Back in August 2018, in a South African school, a pair of sopranos sang and swayed together. Maya Tester and Thulisile Ntetha were from different choirs, different continents. But minutes into their first rehearsal, they were chatting and laughing.
“We just clicked,” said Ntetha.
More than a year later, the pair giggled as they told the story in a very different setting: Tester’s south Minneapolis kitchen.
Tester, a member of the Minnesota Chorale, is hosting Ntetha, her husband and her cousin — all singers with the Johannesburg-based Gauteng Choristers — for a trio of concerts that’s also serving as a reunion of sorts. This weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra program features choirs from Minnesota and South Africa that first performed together during the orchestra’s historic tour of that country last year.
Getting two dozen South African singers to Minnesota was a pricey proposition. To help, members of the Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Orchestra offered up beds in their guest rooms and seats at their dining room tables. For some, the weeklong stay was a continuation of friendships that sparked during that first rehearsal and persisted via Facebook Messenger.
“When we left that day, I knew, I told everybody: They are coming. They have to come,” said Tester. “It’s not a partnership if we just go there. It’s not a collaboration if it’s just one way.
“The Chorale members who were at that rehearsal all walked out saying, ‘Somehow, we’ve gotta get them here.’ ”
‘We’re singing everywhere’
They greeted the South Africans at the airport last Friday with signs and winter coats.
For many of the Gauteng singers, this was their first trip to the United States. It was Sizwe Nkwanyana’s first time on a plane. During the 16-hour connecting flight to Atlanta, he refused to sleep “because I just wanted to feel everything.” The 40-year-old Soweto resident conducts at his church and teaches music to children. “To me, this is a dream,” Nkwanyana said. “Me being here, it will inspire a lot of young ones, especially the ones that I teach, because they’ll see that dreams do come true.”
Despite the below-zero windchill, the group explored the Twin Cities, snapping photos at Minnehaha Falls, in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and at the Mall of America. At each stop — and on the train between — they sang.
“We’re singing everywhere,” said Ntetha. Trekking outside, they turned to the struggle songs rooted in the battle against apartheid, she said, laughing, “because we were getting very cold.”
On Tuesday morning, two dozen Choristers traversed the Mall of America. They marveled, wide-eyed, at the teal roller coaster zooming over their heads. “I’ll pass,” Nkwanyana said, shaking his head. “No, thank you.” They posed outside Carlo’s Bake Shop, which they knew from the TV show “Cake Boss.” But they passed by the aquarium and department stores, homing in on the Culinary on North food court.
There, once more, they sang. A handful began with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the basses resonant. A few more joined in, forming a circle. Three songs in, the singers grew louder, overpowering the Christmas music blasting nearby. They set out a hat, thanked families that threw in a few dollars. Stepping, they sang “Shosholoza,” a traditional miners’ song that has become a kind of unofficial national anthem.
A young man wearing an apron ran over from the store where he had been working.
“I listened and realized, ‘I know that song!’ ” said Paul Masvik, who while in the men’s chorus at St. John’s University performed “Shosholoza.” Smiling wide, he sang along.
A lesson in stagecraft
The choirs packed a rehearsal room in the basement of Orchestra Hall, where it quickly grew hot. But most of the South African men kept on their hats.
Before their first rehearsal with the orchestra, they ran through the piece they’ll perform Friday and Saturday nights alongside 29:11, a South African youth ensemble with Minnesota ties. “Dona Nobis Pacem,” a cantata written by a World War I veteran, calls for peace and warns of war’s horrors.
Minnesota Chorale artistic director Kathy Saltzman Romey picked it partly because, in South Africa, “the Beethoven Ninth Symphony resonated deeply,” she said. This epic piece by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams shares a similar message of brotherhood, humanity.
They also rehearsed a piece not on the program: a song, in the Sesotho language, that the Gauteng Choristers sing as they leave the stage. The first time the Minnesotans heard it, in Soweto, they were caught off guard. But by the final concert in Johannesburg, many had picked up on some lyrics. This time, they’re learning it for real.
During rehearsal, Cecilia Phetoe, a soprano, demonstrated a bit of the dancing, flicking her wrists left, then right. The choir’s conductor, Sidwell Mhlongo, told Romey that “you never just leave the stage, you always leave the stage singing,” she said. “We were all entranced by this idea.”
Dinner can wait
After rehearsal Tuesday, Tester’s house filled with heat from a wood fire and the scent of onions and sweet potatoes from the oven. Her 27-year-old twin daughters chatted with the singers, perfecting the click sound that starts one of their names: Xolile. A few neighbors arrived, rosettes in hand. The group discussed their families, their careers, the Minnesota phrase “uff da.”
“I feel like I’m home again,” said Lehobye, who once sang with the Gauteng Choristers before training to become an opera singer. “They brought South Africa with them for a little bit. It’s heartwarming, especially in this weather, to have them here.”
Soon, the food came together. Tester, 56, plopped the pesto pasta into a huge bowl. Tester’s husband, Peter, pulled the pork tenderloins off the grill. Tester began calling for people to gather around the dining room table. But the group in the living room demurred. “We’re coming,” someone said, “but Maya, we’re singing first.”
Tester set her drink on the mantel and joined them. Softly, amid the pop of the fire, the four South Africans began harmonizing the Lord’s Prayer. The bass swelled, the daughters swooned. The voices fell and it was silent, for a moment, before people cheered and clapped. Tester beamed.
But in the other room, the food was getting cold.
“OK, sing at dinner,” she said. “Come sit, come sit. You can sing some more in here.”