She is one of the most promising singers of her generation: An interview with South African soprano Vuvu Mpofu about “The Magic Flute”, stereotypes and social media.
It was only a year ago that Vuvu Mpofu hit one of the most important milestones in her young career when she was rewarded the prestigious John Christie Award at the Glyndebourne Festival in East Sussex. In September, she very passionately promoted the call for the international award for opera singers which offers a top prize of £15,000 and a guaranteed role at a leading international opera house, in her mother tongue Afrikaans on the YouTube channel of the Glyndenbourne festival:
Vuvu Mpofu’s opera performances are full of passion, truthfulness and love for a musical genre that the singer discovered during her teenage times in South Africa. Not yet 30, Mpofu has been recognized internationally for the extraordinary interpretations of her roles in the operas of Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Wagner and Schrecker.
Born in the South African city Port Elizabeth, Mpofu first got in touch with opera during her High School years and studied at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town afterwards. This was the beginning of a remarkable career for the prize-winner of the Operalia Competition and the Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition. Her recent operatic roles include debuts for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, for Bergen National Opera as Cunegonde in Bernstein’s Candide, a Bavarian State Opera debut as a Flowermaiden in Pierre Audi’s new Parsifal conducted by Kirill Petrenko, and for Glyndebourne Festival as First Nymph in Rusalka.
In the 2019/20 season, Vuvu returned to Glyndebourne – the festival which has always featured famous opera singers like Luicano Pavarotti or Joan Sutherland – to play Gilda in a new production of Rigoletto. Without the corona crisis, the singer would have made her Cologne Opera debut as Corinna in Il Viaggio a Reims and she would have returned to the Bavarian State Opera in Parsifal in April 2020. Besides that, Vuvu Mpofu would have given her North American debut as Pamina at the Aspen Music Festival at the end of June.
Vuvu Mpofu is the first artist that I had to chance to interview during the current corona crisis that the singer is spending together with her family in South Africa. A talk with an extraordinary vocal talent about her discovery of opera and about the challenging times we’re currently living in.
I remember singing the „Queen of the Night“ aria very passionately in the bathroom at the age of four when my mother suddenly entered to check whether I’d hurt myself. What is your first musical childhood memory?
I come from a family that always loved to sing and I remember making noise almost all of the time. Before I discovered opera as a teenager, I sang a lot of gospel music and I was part of the church choir. When I finally got in touch with opera, it remember my grandmother saying: „It sounds like crewning“.
I heard that you had your first encounter with opera back in the days when watching a „La Traviata“ performance featuring Angela Gheorghiu and Leo Nucci on DVD.
I had actually already discovered opera at High School before. During a school choir competition, I got in touch with this musical genre and was very fascinated by it. So I kept on researching and got DVDs of different opera performances such as „La Traviata“.
What made this performance such a touching, unforgettable experience for you?
For me, it was the fact that the artists were acting and singing at the same time – I’d never seen that before. The costumes, the whole atmosphere was magical and fascinating. I cried, I laughed: Watching this opera performance was an experience I’d never had before. I still love this interpretation of „La Traviata“ with Angela Gheorghiu and Leo Nucci, because it was a very compelling production.
When you applied for the University of Cape Town, you sang „Ach, ich fühl’s“, an aria of Pamina in Mozart’s world famous opera „The Magic Flute“. Was it the music or the wonderful, sad text full of longing and despair that attracted your attention first?
Discovering this aria was more of a coincidence for me, because my teacher at High School suggested that I should sing this song. When I applied for University, this was basically the only aria I knew (laughs). But it turned out throughout the years that I have a special connection with the „The Magic Flute“.
Because of Mozart’s beautiful music?
Yes and because „The Magic Flute“ has a lot of magical elements in it. There are princesses, birdcatchers and monsters… As a teenager, I was captured by the mystical spirit of this opera.
In 2019, you won the prestigious John Christie Award at the Glyndebourne Festival in East Sussex. Has this award had the most important effect on your career so far?
Yes, because all the other awards I’ve received so far were prizes I won at competitions. The John Christie Award was the first international award that I got and it was a great honour for me to be chosen as an uprising singer – especially if you come from a country like South Africa which is in no way related to opera internationally.
Your European engagements at Oper Köln (“Il viaggio a Reims“) and at Bayerische Staatsoper (“Parsifal”) were unfortunately cancelled due to the corona crisis. How hard is this forced break for you as a promising young singer?
It is a difficult time for me, because especially as a singer whose career is just about to gain momentum, you need to be inside people’s minds as much as possible. Especially if you’re not based in Europe or the UK like I am at the moment. When this crisis is going to be over at some point in the future, I hope that most of us do not have to start from scratch again.
I’m very sure that people are going to remember you and your voice after the crisis. If an artist is motivated and talented, there’s a great chance that you’re not going to be forgotten just because the opera houses are closed for some months. Is the stage the thing that you miss the most at the moment?
Yes, definitely. And I miss singing in general. At the moment, I’m home with my family, so there are not a lot of opportunities to sing outside of my house.
Have you returned to singing Gospel music or is this time of the corona crisis a real break from singing for you?
Here at home, we’re Christian – this means every time we pray, we also sing. From time to time, we also sing Gospel or African songs – or I start doing a little performance in the bathroom. So gladly I’m not completely mute at the moment (laughs).
I think that in some ways, a very good opera performance resembles a gospel concert in terms of authenticity and the passionate interpretation of the music.
I actually always listen to a bit of Gospel before I enter the opera stage. For me, everything that I sing has to come from the heart and my soul – whether I sing in a big opera house or whether I just play around.
„South African-born soprano Vuvu Mpofu overcame poverty, bereavement and knife crime to win a major role at Glyndebourne“, I read about you in an article on guardian.com. Why do you think that certain aspects of your life are so extraordinary for the press that you’re asked for them again and again?
That’s actually a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot, too. It’s probably because I’m South African and people are just very interested in the journey I took on the way to becoming a professional singer.
Do you sometimes wish to be asked more about your connection with music rather than about your background?
Even when I talk about music, it can happen that things are published in the wrong way. For example, I didn’t teach myself how to sing. I actually studied music at university and I had a lot of very good teachers who helped me a lot on my way. Being from South Africa and teaching yourself everything on your own might sound more fascinating at first glance – but I think that is important to stick to the truth. My personality is more than my past and music is the thing that keeps me going.
I think that not only the press, but also the audience loves their stereotypes to be confirmed. How can an artist like you help them to question and overcome possible prejudices?
I think that you can’t really convince people of the opposite of what they think, because each and every one of us has their own opinion. For me, it was very important to learn not to take things by the heart too much in this tough music business. Every artist should try to have a positive attitude, be self-confident and have people around oneself that he or she can trust.
Would you say that an opera singer somehow has to open up to showing certain aspects of his or her private life if he or she has reached a certain step in his or her career?
That’s a good question. I’ve always tried to be as authentic as possible, but I prefer to keep the very private things to myself. On my personal Facebook account, I really post whatever I wanted to publish – whether it is photos with my family or my friends or myself in a stage costume. On this public account, people can see Vuvu on and off stage. I’m not too much into social media, but I want to share certain aspects of my life, as I know that there are a lot of people out there who enjoy to see a bit more than just Vuvu the opera singer. As long as you know which things you have to keep to yourself, it is good to use social media as an artist.
When does the audience have the next chance to see you on stage again?
I hope that I can make my debut in Elixir at Seattle Opera in October 2020. But I’m pretty realistic concerning the current situation and I hope that things are going to turn out better at the beginning of next year.
And until then, you could delight the South African audience with your great voice!
I actually do have two concerts here in October and November. That’s something I’m really looking forward to!
What do you think about all your colleagues who’ve transferred their musical activities to the digital space at the moment?
I think they’re all doing a great job! It’s very good to keep on making music and giving hope to a lot of people with the help of social media.
So when are you going to perform for your Facebook and Instagram community?
For me, it’s quite difficult: We’re 12 people at our house and 6 of them are children. So you can imagine the noise (laughs).
You could do a house concert with them as you have a whole choir at home! And probably singing is the only way to prevent everyone from talking.
Haha, we’ll see how things are going to turn out during the next weeks and months.
Dear Vuvu, thank you very much for this very interesting interview! I wish you all the best for the next weeks and months and I hope that I’ll be able to see you on stage very soon!
More information on Vuvu Mpofu: