South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza has been among the most promising of a group of young black singers to have emerged from the country's conservatories in the 2000s and 2010s.
Matshikiza has sometimes been billed as the township soprano, but she was actually born, on February 27, 1979, in a small town (population ca. 2,500) called Lady Frere in South Africa's Eastern Cape region. She is of Xhosa background. The family moved later to the Nyonga segregated township in the Cape Town area, where Matshikiza discovered opera accidentally while turning the dial of a radio: it was a recording of Swiss soprano Edith Mathis in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. There was no money for voice lessons, but Matshikiza gave herself a musical education by joining church choirs. After studies at the University of Cape Town under Virginia Davids, she earned a full three-year scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London and also was admitted to the Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. At that house she made her formal operatic debut, as a flower maiden in Wagner's Parsifal.
Matshikiza won the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in Dublin in 2010, and the following year she became a full-time member of the ensemble at Germany's Stuttgart Opera. She has performed several lead soprano roles there, including Pamina in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and Mimi in Puccini's La bohème; she had already sung the latter role at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2013 Matshikiza was signed to the Decca label and entered the Abbey Road studio to record her debut album, Pumeza: Voice of Hope. The album, with a mix of operatic arias and African songs, appeared in 2014, and it could not have had a more timely public appearance to promote it: Matshikiza performed at the opening of the Commonwealth Games shortly after it appeared, to a television audience of around one billion people. She sang a song from Scotland called Freedom Come-All-Ye that, although it mentioned Nyonga Township, she had never heard before. The exposure brought Matshikiza a round of high-profile appearances in 2015 and 2016, including one with the Orchestra dell'Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome under Antonio Pappano, singing the world premiere of Bread, Water, and Salt, a cantata by Luca Francesconi setting a speech by former South African president Nelson Mandela. Matshikiza's second album, Arias, appeared in 2016.