Francesca Chiejina: Nigeria’s Rising Soprano Who’s Knocking Down Barriers

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By Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

“One of my earliest childhood musical memories is sight-reading a piano piece, hearing the music for the first time, and being in complete blissful awe that my fingers, hitting these black and white keys, were creating this music.”

Francesca Chiedu Chiejina owes so much of these fond memories and her lustrous career to her dad, Anthony Chiejina. Her dad, who is at the top of the Dangote Group’s corporate communications department’s pecking order, had enrolled his four children (two boys and two girls) for violin and piano lessons at the MUSON Centre in Onikan, Lagos.

Thus, it was also at the MUSON Centre that she first fell in love with making music. Classical music would later become the focal point, around which her life continues to revolve to date. “I’m so grateful that I have the privilege to make a living from classical music,” she gushes.

Francesca, currently making a career as a soprano, has performed in some of the world’s most prestigious venues. Besides performing at the Washington D.C.-based The John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, she has also performed at the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, three top-notch London-based venues: the Barbican Centre, the Royal Albert Hall and Wigmore Hall, the Luxembourg Philharmonic Hall in Luxembourg and the Serenadenhof Nuremberg in the German town of Nuremberg.

A Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a Master’s degree from The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London helped her ascent up the ladder-rungs of reckoning. At the University of Michigan, she studied with the likes of the American operatic soprano Martha Sheil and James Paterson. She studied under Sue McCulloch at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

To earn these degrees, she had to wend her way through courses like musicology (music history), music theory, acting, dance and movement, human anatomy and physiology, German, Italian, French and a bit of Russian. “All these things are prerequisite to successfully tackling an operatic career,” she explains. “It is a lot of hard work, and truthfully, the love of music is a huge determining factor in what drives me and keeps me dedicated during difficult times. I’ve recently embarked on a two-year contract with the Royal Opera House in London. I’m learning so much about the business, myself and music.”

Her classical music credentials were further burnished in master classes with Martin Katz, Kamal Khan, Gianna Rolandi, Joyce DiDonato, Brigitte Fassbänder, Edith Wiens and Felicity Lott. She once reached the semi-finals in the UK’s National Mozart Competition and won the GSMD English Song Prize in the UK as well as second prize in the Classical Singer Competition, third place in the Ann Arbor Society for Musical Arts Collegiate Young Artist Competition and National Association of Negro Musicians Vocal Arts Competition. She was also a finalist in the University of Michigan Concerto and has clinched Loveday, Marianne Falke, Maurice H and Evangeline L. Dumesnil, George Shirley Voice and Willis-Patterson Scholarships.

She has so far featured as Cio-Cio in Giacomo Puccini’s three-act opera “San Madama Butterfly” (Madame Butterfly) (scenes) at GSMD, as Pamina in Amadeus Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute), as Berta in Giochino Rossini’s opera buffa in two acts “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (The Barber of Seville), as Countess in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro) (scenes) and as Alice in Guiseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” (scenes) at the University of Michigan.

Only last month, she joined the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme as one of five singers selected from around the world. A statement from The Royal Opera House said the singers were “The Royal Opera House selected from 440 applicants from 58 countries: 220 sopranos, 85 mezzo-sopranos, one countertenor, 50 tenors, 53 baritones and 31 basses.”

Francesca, as a Nigerian-American soprano, was joined by the British mezzo-soprano, Angela Simkin, the New Zealand tenor, Thomas Atkins, the Hungarian baritone, Gyula Nagy and the South African bass, Simphiwe Simon Shibambu.

The statement further described the young artists as “an international group of outstanding professionals at the start of their careers who have undertaken formal training and have already worked with professional companies. They are not students, but contracted, salaried employees of the Royal Opera House, who work here full-time over two years.”

Meanwhile, her Royal Opera debut flagged off as Ines in Guiseppe Verdi’s opera in four acts “Il Trovatore”, which was followed by “Voice from Heaven from Don Carlo”. She will also cover Ifigenia in Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Oreste” (at Wilton’s Music Hall in London), Antonia in Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, Giannetta in Gaetano Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” and in Mozart’s three-act opera “Mitridate, re di Ponto”. This is in addition to singing soprano solos in Gorecki Third Symphony for The Royal Ballet.

Born in Lagos, Francesca grew up in the Midwestern US state of Michigan. The eldest among her three siblings, she is the odd one out as the only musician in the family. Her siblings opted for athletics and more traditionally recognised professions. Her two brothers, as athletes, prefer track events. The older of the two, who now designs apps, recently graduated with a degree in information technology. Her sister plays volleyball and is currently studying with the hope of pursuing a political career. “My family has been very supportive of this path I’ve chosen to take,” she says. “They are my biggest fans!”

The 25-year-old looks up to the American soprano Mary Violet Leontyne Price and her late compatriot Marian Anderson (who was a contralto). She admires the duo for shattering racial barriers not just in the US, but also beyond in the world of opera. “They were the pioneers that made it the norm for voices of people of colour to be heard on the world’s operatic stages. My biggest dream is to go one step further and break down not only the racial barriers but the class barriers as well. Opera and classical music are inspired by human beings living everyday lives. Therefore, what is about the people should be for all the people. Classical music is very relatable and approachable… and I want everyone, especially young African children, to believe it so.”

On the YouTube channel, a viewer could watch her recital of Harold Arlen’s 1933 popular song, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” among several other songs. This song, originally written for an unsuccessful Broadway play called The Great Magoo, was made more popular by the versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.

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