'I saw people being burned to death'
Pumeza Matshikiza tells Andrea Smith how she survived the horrors of life in a township to become an opera star
'I couldn't have imagined that my life would turn out this way," says opera singer Pumeza Matshikiza, 31. "I don't remember this, but a girl I grew up with told me recently that I had always said that I was going to go and live far away from South Africa after high school, to make my life the way I wanted it to be."
Having begun voice training 10 years ago, the lyric soprano Pumeza is fast establishing herself as one to watch in the opera world. One of the things that put her on the map was coming first in the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition this year.
"Winning it was unbelievable," she says. "It was such a wonderful competition, and so well organised. At this point, I'm working to make my voice as good as it can be, and trying out the new roles that suit it."
Pumeza grew up in a township near Cape Town, where life was very difficult at times. She lived with her mother and two younger brothers, and also with her grandmother for a time. Her dad died when she was 12, but he had already separated from her mother when Pumeza was about three years of age.
"I grew up during apartheid, so it wasn't a very good time for most black people," she says. "When I was a young girl, there was a lot of marching for freedom in the street, or "toi-toing" as we called it, and people would wave flags with Nelson Mandela's picture on them. As a child you would join in, but you wouldn't really know what was happening. And then the police cars would come along and fire tear gas into the crowd, and all of the children would be in the front."
As well as the discrimination black people experienced because of apartheid, Pumeza saw some horrific things.
One of the most dreadful of these was the practice of "necklacing", which despite its pretty name, refers to the barbaric practice of putting a rubber tyre filled with petrol around a person's body, and setting them on fire.
"I saw people being burned to death in front of me," she says. "Black people would set fire to other black people who were accused of being informers or spies for the apartheid government. It was very upsetting, and even now, I often wonder what the people of my age who also saw what I saw are thinking."
Pumeza says that when she looks back now, she realises how unsafe the environment was for young children in the townships. Many had parents who worked, leaving them to travel home from school, do their homework, and fend for themselves in the afternoons.
One of the ways that Pumeza found happiness was by singing, and she enjoyed choral music classes at school and at church. She wanted to study it at third level, but because she got good grades in science and maths, her teachers enrolled her in a quantity surveying degree course.
"It was so boring," she says. "I was known among my neighbours as the one who always sang when I was growing up. It was my escape in a way. My teachers didn't think I should study music though as they felt that there was no market there for being an artist."
After two years, Pumeza followed her dream and switched to a singing course at the University of Cape Town's College of Music, where she began having her voice trained. She then auditioned successfully for the Royal College of Music in London.
"Moving to London was a culture shock," she says. "It was coming into winter, so it was cold and grey, and I felt there was no life there. I used to call my mother and cry and tell her that I wanted to come back home. I got used to it after a while, and now I really love it. The most wonderful thing about living in London is that it is so cosmopolitan, and I have made friends from all over the world.
"I don't miss home as much as I used to, although there are days when I get a bit homesick. I keep in regular contact with my mother, who works for the Robben Island museum."
Pumeza is an associate artist of the Classical Opera Company, and has participated in master classes with artists such as Philip Langridge and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. She is in Ireland to perform the role of Vendulka in Hubicka at the Wexford Festival Opera.
"She (Vendulka) is in love and the opera encompasses lots of different colours and ranges of her character, which is nice," she says.
On the subject of being in love, Pumeza admits that there is "somebody nice" in her own life, although she is reluctant to be drawn on the details. She describes herself as a caring person, drawn to issues such as abuse of children and women, and prejudice against minority groups.
"I didn't realise that where I lived was unsafe back then," she says. "I knew some things weren't right, but I didn't know anything else. I'm very happy with my life these days though, and now I feel safe."
The 59th Wexford Festival Opera runs from October 16-30. More than 60 daytime and evening performances including 'Virginia' by Mercadante, 'The Golden Ticket' by Peter Ash and 'Hubicka' (The Kiss) by Smetana. Tickets from €25 on (053) 912 2144 or visit www.wexfordopera.com