Opera, forensics and black medical scientists: Masiphumelele learners' feast

14 August 2023 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 6 min.
A young learner expresses her delight at hearing live opera at the Masiphumelele Library annex, thanks to partnership between EMS, UCT Opera and IkamvaYouth.
A young learner expresses her delight at hearing live opera at the Masiphumelele Library annex, thanks to partnership between EMS, UCT Opera and IkamvaYouth.

It was an unlikely setting for a standing ovation. But even in the crowded annex of the Masiphumelele Library, soprano Zizipho Funzo’s and baritone Siphe Kwani’s voices soared. The security staff came too, curious onlookers. For them and the young audience, members of the local IkamvaYouth chapter, it was an initiation into live opera, thanks to UCT Opera at the South African College of Music.

This entrée was the third part of a Saturday Summer School outreach programme, run by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (EMS) with IkamvaYouth, their mission is to build bridges for disadvantaged youth; opportunities to rise above their economic and social circumstances through tertiary education or employment.

The programme also featured two preceding talks: the first on becoming a forensic pathologist and the second on pioneering African medical scientists. These were presented by UCT senior forensic pathologist and toxicologist Dr Iekram Alli and UCT medical biochemist Anwar Mall, a retired professor of surgical research.

Dr Alli studied medicine in India and South Africa and has an honours degree in Islamic Studies. He has worked at UCT since 2010 and is also the head of Odontology Unit in the Division of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at UCT.

Emeritus Professor Mall introduced the audience to the work of three great African heroes in medical science: the late UCT cardiologist and the head of Medicine Professor Bongani Mayosi, Sudanese refugee turned pulmonologist Dr Emmanuel Taban and the late Hamilton Naki, who had no formal education but became highly skilled in the craft of transplant surgery, the result of watching surgeons at work in UCT’s experimental transplant unit. He passed these skills on to the next generation of surgeons. In 2003 UCT awarded an MMed (honoris causa) to Naki.

A high note

Funzo had stepped into the annex after the lunch break wearing a shimmering ballgown, Kwani in a formal black suit and patent leather shoes with a shine that mirrored the jostling front row.

This was an important audience – and they had dressed for the occasion.

Accompanied by UCT alumnus Francois Botha on keyboard, Kwani had chosen to sing “The Toreador” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Funzo followed with “Doretta’s Dream” from Giacomo Puccini’s La Rondine and they ended with a duet, “Lippen schweigen”, from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

Members of the EMS and IkamvaYouth teams (from left) Faheem Seedat, Sisanda Ntsokota, Someleze Jabe, Ziyanda Tungana, Thembelani Khumalo, Yamkela Makaluza, Avile Mabhengu, and Musawenkosi Sokapase.

They brought the audience to their feet.

Earlier, the duo had shared their personal stories. Both were born and raised in Khayelitsha, and neither had any background in classical music or opera. But Funzo sang in the school choirs at Injongo Primary School and Bulumko Secondary School. In 2015 she participated in the Western Cape Choral Music Association soloist development programme, taking first place in the soprano category. After undergraduate studies at UCT under Mam Paulina Malefane, Funzo is now studying towards a Postgraduate Diploma in Music.

Kwani is a final-year student in the Postgraduate Diploma in Music Performance programme, specialising in opera. He was introduced to choral music in high school and in 2015 he too won first place in the Western Cape Choral Music Association’s Solo Development Competition. In 2018 and 2019 he performed in UCT’s South African College of Music’s Opera Kaleidoscope. He won first prize and the audience prize in the 2019 Schock Foundation competition. In 2020 he performed in a masterclass with famous New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa.

‘Touch one person’s life’

“Saying the IkamvaYouth programme was amazing is an understatement for me,” Funzo said afterwards. “We are not exposed to this type of music as the black community. Our township schools don’t have this type of music as a subject or even as a choice.

“Our parents are also not exposed to it; most are against their children being musicians. So, to be part of this amazing opportunity where I can bring awareness that this music is out there and is alive and it can be turned into a career … I would do that a thousand times again!


“Getting the standing ovation was a confirmation that I passed the challenge I set for myself!”

“As an opera singer, I get to become a different person based on the character I’m playing at the time and my only wish and hope is to touch my audience the same way the character touched me. I always challenge myself when singing for an audience who doesn’t know much about opera, to always make it a point to at least touch one person’s life, musically or emotionally.”

She added, “Getting the standing ovation was a confirmation that I passed the challenge I set for myself!”  

EMS director, Dr Medeé Rall, said she hoped the event would be the start of a collaboration with the South African College of Music, where Opera UCT is based.

“This work lies very close to my heart,” said Dr Rall.

The Saturday Summer Schools are an important part of the centre’s community engagement and social responsiveness initiatives and an offshoot of the annual Summer School.

The event was sponsored by Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages.

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