Duckett and Mjandana win the Voice of Black Opera competition

British singer Rachel Duckett was announced as the winner of the Voice of Black Opera (VOBO) competition earlier this week, taking home The Sir Willard White Trophy as well as a £10,000 grand prize, repertoire coaching with music staff of Welsh National Opera (WNO), and a forthcoming concert appearance with the WNO Orchestra. South African Thando Mjandana was awarded the The Samuel Coleridge Taylor Award (presented to the singer who, in the judges’ opinion, gave the best performance of a contemporary song by a Black or South Asian Composer), which included the prize of £5,000 and three forthcoming performances of a specifically commissioned new work by Daniel Kidane for voice and ensemble with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

The soprano and tenor were chosen as winners at the Grand Final concert of the competition, chosen by a panel of judges chaired by internationally renowned tenor and composer Tom Randle and held at Birmingham Town Hall in the UK.

Vincent Osborne, Founder and Artistic Director of Black British Classical Foundation, said: “The award-winning interpretations we saw from Rachel and Thando were truly riveting. Through their passionate and committed performances at the Voice of Black Opera Final and throughout the whole competition process, all of our finalists and semifinalists have eloquently espoused the cause of greater diversity and inclusion on our stages. I have no doubt that each of them will continue to inspire us for many years to come.”

Randle added: “It was a spectacular evening and a very hard decision, like choosing between oranges and apples. Every one of the singers was a worthy and deserving winner. In the end it came down to those special, indefinable qualities, listening out for something new, something different – the voice that astonishes and surprises.”

At the Final concert, five finalists were accompanied by the WNO Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren. Alongside Randle, the judges were Aidan Lang (General Director of WNO), Stephan Meier (Artistic Director of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group), Jean Ronald La Fond (tenor and vocal coach), composer Philip Herbert, critic and writer Rupert Christiansen and composer/conductor Odaline de la Martinez – composer and conductor.

Rachel Duckett, a British Jamaican, has won several competitions, including the first “Amis des Voix des Outres-Mer Christiane Eda-Pierre” prize presented by Concours Voix des Outres-Mer with whom she will sing Olympia Tales of Hoffmann in the French West Indies this month. Previous roles include Adele Die Fledermaus (Wilton’s Music Hall), Queen of the Night Magic Flute (Théâtre du Petit Monde) and Elisetta Il Matrimonio Segreto(Jacksons Lane Theatre). Rachel received her first composer commission in 2018 to write 1948 Windrush: “Get your coat, a lot water” commemorating 70 years since the ship docked in Tilbury, England. 

Rachel Duckett (all photos: Dan Knott Event Photography)

South African tenor Thando Mjandana (below) was a member of the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House. For the 2021/22 season, he performed in productions of Samson et Delilah, Lohengrin, Theodora and La Traviata. Moreover, Mjandana’s repertoire includes roles such as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni with Oxford Sinfonia, Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore at Waterperry Opera Festival and Odoardo in Ariodante at the Royal Opera House. Most recently he sang Caliban in Georg Haas’ world premiere of Sycorax at Bühnen Bern and Police Buddy 1 in the European Premier of Jeanine Tesori’s Blue at Dutch National Opera. Future engagements include singing Tamino in Die Zauberflöte for Welsh National Opera, and Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore for Longborough Festival Opera. In May 2021, Mjandana reached the final of the Guildhall School Gold Medal Competition, performing live at the Barbican. 

Each of the five finalists (who also included Chantelle Grant, Yolisa Ngwexana and Isabelle Peters) were fitted with bespoke fashion items, designed by students of Birmingham City University (BCU) School of Fashion & Textiles. Bespoke jewellery was also made for the singers by students of the BCU Birmingham School of Jewellery.

Over the course of the VOBOs, 12 singers were chosen via video auditions open to black and South Asian singers from Commonwealth countries, to come to Birmingham in November to take part in Semifinals and participate in two weeks of intensive professional development workshops, rehearsals and a masterclass, leading to the Grand Final Concert featuring five finalists.

The Voice of Black Opera Competition is organised by Black British Classical Foundation in collaboration with Welsh National Opera, to showcase the finest Black and South Asian singers as they launch international operatic careers. BBCF exists to address classical music’s under-representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds.