Opera star Rhoda Ondeng hits right note
What you need to know:
- The pioneer in opera has opened up her home to other classical musicians looking for a place to express themselves.
- At 65, Rhoda Ondeng' still has a loyal audience in Norway
When people think of the opera, Western classical music written in the 1700s by famous composers such as Wolfgang, Mozart often comes to their mind.
Many think of it as an elitist art form, but Rhoda Ondeng Wilhelmsen has been working to change this by localising it and making it more relatable to Kenyans.
As a child, Rhoda grew up in a musical household with her grandmother who used to sing to her. She says their close relationship eventually fostered her passion and desire for music.
“That is how she told stories. She did not do so because she was a good singer. It was her preferred channel of communication. An opera is actually telling stories through songs,” she tells Lifestyle.
Rhoda has become a pioneer in opera — an art form rarely explored in Kenya. In an interview with Lifestyle, she demonstrates how she prepares for her performances in a large concert hall with purple walls she built at her Lavington home in Nairobi. She stood tall beside the black grand piano as she warmed up her voice to give a dose of her melodic flow.
“Classical singers do not use microphones. A classical singer is trained to use their body as an instrument to project and send sound as far as possible. Most of the stages I have performed on are in halls three times the size of Kenya National Theatre. You are trained to sing so that the person in the furthest corner of the room can hear you clearly over the other instruments or orchestra playing. It is not the same as singing pop or gospel music,” Rhoda says as she belts out a high but strong musical note that fills the room. She adds that the room could fit over 40 people for a show, with a balcony fitted at the top as seen in most opera houses.
She opened up her home to other classical musicians looking for a place to express themselves. Her home is now the base of operations for Baraka Opera Trust, a non-profit organisation she started in 2012 with the aim to decentralise exposure to classical art forms and inspire Kenyan composers to use African stories and themes for new operas.
One of the trust’s best-performing operas is her grandmother's life story, Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother with some of the songs sung in the Dholuo language. It ran for four days with six shows sold out in October 2021 at the Kenya National Theatre.
“When my grandmother was a little 11-year-old girl, she ran away from home to follow the missionaries after she heard that there was a ‘village’ called ‘Eternal life’, where we would all get to be together. No more crying and no more sickness. She had lost her mother when she was four years old. In her head, she believed that the white men knew where her mother was.”
Rhoda says her grandmother was caught several times and brought back home to the father who was a traditional medicineman. One day the grandmother followed the missionaries and realised they had gone too far from home.
“The missionaries started a mission station on the hills above Kisumu called Nyahera. That is where she grew up, became a Christian, learnt how to read and write and later got married. The missionaries, however, encouraged her to go home and make amends with her father, who was left all alone.”
To her surprise, she found that her father had also converted to Christianity, left his traditional rituals and built a small church.
Says Rhoda: “Our form of storytelling is through song. We put together acting, singing, costumes and make an opera. When people sit down to watch our shows, they usually do not have the understanding of what an opera is. The feedback received after the show showed that people enjoyed it and wanted to watch more of it.”
Her musical journey started when she was only six years old studying at Thogoto Mission School, now known as Musa Gitau Primary School. Her Scottish headmistress heard her sing and put her on a stage for the first time to sing in front of the whole school. Thereafter, she went to Limuru Girls, where her musical talent continued to blossom.
“In high school, there were pianos under every staircase. I took piano lessons but they noticed that I had a unique voice. Then I took vocal lessons, competed at festivals, and started bringing trophies home. I also got sponsored by the Kenya Music Trust Fund to take singing lessons at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music in Nairobi,” she says.
In 1975, she went on to travel out of the country at the age of 17. She was recruited as a singer in a quartet for Youth for Christ, an evangelistic organisation for young people. Her trip was cut short when she was called back to Kenya to study literature in the University of Nairobi
“None of the higher learning institutions offered music as a course. I enjoyed literature but I knew music was what I wanted to do with my life. Eventually, I took a detour and became an anthropologist working in South Sudan for one and half years. That was where I met my first husband who lived in Norway,” she says.
Her big break came a few years later when she sang at a wedding unaware that it was attended by prominent leaders.
“After my performance, the bride grabbed my hand and took me to meet Charles Njonjo, who was the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs in the President (Daniel) Moi’s government. She told him that I needed help. He knew my father and told me to tell him to organise a fundraising, where he would be the guest of honour to help raise funds for me to study music abroad,” she says.
In 1982, Rhoda travelled to Oregon State in the US to do a master’s in music education. After her studies, she joined her husband in Norway, where he was studying to be a surgeon. Little did she know that the move would push her career even further.
“I obtained another music degree in Norway just to supplement my knowledge in music. I started performing in recitals and competitions and soon managers started recognising my talent. In Europe, opera houses were built specifically for singing. So it was not something new to them and you could make good money,” she says.
Freelance opera singers in Europe can earn between Sh20,000 and Sh30,000 per performance in the early stages of their career, which goes up as they gain experience and get leading roles or ensemble contracts with opera companies.
In Kenya, Rhoda hopes to create such a platform for classical artists to also earn from their talents.
“If I had the funding, I would tear down my house and build an opera house because I have seen the amount of talent we have in Kenya. Without teachers and support, most creatives get to a point and they plateau. Most end up becoming music teachers or others go into other fields. We mostly train people in the 20s and 30s. You would be surprised to find that some are engineers and accountants,” Rhoda says.
The first opera play in Kenya by the Baraka Opera Trust was Ondieki the Fisherman in 2012. It was written by Francis William Chandler in 1973. As the music teacher in Limuru Girls, he had initially composed the music specifically for an all-female cast including 16-year old Rhoda, who sang the lead soprano, Mariamu— Ondieki’s wife.
“In 2012, I started looking for this opera that played a role in making me an operatic soprano. Through the internet, I traced Mr Chandler all the way to England when he was 80 years old. I told him of my plan to revive the opera and he helped by rearranging the music for a normal village life with men, women and children. The original was only for ladies,” she says.
Rhoda hopes that Kenyan composers will write more operas especially in their native languages and perform more of them.
“Our next show coming up in November is a 45-minute long opera called Amal and the night visitors. It is about a little crippled boy living with his mother when one day he sees the North star that guided the wise men to Jesus’ manger. Instead of the usual story we are used to, this story is told from another outsider’s view. Auditions will be from May 4 to 6, 2023.”
At 65, Rhoda still has a loyal audience in Norway and occasionally goes back to perform as the proceeds she receives go to Baraka Opera Trust. She also has an album called Spirit Symphony available on Apple Music and Spotify.
“You don’t have to leave your job but have a space to still develop your talents. That is what we want to do. We hope other organisations come up and help us with this. There was a boda boda guy who walked into the auditions for Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother. We were sure that he was lost but we quickly learnt not to judge a book by its cover,” she says.
“He sang a classical musical piece performed by Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti that left all of us shocked. When we asked him how he learnt how to sing so beautifully, he said he learnt on YouTube. That is called hunger. He did not know where he could put that desire and passion but he went online and learnt. He even got a solo part in the play. We also had a lady who washed clothes for a living who auditioned and took part in the play. We are rescuing dreams for people from all walks of life. We cannot pay them as much as others are paid abroad, but it is important to us that to help them feel alive.”
One of Rhoda’s new projects is to uplift young boys through choral singing. She believes that the discipline taught in choirs could help them in their adult lives, hence naming the programme ‘From Boys to Men’. Apart from that, she also built a stage in Siaya for performances.
“A quote I remember quite often is one by Myles Munroe that says ‘the graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry out their dream;,” said Rhoda.