Kenyan classical MUSIC performers are few and far between, one of them being ZAK KARIITHI, 30, an opera singer based in Germany. Remembered as one of two singers from Kenya chosen to be part of a choir of about 80 singers from all over the world who performed at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in China, he has since made some impressive moves. He spoke to WAMBUI VIRGINIA
‘Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid. Fly away, fly away, breath; I am slain by a fair cruel maid.’ These William Shakespear lyrics echo in a smooth baritone to the background of piano notes by Lémuel Grave.
The extensive range and vulnerability of the voice expresses pure emotion, making for a powerful, thrilling and captivating listen. This showy display is by one of Kenya’s few opera singers, 30-year-old Zachariah Njoroge Kariithi alias Zak, in Hamburg, Germany earlier in the year.
Zak would describe himself as a lover of music, which ultimately landed him in the field of opera music. His journey of becoming an opera singer started when he was in high school. He always felt an urge to sing as a soloist whenever he got a chance.
He was born in Nairobi and grew up in a musical family, with his dad being a choir conductor at church. Music was part of their day-to-day lives. He started his musical training at the age of 12 by taking private piano lessons. He continued playing the piano and also started taking voice lessons.
He joined the Conservatoire of Music and his teacher then, Mrs Gachigi Kungu, inspired him into classical singing. Two years later, he completed the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music exams in voice and piano, which he passed with distinction and merit respectively. He later went on to represent Kenya in the World Youth Choir session in the summer of 2008 in China.
Zak had long known he would pursue music, since completing high school at Utumishi Boys Academy where he advanced to after his primary education at Muthaiga Primary School. In 2008, he became a scholarship recipient at the Buchmann Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv, Israel, for his undergraduate.
The institution was established by the legendary Zubin Mehta. He studied voice as a major and was part of the Adler Buchmann International Program for Outstanding Foreign Students, before graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 2012.
In 2013, he moved to Hamburg, Germany for his masters at the Hochshule für Muzik Und Theater, where he concentrated in opera as a performing art.
Growing up, Zak proved adept at singing with dramatic flair. “When I first told my parents I wanted to pursue opera, they supported me, no questions asked. They knew about the great love I had for music. They shared the same love, so I guess supporting me was easy for them,” he says.
Opera is a theatric performance that tells a story through libretto, then music is added to it. Opera is all about expressing the story in a dramatic way. It incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, costumes, and sometimes dance.
The performance is staged in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or a smaller assembly of musicians. Opera music focuses more attention on the singer’s voice, and Zak explains that to maintain that pitch requires lessons, practise and coaching, just like any other sport.
“The voice is a muscle that needs to be kept in good shape all the time and over long periods of time. Without that, then it would be impossible to keep your pitch and sing through large orchestras. To be a great singer, everything, ranging from voice colour, personality on stage, relationships with managers and conductors, is important,” he explains.
Opera performers do not use microphones when singing, so, one must be able to project their voice, learn the right breathing techniques and drink a lot of water. In a performance, projecting your emotions is important in telling a story and to create emphasis on something you can hold a note for longer than usual, which is also part of the dramatic effect.
Currently a baritone singer at Staatsoper, Hamburg, Zak has had numerous opera performances in the last three years he has been a professional singer. This has earned him the opportunity to travel Europe and perform alongside other renowned opera singers.
He describes Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Hamburg State Opera as his favourite and most memorable performance. He sang the role of Papageno, a bird catcher. He has to, with his newfound friend Tamino, go and try to save the queen’s daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by Sarastro.
Their journey takes them to all sorts of places and trials, but in the end, they manage to save her and Tamino finds his love. So does Papageno manage to find his Papagena. Zak recommends the play to anyone interested in opera.
“On the other hand, my toughest show would be the first performance I had with the famed maestro Kent Nagano. I was too excited and I guess nervous, that I missed my first few lines. I wished the ground would open up and swallow me whole,” recalls the singer.
Like with many other things, criticism is part of their day-to-day lives in the art.
“It can be bad or good; wherever you perform, there will always be someone who offers some sought of criticism.
There are instances he has been somehow judged as an African trying to sing music that is regarded European. Some of his audience would wait to see if he would really get the words and everything else right.
Another challenge is stage fright. However, for Zak, it is not necessarily a bad thing. He just learned to use it in a more helpful way. “Training is a must, if you want to pursue opera singing. Unlike other forms of singing, opera demands a lot in the sense that you use your whole body as an instrument.
From breathing to voice production, everything is one. You must learn how to control all that,” he explains. Another aspect about the art is mastering other languages. Most opera is in Italian or German, so these two languages are a must for anyone who wants to make it in the opera world.
Zak says that being an opera singer pays, but there is stiff competition and limited opportunities for singers. So, compared to other professions in the industry, it might be challenging for one to make a big break.
Having sung professionally for three years now, he attests that it is not the easiest of professions, but it is rewarding. He hopes and dreams to sing Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Met Opera in New York.
In Kenya, opera music is not really big, however, when Zak visits home, he stages shows. In 2011, he performed at the Safaricom Classical Concert. He has also performed at the Conservatoire of Music and at private events.
“I don’t perform in Kenya as frequently as I would like, but the last time I was home, I had a concert and it was well attended, which showed there’s a lot of interest in this genre,” he says. When he’s in the country, he tries his best to advise up and coming musicians, as well as give some music lessons.
“Arts industry in Kenya has evolved, and with the emergence of Ghetto Classics, the youth orchestra, I would say as a country, we are on the right path.
The government has to step in though, and make it more attractive for young artists to want to pursue their dreams, through grants, scholarships and also in our school curriculums. That is the only way we can reach the level South Africa has attained,” concludes the performer, who hopes one day Kenya will open an opera house.