For the past eight years, Fikile Mvinjelwa has been a card-carrying member of The Metropolitan Opera, New York. It’s a simple card – white with a passport-style photo in the top right-hand corner – but it represents the pinnacle of achievement for any opera singer. During his time at the Met, Mvinjelwa has been involved in productions of Aida, Francesca da Rimini, Rigoletto and Attila under maestro Riccardo Muti.
Local audiences will remember Mvinjelwa’s powerful voice and dramatic performances in Cape Town Opera productions as Nabucco, Rigoletto, Macbeth, Amonasro in Aida, Tonio in Pagliacci, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor and di Luna in Il trovatore, which drew standing ovations and critical acclaim.
Despite his dedicated local following, when Mvinjelwa left the country in January 2009 he was already in his 40s. He attributes his late-blooming success to the high calibre of training that he received in South Africa from Angelo Gobbato, Ean Smit and Kamal Khan, remarking that Metropolitan singing coach Craig Rutenburg did not have to make any major corrections to his technique. Gobbato taught Mvinjelwa impeccable Italian, essential for roles in the great Italian operas. In addition, Mvinjelwa says Gobbato taught him to express drama through his voice by talking while singing.
He attributes his singing finesse to maestro Kahn, who is also making a guest appearance as the conductor for Rigoletto. Mvinjelwa still studies regularly with maestro Khan and says: “He is a maestro de canto who understands the voice and Italian. When you’re singing, he’s singing with you. It’s easy to work with him.”
Besides good training, Mvinjelwa’s longevity as a singer can be attributed to hard work and the willingness to remain an eternal student. In the Rigoletto rehearsal room, he is focused, still asking questions about how to sing a role to which he has returned many times. As he says: “You learn something every day. One thing you have to do is hang in there. You must be hungry all the time. You never stop learning because you never know when the opportunity comes.”
Mvinjelwa believes that, as a performer, he has improved with age: “Acting and singing are like wine; they mature: 20 years ago I was using too much energy. Now I’m much calmer and know how to approach things better.”
In South Africa, he observes, besides Violina Anguelov, there is a dearth of seasoned singers who can act as role models and mentors. After Rigoletto, Mvinjelwa will teach a master class to the young singers of Cape Town Opera’s Studio.
He is relishing working with Marthinus Basson on a Rigoletto that is set in Africa, and is enjoying his time with the young and talented cast. “There are two great young singers in this production of Rigoletto – Noluvuyiso Mpofu (Gilda) and Lukhanyo Moyake (Duke of Mantua). If they focus they will make it.”
Mpofu’s rendition of Gilda’s famous aria, Cara nome, is “truly beautiful”, Mvinjelwa promises.
Mvinjelwa looks forward to performing on his local stage: “You always miss home and the audiences who really know you. I started my life at Artscape and I’ve missed Cape Town.”