Written by: Mansel Stimpson
In recent years the Young Artists Programme at Covent Garden has been particularly successful in bringing to our attention new bass singers of distinction. Vuyani Mlinde is just coming to the end of his time as one of the Jette Parker Young Artists and there are already signs that he is likely to establish himself in much the same way as his predecessors Matthew Rose and Darren Jeffrey. One indication of this is that he will be back with The Royal Opera next season when he will be appearing in a small role in a revival of Salome and more significantly taking the role of Colline when La bohème returns.
Meanwhile his two-year period is coming to a close in a memorable manner. On the day that I meet Vuyani he is appearing in Berg’s Lulu and is already in full rehearsal for his role as Tom, one of the would-be assassins in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (first night June 26). In addition he is preparing for his last appearance this season which will be his contribution to the Young Artists concert on Sunday 19 July. For this he is singing the role of Leporello in Act One of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. These two final appearances as a Young Artist provide a striking finale to his stint at Covent Garden which will probably be best remembered for his enormous success earlier this season when, consequent on the temporary indisposition of Gwynne Howell, he was cast as Jake Wallace in La Fanciulla del West and played it to acclaim throughout the run.
The events that have led up to this moment in Vuyani’s career started when he was aged twelve and, as he explains, what transpired then did not exactly fill him with joy. “Previously I had had to walk for maybe forty minutes from my home in Bloemfontein to get to school, but a new school opened only fifteen minutes away so I switched to that. Because it was brand new they had to find players for soccer, netball and basketball and for the school choir too. The conductor went to each and every class and got the pupils to stand up and when she walked between the desks and came to me she said ‘You will be in my choir’. For me that was kind of a pain because what I liked to do was to play football and being in the choir meant that every day for an extra hour after lessons I had to stay behind instead of getting onto the field. I did develop a certain liking for it, but even so I decided that things would be different when I got to High School because then it would be a case of choosing whether or not to sing whereas at Primary School you did what you were told. So once at High School I devoted myself to football for about six months. But it so happened that the High School’s choir was the best around and within a week of the choir winning a competition I joined them because I kind of missed singing.”
It was the conductor of the High School choir who thought that Vuyani had the potential to consider singing as a career. “I didn’t know anything about opera and had just been singing choral music. But later I joined the Community Choir and it so happened that they changed their repertoire by choosing to perform the finale of Act Two of Traviata. For me this was another language, but the conductor gave me the score and a recording of it with Pavarotti. I listened to it repeatedly and found it very exciting. Prior to the choir performing it in competition, the conductor arranged for us to visit a private music school where they could teach us more about the style of it, and that’s where I met my first music teacher, Wilhelm Theunissen.”
Each signature step in Vuyani’s career seems to have been linked to having the good fortune to be heard by people who could help him but, needless to say, their readiness to do so stemmed from the talent that they recognised in him. Theunissen was the first of series of such figures. When he heard Vuyani on that first occasion he immediately took note. “I was singing Germont being by then eighteen and a bass baritone and, on learning that I lived in Bloemfontein, he told me that he was willing to provide free lessons if I would go to him, and that was what happened.”
The next person to help Vuyani in his progress was the soprano Mimi Coertse who at that time had a studio for young singers and it was Vuyani’s teacher who suggested that he should go and sing for her. “I went not really expecting anything, but for her I did Sarastro’s aria. At the start she was in the middle of the auditorium but while I was singing she moved to the back and apparently she then telephoned her partner. I soon received a call from her in which she praised my singing and said that they were looking for my kind of voice because they were doing Rigoletto and needed somebody to sing Sparafucile. Now I didn’t know Rigoletto at all beyond recognising La donna è mobile when I heard it, but my teacher approved so I took on the role for which I went to Pretoria.”
Vuyani’s next journey would be further afield, since he won a scholarship for eight months in Brisbane. “That came up quicker than we thought, but I broke the news to my parents and showed them operatic videos to illustrate what I hoped to do. Actually they had heard some opera on the radio, and it was really I who was the one new to it. From the start they were very supportive about my choosing this career and being in the Opera Queensland Young Artists’ Programme was very useful to me. Before that I had thought that singing was only about voice, but being with a good quality professional opera company where coaching covered acting and language I saw that I needed to improve in those areas. It was from there that I applied to both the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. I had never before used the Internet but that was where I found out how to apply and both accepted me. I decided in favour of the Royal College of Music and being in London enabled me to see productions here where standards are so high. It is a blessing for me to be in England because musically it is the centre of everything.”
The full scholarship that brought Vuyani to the Royal College of Music for 2004/2005 was followed by another to the Benjamin Britten International Opera School of the RCM and 2007 saw him gain the Clonter Opera Prize as well as becoming a finalist in the Neue Stimmen International Singing Competition in Germany. Hardly less importantly this was the year when he was accepted as a Jette Parker Young Artist at Covent Garden. He tells me of his response to his first months at the Royal Opera House. “For the initial four months I was not performing at all but having coaching, and I think it was beneficial not to have even a small role too soon. That way I had plenty of time to prepare, and my first appearance came in Die Zauberflöte”.
Vuyani mentions too the advantage of being around great singers. But, when I ask him if any one artist stands out for the guidance provided either directly or indirectly, Vuyani doesn’t hesitate to go back slightly and to pick out the bass Gwynne Howell whom he first encountered when he was in British Youth Opera. Once at Covent Garden he would work with him again and on all such occasions Vuyani found Gwynne Howell immensely helpful over dealing with many things including, as Vuyani puts it, “my weaknesses”. As it happens the most exciting occasion for Vuyani during his two years at Covent Garden came early in his second year when, as mentioned, Gwynne Howell was unable to appear as planned in Puccini’s La Funciulla del West conducted by Antonio Pappano. “I was not even covering the role and knew little about this particular opera when I was told about a week before rehearsals that there was a possibility of my doing the role of Jake Wallace. I was engaged on something else as well at that time and it seemed risky to consider it, but when I looked at the score I thought what a nice part it was.”
Those who know the opera will understand Vuyani’s enthusiasm, for although the part is not lengthy Jake is given some fine music that he starts to sing off-stage and then enters to complete his song in a scene that puts him stage centre. “I learnt it that day”, Vuyani explains, “and that very evening I had coaching with Maestro Pappano. It was my first coaching with him one on one and I was nervous, but he sat at the piano, explained the story and told me what he was expecting me to do. When he does that, he sounds like a priest: I mean he’s somebody to whom you have to listen and you don’t want to miss a word. We went over the part fully and then he said that if I felt ready he would like me to do it. So that’s how it was that two days later I was introduced to the rest of the cast having not yet rehearsed with anyone and when I started to rehearse it was not in a rehearsal room but already on the stage.”
We talk next of the role that Vuyani is currently rehearsing. He’s pleased to be in Un ballo in maschera not least because Verdi is his favourite composer. Dan Dooner is rehearsing this revival of Mario Martone’s production and both he and the conductor Maurizio Benini have been very helpful in getting the balance right in the opening scene. Here Tom, Vuyani’s role, and Samuel have to make the audience aware of the threat they represent to the Governor, Riccardo, without having any big solos to establish it. “By just listening to the music you can tell that there is something wrong and sense a threat of death, and the more we work on it the more we are able to find the colour for that. It’s very useful to have Giovanni Battista Parodi singing the role of Sam because he played the role the last time that this production was revived; he brings a quickness and sharpness to what he is doing and it’s so good to be able to talk to him about our roles especially since the rehearsal period for this revival is quite short. Both characters hate Riccardo, but with Tom there’s a clear reason in that Riccardo killed his brother. The role is interesting and quite lengthy because you appear in all three Acts and the finale of Act Two with its blend of humour and menace is a great opportunity – and thanks to Verdi it’s a scene that almost plays itself.”
This year’s Young Artists’ Concert, devised by David Gowland, brings together some Massenet (from Werther and Manon) and some Mozart. “We are doing a semi-staged version covering most of Act One of Don Giovanni, but excluding the finale which would need a chorus. Even in this form, it’s a lot and I like the role of Leporello very much. I covered it years ago in Australia but I’ve never played it, although I have appeared as the Commendatore. It’s early days yet and we await Rory Macdonald and the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, but, with Leporello the servant being so closely linked with his master Don Giovanni, I am doing coaching together with Kostas Smoriginas who is singing the Don whenever our schedules permit. He is in Traviata and I have Ballo and Lulu, but during a break recently I snatched a few minutes with Sir Thomas Allen who is very familiar with this opera and who is helping us with the long recitatives. It was all too short, the time I had free with him, but invaluable.”
Yet another meaningful encounter came when Vuyani was asked earlier this season to take over the role of Fiesco in a rehearsal of Simon Boccanegra when a singer had to drop out and the part had yet to be recast. He did this at a day’s notice and the conductor involved was Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Now a tour is coming up with Sir John Eliot that will find Vuyani singing in Haydn’s great oratorio The Creation both in America and in Europe. It is still early days for Vuyani Mlinde’s operatic and concert hall career but already he has achieved successes that could encourage youngsters like him who might be hesitating over a singing career. “It was Wilhelm Theunissen who showed me a video of great singers that included Leontyne Price whom I had not seen before. Seeing somebody with the same skin colour as my own doing it at that level was very moving, and later I would find others: Jessye Norman, Simon Estes, Sir Willard White. Mostly with this kind of stuff I had seen white people singing it but I have a different feeling when it’s a black person involved because then I feel that it is not too much to attempt and that I can do it. And if in my own way I too can be an example for others that would be great.”
- Seven performances – from Friday 26 June until Friday 17 July, at 7 p.m., except Sunday 5 July at 3 p.m. and Saturday 11 July at 12.30 p.m.
- From Mozart to Massenet (Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Concert) on Sunday 19 July at 3 p.m.
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera