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When the finals of the 35th International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition took place in Cape Town earlier this year, it was the first time the prestigious event left the borders of Europe. And yet, with many remarkable performances at the competition over several years, it wasn’t the first time an SA singer took a top award.

In 2009, soprano Pretty Yende was the first person to win every single category at the finals in Vienna. More achievements followed, with soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi placing second in 2012, tenor Rheinaldt Moagi placing third in 2013, baritone Siyabulela Ntlale placing second in 2014, and tenor Levy Sekgapane claiming first place last year.

This year, at a glittering gala concert directed by Christine Crouse, Cape Town Opera’s outreach and education director, and accompanied by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, it was time for soprano Noluvuyiso Mpofu to shine. She made it through the preliminary rounds, which began with 854 participants worldwide, and was one of four South Africans in the final 16, which included singers from Armenia, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland and the US.

"Last year my teacher, Patrick Tikolo, said that because I was finishing my studies we should now aim higher and try to put me out there," says Mpofu, who completed her postgraduate studies at the SA College of Music at the University of Cape Town (UCT). "I was a bit sceptical and afraid, and didn’t think I was ready for it. But I thought, ‘Okay, let’s try.’ It’s not as if I was going to lose anything. It would be a nice experience to see how far I am internationally."

In that year, Mpofu applied for Operalia, a world opera competition founded by Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo, and won third prize. She also went to the final round of the Belvedere competition in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Given that the finals would take place in Cape Town this year, she decided to enter again.

"I kind of knew what to expect in terms of how international competitions go," she says. "I knew how things were in that environment and I knew what repertoire to put in. And I knew [in 2015] that when I went to the finals, I was not going to make it to the top three because of the choice they would pick for me. So I knew that this year I had to make sure every aria I had was a show-stopper."

And yet she might never have made it to the stage — not because of nerves, which she says kicked in a few seconds before she performed, but because she was mugged at knife-point soon before the competition.

"It was quite emotional for me," she admits. "I’ve never had a knife pointed at me before. But Angelo Gobbato [retired head of the UCT Opera School and Cape Town Opera], a person I’ve worked with, told me to use that experience and those emotions and put them into my singing.

"I was also a bit sick and almost didn’t go through with the competition. But Prof Kamal Khan [director of the UCT Opera School and conductor of the orchestra at the finals] convinced me that I had to do this. So it was more about doing this for me and for other people who were looking up to me."

Indeed, knowing there was so much support from her family and friends in the audience made the experience that much more special.

As a girl growing up in Port Elizabeth, Mpofu knew in high school that she wanted to study music and turn it into a career. But her mother was sceptical and thought she would do better to choose a more traditional path as a doctor or architect.

"My mom was asking me what would happen if I lost my voice," Mpofu says. "I told her ... I just wanted to follow my dreams. If it didn’t work out, then I’d do something else ... I just wanted to follow music."

It’s a good thing she did. Her performance of È strano, from 19th-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata — almost interrupted by applause halfway through — was awarded the Audience Prize at the Belvedere competition. Mpofu also received the Special Prize, given by retired SA singer Margaretha Deysel to an SA singer of her choice. More than that, she ranked second overall.

"It was amazing because I was aiming to be in the top three," she says. "They chose my favourite aria, so I told myself that, when I was singing, I might as well enjoy it and do my best.

"Every time I achieve something, there’s pressure to keep doing well because people expect you to be on stage and be a success. At the same time, I have to go at my own pace. But I have to take advantage of opportunities happening now and take the pressure as a challenge to push myself and do well."

Mpofu is excited that doors are already opening because of her latest success. Applying for positions and auditioning for roles is easier, as such awards make others sit up and take notice of what she has to offer.

"[For me] as an opera singer in SA, the challenge is that opera is not recognised or supported enough," she says. "In order for us to make a good career and an honest living out of music, we have to go overseas and leave our families behind."

For now, she’s happy at Cape Town Opera, which she joined last year. It’s been an experience to perform in productions such as Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco, Gioachino Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims and Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.

Last year she also travelled to Madrid, Spain, to perform Porgy and Bess. Along with Mandela Trilogy, Show Boat and African Prophetess, the Gershwin classic is one of four productions Cape Town Opera will take on tour as it mounts 82 international concerts in nine countries this year.

SA artist William Kentridge has described the opera’s chorus, which won Chorus of the Year at the 2013 International Opera Awards, as the best he has encountered — "better than in France, Italy, Israel and New York".

Back home, Mpofu was set to perform the part of Pamina in last month’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but it was postponed due to UCT student protests. (No new dates were available at the time of going to print.) Meanwhile, she is preparing for her role as Micaëla in Georges Bizet’s Carmen. And now that she’s already performed her dream part in La Traviata, her hopes for the future include singing the part of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto and taking on the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

"I’ve wanted to sing since I was little," says Mpofu. "I love the music, the costumes, everything. I love interpreting the characters and being the person in the opera telling the story.

"I love singing for people. I just love being on stage and [moving] others with my voice."