Ryan Opera Center in Conversation: Lunga's Journey

It goes without saying that all of the Ensemble artists in The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center have extraordinary ability. They go through a rigorously competitive audition process to get into the Ryan Opera Center and greatness is expected of them during their time in and after the program. Nowhere is that rigor and greatness more apparent than in the journey of first-year tenor Lunga Eric Hallam, whose five-month journey to move from South Africa to the United States during a global pandemic was nothing short of a miracle—and a true testament of “extraordinary ability.” 

To understand Lunga’s full story, we must start at the beginning. Lunga first met Craig Terry, music director of the Ryan Opera Center, at the Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) in Zimbabwe in 2017 and they immediately hit it off. In the fall of 2019 when the Ryan Opera Center was holding auditions for its new Ensemble, Craig contacted Lunga, who made arrangements for a visitor's visa to travel to the U.S. for an audition in November 2019. He was accepted into the program on the spot.

Craig Terry rehearsing "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables with Lunga for the Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) in Zimbabwe in 2017.

Flash forward to March 2020, when arrangements to get our international artists to the United States began in the midst of a global pandemic, led by Lyric’s artist services manager, Kevin Krasinski. “When we apply for visas for our artists, we generally try to get what is called an O-1 Class visa, which is for ‘Aliens of Extraordinary Ability,’” said Kevin. Lunga’s petition was the longest one Kevin has ever written for an artist, filling over 200 pages with evidence of Lunga’s extraordinary ability. This included proof of his work at Cape Town Opera and other major instiutions both in the U.S. and internationally, along with multiple letters from international opera experts attesting to Lunga's great talent. Approval of his petition came at the end of March, when consulates and travel began to shut down around the world. The Ryan Opera Center team applied for a routine visa appointment anyway; Lunga’s appointment got rescheduled three times within the month of June, before the consulate closed completely. All of this was transpiring while the 2020/21 Ryan Opera Center Ensemble started up in early May, so Lunga had to begin began his work with the Ryan Opera Center from over 8,000 miles away.

Once details began to finalize around the Ryan Opera Center’s Lawrence Brownlee and Friends: The Next Chapter concert, it became clear that Lunga could not record his part of the concert from South Africa. It had become increasingly difficult for him to tune in to Zoom language classes, coachings, and Ensemble gatherings due to the several hours’ time difference, lack of technology in his town, and strict Covid working protocols. “Lunga had a prepaid data plan and no Wifi connection, no space for him to go and get on a computer—he was just trying to access Ryan Opera Center programming via his phone,” said Emma Scherer, Ryan Opera Center associate and main coordinator of Lunga’s day-to-day activities. “He even rented out a church at one point, just so he could have a safe place to sing without disturbing his neighbors. In order to do so, he had to stay away from his family for weeks just to have access to the church. We really wanted to get him here. It wasn’t beneficial for him or us to have him working from home any longer.”

Dan Novak, director of the Ryan Opera Center, wrote to the Cape Town consulate to advocate once again on Lunga’s behalf. Thankfully, an emergency interview was granted for July 1. This gave Lunga the opportunity to interview with the U.S. Department of State, who approved adding a U.S. work visa to his passport. A few days later, his new visa and passport were available near the Cape Town airport.

Lunga after arriving at O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

When it came to flying to the United States, options looked grim to Kevin. “With so many flight cancellations, we started to resign ourselves and lose hope,” he said. But with the help of a long-time Lyric travel agent and season subscriber, Russ Wagenaar, they found one repatriation flight on July 13—the last flight from South Africa to the United States for the entire month of July. “Anyone who leaves the country of South Africa right now requires approval,” said Kevin. “Even traveling between provinces in South Africa requires a permit from the police, so we applied for multiple approvals from government agencies to get him on the flight. Luckily, it all went through.”

Lunga got to say goodbye to his family and friends, and then travelled from his hometown of Khayelitsha to Cape Town to board a flight to Johannesburg. He missed that flight due to assembly and processing traffic in the airport, spent a sleepless night in Cape Town, and got on the first flight the next morning to Johannesburg. There, he spent four hours trying to get on the flight to Washington, D.C., which he did successfully, and finally arrived in the United States. Kevin was there waiting for him when he arrived. “It was very gratifying to be there to greet Lunga outside the door from customs and it worked out well being able to use two brains to keep things organized,” Kevin said. They switched airports in Washington, got a few hours of sleep, and finally made their way to Chicago. For Lunga, his journey included four airports in around 36 hours. “Never in my life had I experienced that before, and it definitely made me realize how real COVID is,” he said.

Kevin Krasinski on his flight from Chicago to Washington D.C. to greet Lunga upon his arrival to the U.S.

Lunga and Kevin meeting at the Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C.

“It was a whole lot of communication with a bunch of different government and commercial airline representatives, just trying to get everything in place and it really did come down to the very last minute,” said Kevin. “Coming through U.S. Customs was the easiest part of the trip. Lunga’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent even promised to tune in to Lawrence Brownlee and Friends: The Next Chapter!”

“We are very excited for Lunga to settle into his role in the Ryan Opera Center now that he’s here,” said Emma. “It’s not a job that he could do anywhere else. That’s the case we made with the consulate, that’s the case he made in his interview, and that’s what got him here. His participation in this concert is so much more than the struggle of him getting here—we’re desperate for live art again and he’s exactly the person who needs to be heard right now.”

Lunga will sing a traditional South African piece called “Buya” in the Lawrence Brownlee and Friends: The Next Chapter concert, which is extraordinarily fitting, considering it is the first song Craig Terry heard Lunga sing back in Zimbabwe in 2017. “I’m very excited to bring my own language to an American audience,” said Lunga. “When I spoke to the composer about performing it, he was so excited to hear his composition would be traveling abroad. I hope to represent Cape Town well.”

Lunga during his taping for "Lawrence Brownlee and Friends: The Next Chapter" at the Lyric Opera House.

The piece is even more fitting once you hear the meaning behind the texts. Lunga explained: “Buya means ‘come back.’ Mbeki wrote the song during a time he was sad about being apart from his wife, thinking about the good times, good memories they’ve shared and how they were on opposite sides of South Africa. There's a part where he gets emotional and poetic, asking the mountains, oceans, clouds to move apart so he can reach out to his wife again. And he tells her that he loves her so much, she means the world to him.”

Lunga had to move mountains himself to get to the United States and start his time in the Ryan Opera Center as an “alien of extraordinary ability.” In a time when our entire world is socially distanced and we strive for human connection, making space for the arts is critical. Against all odds, Lunga made it to Chicago and we couldn’t be more thrilled to see and hear the art that he creates during his time here.

To learn more about the upcoming concert, Lawrence Brownlee and Friends: The Next Chapter, visit www.lyricopera.org/lb.

Photos: Lyric Opera of Chicago