The tenor touch
Article by Lisa Witepski
with kind permission of
The South African
Most university students are downloading the latest indie or dance tracks onto their iPods before heading to the next party - but not the young men who make up the Gaabo-Motho Tenors. Still in their early twenties, Phenye Modiane, Mmusi Morekhure, Thabiso Masemene and Tebogo Makgwe are making themselves known as the freshest voices on South Africa's opera circuit.
The story of Gaabo-Motho (meaning 'home' or 'where one belongs') starts in 2004 at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), where Modiane, Morekhure, Maemene and Makgwe were all studying Vocal Art. One year later, Morekhure laid the foundation for the group when he entered a Unisa-sponsored music competition in the soloist and ensemble categories. Problem was, he didn't have an ensemble. That's when Modiane and Masemene agreed to lend their vocal talents. But, not content to remain tied to the traditional three tenors mould that Pavarotti, Carerras and Domingo had ensured was in vogue, they elected to add a fourth voice: Makgwe.
Since then, the tenors have been in hot demand. Makgwe estimates that Gaabo-Motho might perform up to six or even 10 times a month - impressive, given that opera audiences in South Africa are considerably smaller than those of other audiences. More impressive still is the fact that the tenors have been requested to perform at many high profile events, including Soccerex (a celebration of the upcoming 2010 Soccer World Cup). They've also been selected to serenade the South African cricket team, and have appeared alongside well-known South African musicians like Joseph Clark.
Indications are that these appearances will become even more frequent. While Masemene laments the fact that "we do not have a big theatre culture in our country [it seems that there are few operatic performances hosted compared to, say, pop concerts]", there's also reason to celebrate the fact that "more people are learning about the art form", according to Morekhure. "This is a different art-form. It's not appreciated by all people - only those who have a love for theatre and quality music. However, every day young people discover their talent and their love for this art-form, and this is causing significant growth in the genre," he comments.
Tellingly, the number of performers who are investing their talents in the genre is growing, too. Dedicated opera fans will notice, in particular, the increasing number of stellar black performers gracing our stages. Says Masemene, "I think that many people in South Africa are only discovering this music for the first time, so when they hear it, they fall in love with it." Modiane believes the reason for this increasing interest is more practical in nature: "Many young black people are singing in choirs, and most school or community choir competitions now prescribe opera - and this, of course, has an important effect. Added to this, for many black people, singing is just a raw talent." Morekhure agrees: "A lot of black people were exposed to this music only after 1994, and there is much talent in the black communities which was previously hidden and is now being uncovered."
As for the tenors themselves, their own love affairs with opera are already well established. Makgwe, for example, was introduced to the genre by his teacher, Wilhelm Thenuissen, who spotted the young man's talent while he was performing at the former Performing Arts Centre of the Free State. Already a seasoned musician (Makgwe had started learning trombone at an early age before switching to voice and guitar), Theunissen trained the teenager and recommended his attendance of TUT.
Morekhure, meanwhile, says that he was exposed to classical music at an early age, singing in school and community choirs. "At 17, I became a tenor soloist at the Ga-Rankuwa Youth Choir and competed at the South African Choral Music Associations competitions, where I obtained first position and became the North West Province's tenor champ. This is where I actually discovered my talent and I decided on a career in opera. I was also influenced by my father's collection of opera, which I grew up listening to - especially the three tenors."
For Modiane, passion proved the seeds of a promising career. He, like Morekhure, was a church and school choir veteran who represented North West Province at the Tirisano School Choral Eisteddfod in 2002. In 2004 he achieved another coup, singing in the State Theatre's production of Verdi's La Traviata. "My school choir conductor, Mrs Motshwane, motivated me to study opera as a career," he says.
Masemene was also introduced to opera through his participation in school choirs. "I fell in love with the genre," he says simply. So when, in 2003, a choir competition adjudicator told him he has a beautiful voice and should consider opera as a career, he did just that.
Their track records are clear evidence of the immense talent of this young, hungry band - and they have no doubts about where they want it to take them. "We want to see the Gaabo-Motho Tenors become a well known name the world over," they agree unanimously.