Just a few minutes after the curtain rises at the beginning of Porgy and Bess, the young mother Clara sings what is possibly the best-loved melody George Gershwin ever wrote. You can’t sing “Summertime” without a special warmth in your voice, sincerity in your expression, and the ability to communicate the sheer joy of singing. Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi has all that, as Lyric audiences will discover this season when this role marks the company debut of the South African lyric soprano, a first-year Ryan Opera Center member.
“I really wasn’t expecting to be given anything onstage in my first year,” says Mkhwanazi (her full name, by the way, is pronounced “HLEN-ghee-way M-kwah-NAH-zi”). She anticipates having a wonderful time as Clara, “although, of course, there will be pressure at the same time. I’m new and nobody knows me, so I don’t know how people will receive me. But this is very exciting—an honor, actually.”
Mkhwanazi will portray one of the most lovable characters in Gershwin’s opera: “She’s a mother, and that’s something I can relate to, since I have an eight-year-old daughter. Her name, Nomathemba—which we’ve shortened to Noma—means ‘hope’ in Zulu.”
This will be the first time Mkhwanazi has performed American repertoire. She notes that Porgy and Bess is a familiar piece in Cape Town, and that the Cape Town Opera’s production has recently toured successfully all over Europe. When produced in her homeland “it’s still the same Porgy and Bess, but it tells the story in a South African way—for example, they present Catfish Row as a township. They’ve found a way of making it their own, as if it truly belonged to South Africans. It doesn’t feel like a foreign story.”
Mkhwanazi had sung several formidably difficult roles with South African companies before winning second prize last year in Vienna’s highly prestigious Belvedere Competition. She subsequently auditioned for Anthony Freud, who encouraged her to audition for the Ryan Opera Center. Her life since then has been like a dream. For example, “When I sang in Renée Fleming’s master class, I wasn’t worried about the music—I was just amazed that she was there and I was singing for her.” And Mkhwanazi has already had her first big Chicago success, singing the demanding role of Thérèse in Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias at Symphony Center.
“I still can’t believe I’m here,” says Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, “but I wake up every morning realizing I am
For more information and to book tickets, visit our Porgy and Bess
age or call our audience services department at 312.827.5600