A dozen singers belt out Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle in a classroom at the Pedagogical University in Mozambique. The country has just two professional opera singers; this year, the duo are training young Mozambicans to perform a new show based on a book by the country’s most prominent author.
International opera performers Stella Mendonça and Sonia Mocumbi, the daughter of former prime minister Pascoal Mocumbi, have returned from careers abroad to teach Mozambicans from all walks of life how to sing.
Leaving her home in Africa to study in Europe at 15 was difficult for Mendonça, but in Mozambique at the time an aspiring classical musician’s only option was to go abroad. When she studied at a conservatory in Lyon, one of the directors insisted she could not sing opera because the shape of black Africans’ heads affected resonance.
“I was very happy to prove him wrong,” Mendonça says. Her outrage at his comments pushed her to work even harder.
After 30 years in Europe studying then performing across the continent, Mendonça returned to Mozambique to share her skills at home. Last year she launched the Musiarte music school in Maputo. In addition to offering classes in piano, violin and guitar for children and adults, the school is training a choir to perform Terra Sonâmbula, a new production based on the book by Mozambican novelist Mia Couto.
The dozen or so singers come from a variety of professional backgrounds. Those who can’t afford to join pay a token fee for vocal lessons and instruction in music theory.
Mendonça is a commanding figure in front of her students, and she conducts the choir with panache.
“My big preoccupation was that I don’t want to keep this for me,” she said of her skills. “I have a responsibility to be a mirror for young people here.”
Gizela Mangaze joined the choir in July 2013 after learning of Mendonça’s return to Mozambique. “We heard Stella Mendonça was putting a choir together. She’s quite famous among the music scene.”
Mangaze says the choir mixes formal technical coaching with traditional Mozambican styles, producing a unique sound that differs from European operas. “We love rhythm and our voices are stronger and have more body. It sounds different,” she adds.
Terra Sonâmbula – translated as Sleepingwalking Land – is required reading in Mozambican schools. The novel chronicles the journey of an orphan and an old man during Mozambique’s civil war and illustrates themes such as the discovery of national identity and making the best of a bad situation. One day it occurred to Couto and Mendonça that the book title sounded like an Italian opera, and they enlisted the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, the creator of the Kurt Wallander series of mystery novels, to transform Mozambique’s most famous novel into the country’s first libretto.
Mendonça believes nurturing music and the arts is essential for Mozambique’s future. The country became independent from Portugal in 1975 and plunged into civil war after just two years. It emerged 15 years later as one of the poorest countries in the world. Today the economy is booming thanks to the recent discovery of gas fields in the north, but the growth has benefited only a small section of the population and underscored social inequality.
“I think none of the country can develop without developing the culture here,” Mendonça says.
The choir’s repertoire extends beyond the Italian classics. In addition to staging shows at the end of each trimester, they have performed the German national anthem for German Unity Day, and sung at a farewell for the ambassador of Switzerland.
Production has hit a few snags so far. The global financial crisis and Mozambique’s presidential elections this year sapped resources from potential sponsors.
In spring 2010, Mankell lost the only copy of the Terra Sonâmbula libretto when he was arrested aboard the Gaza flotilla. “That libretto is still in the hands of the Israelis,” Mendonça said. “He had to rewrite it.”
Opera is a far stretch from popular entertainment for most Mozambicans, but Mendonça insists the combination of two favourite national pastimes – storytelling and music – will ensure its public appeal.
Twenty-year-old Suneida Gizela Maquito was one of the original members of the choir, in which she learned to read music. She is optimistic that opera will gain popularity as a genre in Mozambique. Her dream is to perform in the United States, perhaps even for Barack Obama. “I want to show them that even in Mozambique we have beautiful things. There is something good, and there are talented people coming from Africa.”
Clare Richardson for the Guardian Africa Network