eo Muyanga’s baton flies through the air as he conducts an ensemble of opera singers inside Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre.
They are rehearsing Muyanga’s latest work, the musical version of Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness. His round tortoiseshell glasses lend him the appearance of a wizard, and his baton is a magic wand.
Male and female voices merge and climb at his direction, a tapestry of searing soprano and deep bass.
In an interview during his lunch break, Muyanga’s thoughts fly as quickly as his conductor’s hand. His diminutive frame and soft words belie the fact that he is one of the country’s foremost composers and intellectuals.
For him, working within a genre of music that has a centuries-old European tradition is no elitist endeavour.
“We’re one of the few countries in the world where opera is a mode of storytelling not just for the elite, but for poor and marginalised people,” he says.
“Singing is an important part of history here – it was key to fighting oppression.”
Muyanga considers vocal chords to be our national instrument.
“Everybody sings. We sing at the drop of a hat; when we’re elated, when we’re sad. We break into song at the slightest provocation.
“We have always articulated our stories and our dreams through our voices – take, for example, Miriam Makeba, our first global superstar. And her voice was not just artistic, but also political.”
His latest musical, Heart of Redness, probes post-apartheid racial divisions. It has its roots in the tale of Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse’s 1850s visions of spirits sweeping British settlers out to sea in return for the Xhosa people destroying their crops and killing their cattle.
“Zakes Mda’s book flicks between different timeframes. I wanted to replicate that with music, superimposing musical aesthetics,” he says.
Born in Soweto in the 1970s, Muyanga was 10 years old when he fled police brutality to live with extended family in the Free State town of Virginia. He later moved to the village of Pitsane in southern Botswana, where he successfully applied for a scholarship to study philosophy and physics at the United World College of Italy in Trieste.
“Even though studying in Europe wasn’t my family or my parents’ kind of life, they had the imagination to back the dreams of their young,” he says. “We were never wealthy, but that – family – was our wealth.”
While studying in Trieste, it was Italian opera that enchanted him. He was particularly drawn to Renaissance madrigals – vocal works – which reminded him of traditional South African choral music. The leap from rural life to a city college on another continent was tough, but in trademark fashion, Muyanga’s approach was solution driven.
“I lived in Italy when it was still a very racist country,” he says. “It was no fun being a black person there. The only way to survive was to learn to speak Italian in a very pompous accent. That kept them guessing, and in check.”
Back in South Africa, Muyanga became famous as half of the acoustic pop duo Blk SonShine with hits such as Born in A Taxi.
Since then, he has toured frequently and has composed music for choirs and large ensembles for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Handspring Puppet Company.
His 2012 operetta, The Flower of Shembe, a mythical work about faith and destiny, was met with critical acclaim, and soon after that, Opera Africa commissioned him to compose an opera on Nelson Mandela called The Struggle.
He split with Opera Africa and is now raising funds to finish the project alone.
Earlier this year, Wits University and the University of California announced that Muyanga had been awarded a joint composer in residence fellowship for 2015.
At the time, David Goldberg, director of the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute, said: “Neo Muyanga
MAN OF NOTE
Neo Muyanga says hearing madrigals in Italy reminded him of traditional SA choral music