Don Giovanni features barrier-breaking cast
By Kelly Schlicht, Florentine Opera Development Manager
Audiences at the Florentine Opera’s production of Don Giovanni may notice something note-worthy about the cast of principal artists. The cast, featuring three black singers, is one of the most diverse in the company history.
Baritone Musa Ngqungwana will play Leporello, Don Giovanni’s sidekick. The Florentine Opera Studio Artists, soprano Ariana Douglas, and baritone Leroy Davis, will also be featured, with Douglas playing Zerlina and Davis playing Masetto.
“The Florentine Opera is certainly committed to diversity, in reaching audiences on our mainstage, in schools, and in the community. In addition, we are passionate about highlighting the rich tapestry of diversity amongst our artists, which reflect our larger society,” said the Florentine’s General Director William Florescu. “The Florentine believes this enriches the artistic experience for everyone.”
Each of these three artists’ backgrounds are also diverse. Douglas grew up in Appleton, Davis grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and Ngqungwana grew up in South Africa, against the backdrop of Apartheid and its aftermath.
“It was a complicated situation,” he said. When Ngqungwana was an infant, his family’s home was burned to the ground, because his uncles were part of a political resistance group. Despite the struggles of growing up in poverty and extreme segregation, Ngqungwana says he found solace performing in choirs as a child.
“South Africans have their own strong tradition of singing,” he said. “I loved being in the choirs at school and at church.”
But, he wasn’t exposed to opera—or even knew someone with his skin color could be in the performing arts—until he was 16, and watched a VHS tape of the Magic Flute, where Jamaican-born British bass-baritone Sir Willard White played the role of The Speaker.
“After that, I knew that I wanted to study music,” he said. He studied at the University of Capetown, before studying at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. While he said it was a difficult decision to leave his home country, the director of the opera school in Capetown encouraged him, to help further his career prospects. Ngqungwana said it has been less difficult breaking into opera in the United States than it was back home in South Africa.
“For the most part in the United States, they judge you just on your voice when auditioning for opera. In South Africa, it’s harder to get roles because for a long time, black people were not even allowed to participate in opera,” he said. Now that people have been exposed to the art form in South Africa, more students are studying voice, graduating, and going on to fruitful careers across Europe, Ngqungwana explained.
And while he feels there may be less discrimination in casting in the United States, Ngqungwana says he still feels there needs to be greater representation by people of color.
“In America, you see so much diversity represented in sports, and sports are such an influence. It is important that if a young black family comes to see Don Giovanni, those children can look up at the stage and say, ‘I see people who look like me, and I can do this,’” said Ngqungwana.
Douglas and Davis said this production of Don Giovanni presents a unique opportunity for the local community to see this amount of diversity on stage.
“This is just amazing,” said Davis. “It just doesn’t happen in classical repertoire, usually.”
“Other than Porgy and Bess, you really don’t see it,” said Douglas. “And we need to see it beyond just the roles in Porgy and Bess.”
Ngqungwana agreed. This summer, he will do his first Porgy and Bess at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York. He describes his decision to do this production as selective.
“I only wanted to do Porgy and Bess at a company where I’ve sung mainstream classical roles before. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in just ‘black’ roles,” he explained.
Douglas and Davis, who currently are in their second year of the Florentine’s Studio Artist program, understand first-hand how important exposure and representation can be for young people while on the Opera in the Schools tour.
“We visit many schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools that are majority African-American,” said Douglas. “It’s wonderful knowing that we may be inspiring them to go for a career in opera or the performing arts, just by seeing us up there.”
“We need to see more artists of color performing the big classical roles, because the more we do it, the more it becomes normalized to have black singers in those roles,” said Davis.
Ngqungwana said he wants to seize every opportunity he has to get that message out. He is in the process of revising his memoir, The Odyssey of an African Opera Singer, which he self-published in 2014.
“I have a story to tell, and it’s worth telling, if I can inspire even one person to rise up,” he said.
During this increasingly divisive time in our country, these featured artists say they hope the arts can continue to bridge divides.
“It’s an important thing, having a mixed cast in 2017. I’m not trying to make a political statement here, but there are a lot of changes happening in the world, and the arts can be a voice of hope and unity, and can remind us that we have this common thing together,” said Ngqungwana.
To read more about Ngqungwana’s journey to the stage, click here for his memoir.