We talk to opera sensation Levy Sekgapane on home ground and on the eve of his appearance in Georges Bizet’s famous opera at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre.

By Debbie Hathway
Bel canto tenor Levy Sekgapane

Happy to be back home (he was last here before the pandemic), award-winning South African tenor Levy Sekgapane (33) gave a preview of his role opposite Brittany Smith in the forthcoming Bizet opera, Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), at a recent soiree at Everard Reid Gallery in Cape Town. VIP guests were transfixed.

Sekgapane and Smith studied together, and know one another well, making it easier to take on a new role in a new range. “People know me for my Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini repertoire, which has allowed me to present my voice as it is. I wanted to do something that I’d never done, and this is [more challenging] because it’s longer, in three acts, so it’s more difficult for the voices to carry, support, sustain and resist, and there’s big orchestration. My voice is transitioning into more lyrical work – French repertoire and heavier bel canto – the big Donazettis and Bellinis. The Pearl Fishers is beautiful, written for very particular voices, and I think mine and Brittany’s work very well together.”

Levy Sekgapane and Brittany Smith – Pic credit Annène van Eeden

The French libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré directs the action around two fishermen (Zurga and Nadir) competing for the love of one woman, Leïla, on the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Cue one of the most glorious tenor-baritone duets ever – Au fond du temple saint (At the back of the holy temple) also known as The Pearl Fishers duet.

Sekgapane will perform alongside Cape Town Opera soloists Lukhanyo Moyake and Smith and the award-winning Cape Town Opera Chorus. The opera is directed by Elisabeth Manduell, sung in French with English and iSiXhosa subtitles, and accompanied by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Adam Szmidt. Exquisite imagery by acclaimed local artist Shakil Solanki provides magnificent decorative touches through projections reflecting his signature blue palette and a clear Hindu aesthetic.

Star quality

Born in Kroonstad, Sekgapane moved to boarding school in Cape Town at age 15 to begin his musical studies – and to learn English. He was 27 when he claimed first prize at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia 2017 competition, established to discover and help launch the careers of today’s most promising young opera singers between the ages of 20 and 32. Pretty Yende is the only other South African to have achieved this accolade. Sekgapane had already won two international awards by then and in 2018, he made the Forbes list 30 Under 30 – Europe – Art & Culture list.

He first fell in love with operas by Mozart, listening to Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute as a teenager. “I came late to the big stuff. I didn’t even know who Rossini was and now I’m specialising in his repertoire,” he says.

Over time, his voice has been described as beautifully delicate and tender, vocally rich and fabulously flexible. A recent reviewer of his role as Lindoro in The Barber of Seville writes: “The tenor asserts himself quickly and imposes an exemplary Rossinian style: the vocalisations are always inscribed in phrasing, the highest notes (up to the contra-C!) do not seem to arouse effort, the passage from the chest voice to the head voice is fluid and well controlled.”

Sekgapane’s homecoming looks set to spark plans for many more visits, to do “these types of things and to connect with my South African audience.” Future endeavours in this country include an opera gala and an exhibition tennis match featuring several international stars to raise funds for opera and classical music projects in South Africa. Sekgapane’s goal is to get more young people interested in opera and believes television is key. “Everybody knew who Pavarotti was. How many young people follow F1? And tennis? Because it’s on TV all the time. Opera is the highest art form. Everybody needs to see it.”

From left Conroy Scott, Lukhanyo Moyake, Levy Sekgapane, Adam Szmidt, Elisabeth Manduell and Yohan Chun on piano – Pic credit Kim Stevens

As a warmup for The Pearl Fishers, Sekgapane will present a concert in five languages (Italian, French, German, English and Spanish) at The Baxter Concert Hall in Cape Town this evening at 7pm.

When it comes to downtime, in between commitments, Sekgapane will be relaxing at the piano playing music by Bach for its calming effect and working on maintaining the mental fitness and physical stamina needed for the stage. He also loves conducting and playing tennis.

Dates to diarise

  • Levy Sekgapane in Concert (in five languages) at the Cape Town Concert Series, The Baxter Concert Hall, Cape Town, 5 May.
  • The Pearl Fishers, Artscape Theatre, Cape Town, 10 to 14 May 2023.
  • Operalia 2023, the World Opera Competition hosted by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cape Town Opera at Artscape Theatre, October 30 to November 5. Presented by Rolex.
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