Falling in Love with Opera: Thandolwethu Mamba ’20

Thandolwethu Mamba ’20 is the winner of the 2020 Louis Sudler Prize, Duke’s highest award in the arts, given every year to single out a senior with an outstanding record of achievement in the creative and performing arts. Mamba is also a Benenson Prize winner this year. He had hoped to return to Italy for “Si parla, si canta,” a summer program in opera and Italian language and culture that was transformative for him last year. Sadly for him and all the other Benenson winners, the prize had to be awarded this year without the possibility of travel.

In this interview, Mamba shares his remarkable journey from a township in southern Africa to the opera stage at Duke and beyond.

Vice Provost for the Arts Scott Lindroth and faculty members from the Music Department offer Mamba their congratulations. Video edited by Rick Nelson, Music Department.

Q: How did you end up at Duke?

A: I applied to Duke in 2015. At the time I was in Armenia, in the international baccalaureate program at a school called UWC Dilijan. Two of the faculty members there went to Duke and vouched for it, including the college counselor. But my first choice was a school in Canada. I never thought I was going to get into Duke, anyway. But I did, and after I was admitted I interviewed for the MasterCard Foundation scholarship. It covers tuition, fees, and a stipend for four years for students from Sub-Saharan Africa who demonstrate both need and academic prowess. When I got that, too, the choice really became too easy.

At the time, I wanted to go into medicine, and in my research I learned that the Duke medical school is one of the best in the world.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I was brought up by my maternal grandmother in a township on the outskirts of Mbabane, the capital of eSwatini—a small country located between South Africa and Mozambique that most people still know as Swaziland. My mother passed away when I was six. I didn’t know my dad until I was maybe ten, and even then he just kind of showed himself a few times before he passed away in 2018.

Both my primary school and high school were walking distance from my home. Fortunately, I went to Ka-Boyce High School, one of the best performing high schools in the country.

Thandolwethu Mamba with a portrait of Giuseppe Verdi
Mamba with Maestro Verdi after a performance in Italy (photo courtesy Thandolwethu Mamba).

Q: What pulled you into music?

A: I’ve always loved music. My earliest memories of it are singing in church and singing along with the radio. We had a station that played a little of everything—traditional Swazi music, jazz, country, R&B—and I remember loving all of it.

It was mandatory in my high school that every student participate in some extracurriculars, so when I started eighth grade I had to choose something. There was an audition for choir and I thought I might fit in there.

We weren’t taught how to read music, it was all solfege—the conductor would say, “Tenors, this is your line, re me do SO-O-O…” Once we had the notes memorized, we’d put the words in.

Yearly solo competitions were my window into the world of opera. The first time I competed, I sang “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from Handel’s Messiah and won first prize regionally and third nationally. A few years later, the competition piece was Mozart aria “Se vuol ballare.” That was about all I knew about opera before I left home, a few isolated pieces. It wasn’t until I was in Armenia that I saw my first opera performance. It was Verdi’s Il Trovatore, but I confused that with La Traviata and wondered why I didn’t hear any of the duets that I kind of knew.

Vaudeville-style ensemble including Thandolwethu Mamba
Mamba, cane raised, in one of the Vaudeville numbers that punctuated Duke’s fall 2018 presentation of the Kurt Weill-Alan Jay Lerner musical “Love Life” (photo by Robert Zimmerman).

Q: It’s a long ways from that to being a college music major.

A: Yeah, when I signed up for Duke as a prospective Bio major, I wasn’t thinking about studying music, at all. But when I got here and saw a list of music classes that I could take, I jumped at the opportunity. I’d always loved to sing and I thought it would be really interesting to learn how to do it properly. So in addition to auditioning for the Chorale and signing up for the Opera Workshop, I took beginner’s piano with Susan Greenberg, Intro to Music Theory with Susan Fancher, and voice lessons with Susan Dunn. It was a Susan trifecta—and I loved it!

David Heid, my studio accompanist and coach, was very patient with me that first year, because in terms of technique and skill I was pretty much starting from scratch. As I began to learn music theory and notation, I kind of threw my listening abilities out of the window. Susan Dunn actually had to remind me that I’d developed a good ear from the way I was trained and I should use that to my advantage. She also told me she thought I had what it takes to sing professionally, and I had to believe her, because I knew she would not say something like that unless she really meant it.

Anthony Kelley was another one of the people who encouraged me to follow my heart. He was my theory teacher and then my academic advisor when I became a music major. For a while after that I felt like I was in limbo, not giving my all to music and not giving my all to my pre-med classes. We had long conversations about that.

Thandolwethu Mamba takes a bow with Raleigh Symphony Orchestra
Taking a bow after singing Mahler (Photo by Mark Rainey).

Q: How did you resolve it?

A: It was a struggle, particularly in my sophomore and junior year, between my love of music and the expectations I grew up with. I didn’t have parents who could support me financially. I did have an uncle in Johannesburg who helped to pay my school fees in high school, but he always emphasized that he did it purely out of love and I shouldn’t feel like I owe him anything. So, unlike many of my peers, I didn’t have family trying to dictate what I could do because they were paying my way.

But there was still this sense as I was growing up that I should be an engineer or a doctor, you know, to escape the poverty cycle, to move my grandmother to a better place. It was like I was on the track everyone thought I should be on, from high school to medical study in South Africa to being a doctor.

Being a doctor felt like a service I owed to family that I lost not just to disease but to terrible health care—to my grandmother, especially. My mother and baby sister passed away when I was six, and my younger brother five years later. After losing her child and grandchildren, my grandmother made us promise not to take her to the public hospital where they died. But she got sick in 2015, when I was in Armenia, and they had to take her there. That’s where she passed away.

Since becoming a doctor was always tied to working in the public sector back home, in the summer of 2018 I returned to that hospital to find out what it was really like. I shadowed a doctor, who was fantastic—everything a great doctor should be. It’s noble work, and it made me happy to see what a difference he was making, but to me it really felt like a sacrifice—for eight weeks, it felt like I was being eaten alive. That was a red flag, and then my experience in Italy the next summer pretty much settled it.

David Heid, Thandolwethu Mamba, and Susan Dunn
With teachers David Heid and Susan Dunn after singing Mahler in Raleigh.

Q: Recently you had an outstanding experience closer to home.

A: Yes, in early March I sang Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra after winning their Rising Stars competition. It was my first experience singing with a full orchestra. I was nervous when the director announced my name, but as I walked onto the stage, I had an incredible feeling of uplift and transcendence. The performance wasn’t perfect, but I had so much fun. Susan Dunn, David Heid and Anthony Kelley were all there, and that was wonderful. I also felt the presence of people I miss, like my grandmother, who always loved to hear me sing and made it all possible.

Mamba performing Mahler with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, March 7, 2020.

“[Mamba] has a magnificent voice, already mature beyond his years. His diction is immaculate, his projection of the German texts (Mahler’s own poems) is breathtaking, and his artistry is comparable to the best world-class singers many times his age.”—John W. Lambert, reviewing Mamba’s Raleigh Symphony Orchestra performance in CVNC

Q: And how has the transition to isolation during the coronavirus crisis gone?

A: I really had a tough time when everything was getting canceled. For two weeks, I couldn’t do anything, I was so unmotivated. I had to remind myself there’s still a lot of things to be grateful for—I am here, safe and healthy, and my relatives back home are also safe and healthy. That helped me push through it and finish my distinction project and class work.

Funny enough, when I submitted everything, I had a surge of energy and motivation for the summer. And so, it turns out I’ll be staying here in Durham, working—remotely, of course—with David and Susan on improving my skills as a musician.

Q: Where will you be in the fall?

A: I’m going to the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, to study with Kim Josephson, a teacher I worked with a little bit in Italy last summer. I really liked the feel of the place when I auditioned in February, so I’m excited to be going there.