s Karajan pushed Ricciarelli into heavier roles such as Verdi’s “Aida”. The sheer beauty of her voice brought something very touching to the role. In the quiet and tender moments she can be touching, moving, and even a great Aida. But under pressure to sing loud enough to be heard over the orchestra, or to manage Verdi’s large vocal range, there were problems. Wobbles crept in. Insecure pitch, and an uncomfortable “open-throat” quality also marred performances.

Here Ricciarelli is recorded singing the final duet with Radames, arguably the most lyrical part of the role, and therefore the one part she sang in recital outside of the studio more often than any of the rest of Aida’s music:

Final Scene from Aida with Carrerras

As moving and human as her interpretation is, this is what critics had to say:  “It’s the vocal performances of the two leading ladies that are this jewel’s flaw. Katia Ricciarelli possessed a golden voice, good looks,and the ability to project the drama through the text. Her vocal technique on the other hand was less than masterful. One gets the sense that someone saw her potential, wanted to be the one who could claim discovery, and therefore she was put before the public prematurely, a kind of exploitation that became highly visible in the 1970’s and 80’s as star singers became older or retired with no one to replace them. There are many moments in this particular recording that Ricciarelli is reminiscent of Montserrat Caballe, though she is minus Caballe’s vocal freedom. Ricciarelli almost cruelly pushes her voice and many high notes come out as desperate, pressured squalls, especially when a fortissimo is required. On the positive side, in the middle and lower registers, Ricciarelli’s singing is tender and delicate, creating a believably vulnerable Aida, and her way of putting just the right emphasis on key words makes one ache for what might have been had this artist been allowed to develop in her own time.”

Even more hazardous was her portrayal of Puccini’s murderous ice-princess “Turandot”. As with her Aida, there were revelations about the role. She brought to it a tender, human quality, and the quiet passages were often breathtaking intheir lyricism and beauty. However, Turandot’s music is cruelly challenging to sing. Ricciarelli simply did not have a Turandot-sized voice. In the climaxes she sounds desperate and uncomfortable. Karajan defended his choice, saying that it was exactly that “cry of desperation” that would distinguish “his” Turandot from others. Critics disagreed:  “Karajan’s tendency to cast light voices got the best of him: lyric soprano Katia Ricciarelli isn’t commanding enough on any level to be considered adequate in the title role. — David Patrick Stearns

Here is an extract of her Turandot compared with that of a real dramatic soprano: Birgit Nilsson. Nilsson perhaps had more steel in her voice than velvet, but in roles such as this one, steel is a prerequisite for vocal survival.

Turandot, as sung by Ricciarelli and Domingo and then the same aria by Nilsson with Corelli

Many critics claim that Ricciarelli’s excursions into Turandot damaged her voice for ever. High notes became a problem, any attempt to sing loudly became uncomfortable both in sound and pitch. It is impossible to ascertain what might have been if she had not been pushed away from the more lyrical repertoire. I simply try to rejoice in what there is.

Later, Ricciarelli returned to the lyric role of Liu, the smaller role of the slavegirl in Turandot. She made a glorious Liu, but it might have been even better if she had stayed a lyric soprano throughout her career.

The day of the fascist conductor’s autocratic rule is over. Instead, the opera world today appears to be dominated by directors. Directors choose singers for their looks rather than their vocal abilities and productions are visually driven to an extent we have not seen before. The microphone has made it possible for singers to have careers who might not have been able to hold an audience a few decades ago. Musicians deplore the onset of the Charlotte Church generation: small, badly trained voices, but attached to singers who are young and pretty enough to photograph well on a CD cover. With a bit of technological intervention one can use the audio equivalent of “photoshop” to earbrush any wayward notes back into tune.