The little girl who dreamed of Opera

Imagine you dreamed of becoming an opera singer, you a little girl in Mozambique. Imagine you were sent abroad to study in one of the most prestigious schools in the world. Imagine one of the directors, a person who is supposed to broaden your horizon, basically tells you that Africans can’t sing the opera. Would that racist remark undermine your confidence and prevent you from learning, proving his point? Or would you rather challenge his bigotry and go on to become the first black African Opera singer in history?

Today, I am inspired by Stella Mendonça of Mozambique. Stella was born in August 1970 in Nampula, a province in North-Eastern Mozambique. As far as she can remember, Stella wanted to become a classical musician, but she knew she had to go and study abroad if that was ever to happen.

She applied herself and God heard her prayers. At age 15, Stella earned a full scholarship to go and study at the Conservatory of Lyon (Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Lyon) in France!

It wasn’t easy leaving her country as a teenager, but Stella knew this was the only gateway to her dreams. When she landed in France in 1985, the adolescent thought her biggest challenge was going to adapt to life in a European country, one that didn’t speak her native portuguese. She was conscious there weren’t many black people in the field, but she never expected that to be a problem, as she trusted her gift. A comment from one of the school directors was going to change her expectations. He insisted she could not sing opera because “the shape of black Africans’ heads affects resonance”! Could you believe that? In the eighties?

Rather than discouraging her, that racist comment pushed her to work even harder. “I was very happy to prove him wrong”.

Her efforts paid off. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s in music history and a Masters of Voice. During her cursus she was able to study with the industry’s best teachers and take master classes, refining both her musical and interpretive skills.

After her studies in France, Stella enrolled in «Studio di belcanto», a school in Berne, Switzerland so she could study with the great Maestro Dennis Hall. Dennis Hall was so impressed with the determined young lady, he coached her for several years. And when he retired in 2002, he handed over his voice school to Stella!

Her career on stage was also moving at rocket speed. Stella started by playing secondary roles, but it wasn’t long before her impressive Soprano propelled her centre stage. In 1998, the young African born singer made her debut in the title role of Franz Lehar’s ‘The Merry Widow’. It was a great success!

From thereon, Stella was invited to play the lead in roles never performed by Africans on a world stage before, such as “Mimi” in Giacomo Puccini’s ‘La bohème’ and “Bess” in George Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’. In 2001 and 2002, Stella played title-role in a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida”, one of the greatest operas of all times.

But Stella was aiming further. Though she had realised her childhood dream and was performing on the biggest stages of the world, Stella dreamed of bringing Opera to her own continent.

Conscious that Africa is full of young talents who will never get the same opportunity she had early in her life, Stella founded SONÇA international, a non-profit dedicated to promoting arts education in Africa.

In 2002, through her Foundation, Stella collaborated with the opera singer Mark Jackson in adapting ‘Carmen’. Stella produced the opera in her home country and starred in the leading role during performances in Mozambique’s main cities. Most of her countrymen and women had never seen an opera before, let alone an opera with a daughter of Mozambique leading the performance!

In 2013, Stella Mendonça and her friend Sonia Mocumbi, the two only international opera singers from Mozambique, joined forces with the country’s Pedagogical University (Universidade Pedagógica) to open a music conservatory in Maputo: MUSIARTE. The Conservatory of Music and Dramatic Art, as it was later renamed, offers music education to Mozambican kids from their youngest age, even as early as three years old.

The school offers courses for piano, voice, violin, guitar, percussion, wind instruments, music theory, ear-training and kids choir. The most gifted kids can audition and join the school’s choir. The beautiful ensemble of talents of all ages, VOCALIS, has already started conquering stages across the world, following the footsteps of their benefactor. The ensemble repertoire ranges from classic to jazz and a blend of traditional African songs.

For the past few years, Stella has been working on a project very dear to her heart: the creation of the first Mozambican Opera. Stella has chosen to adapt the novel “Terra Sonâmbula” (Sleepwalking Land) by Mozambican author Mia Couto. The book, which has received several awards and has already been adapted to the big screen, tells the story of Muidinga, an orphaned refugee, lost in the middle of the Mozambican civil war, and searching for his mother.

And don’t think that Stella has retired from the Opera stage. In addition to running an international foundation, a school in Switzerland, and another one in Mozambique, adapting international operas for African audiences and putting together the first Mozambican opera, the great Cantatrice continues to perform in Europe, the US and in Africa!

Right Your Legacy, Stella! Thank you for opening the way to other African kids who dream of walking in your footsteps. Nós estamos orgulhosos de você!

Um’Khonde Habamenshi

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