Opera: Sugarbird

Aria: Sugarbird - sung in English and Xhosa [South Africa]



Synopsis of the Imagined Opera

Sugarbird is about the ties that bind, the potential for toxicity within loving relationships, and the need for approval from those we love. It focuses on Themba, a young South African who must pursue his dream to become an international singer, while managing the expectations of his mother Nomuula.

When Themba joins a school choir and falls in love with singing, Nomuula is initially proud, reminiscing back to her youth when she herself was a talented singer. But with music so entrenched in the culture of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Nomuula doesn’t consider music to be a serious pursuit and pushes Themba towards a career in engineering. But Themba’s passion for classical music is growing. He talks of abandoning his studies, and the conflict between him and his mother escalates. After an emotional showdown, Themba reluctantly agrees to leave the choir.

Without the focus of singing, Themba feels empty inside. He decides to carry on in secret, fabricating a complicated smoke screen of lies to his mother when he enters choir competitions. After winning his first prestigious trophy, Themba decides to come clean. Nomuula brushes off his accomplishment with disappointed resignation.

Struggling with feelings of shame, guilt and anger, Themba takes up with his childhood friends, spending rowdy nights out drinking while wrestling with the decision he must make – to stay and follow the path set out for him, or to follow his dreams in an uncertain world and break ties with his mother.

Romuula is visited by a sugarbird, a local bird whose feathers make a beautiful, distinctive sound when it beats its wings. It seems to speak to Romuula, reminding her of her own hopes and dreams. She realises she must let go of her fears and release the son she loves to the skies.

Themba accepts an invitation to sing a great classical role in Cape Town. Torn, he hesitates – if only he had his mother’s encouragement! But the pull is too strong. On stage he soars, and when he looks out into the audience, he sees Nomuula who has come to support him after all, smiling through her tears.



Msimelelo - Bass

Eastern Cape born Msimelelo Mbali is a self-taught singer whose love for opera started while still in high school. He made his stage debut in 2006 singing in the Tirisano Schools Choral Eisteddfod, in which he won the bass/baritone category.  

In 2008, Msimelelo made his professional debut as a soloist on South Africa’s biggest choral music stage, the Old Mutual National Choir Festival, singing the bass-baritone solo in Mozart’s Requiem MassHe transitioned from baritone to bass in 2013, aided by his teacher and mentor Kholisile Ngqondi, and in 2015 was invited to compete in the Voices of Africa National Opera Singing Competition, where he won the Chairman of the Jury AwardIn 2017, he qualified for the Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition finals, held in Moscow, where as was one of only five African singers, he was the first African bass to qualify. He also qualified for another of South Africa’s renowned singing competitions, the Muziqanto National Classical Vocal Competition, in which he gained fourth place.    

He recently performed as a member of the chorus in Porgy and Bess and Britten’s War Requiem for both English National Opera and Dutch National Opera. 


Mairi Grewar - Repetiteur

Mairi Grewar is a Scottish pianist based in Germany. She is currently répétiteur and ballet répétiteur for the Landestheater Coburg in Bavaria. She was a National Opera Studio Young Artist répétiteur in 2019/2020. Mairi has performed at the Millenium Centre for the Welsh National Opera, in recital at the English National Opera and at Opera North during her time at the studio. Mairi was a fellow of the Guildhall School and was the senior coach on their productions of Handel’s Aminta e Fillide, Blow’s Venus and Adonis, Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte and Britten’s A Midsummer Nights Dream. She was the chorus répéiteur for the Opera Holland Park 2019 season including Pucinni’s Manon Lescaut, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, Cilea’s L’arlesiana and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.

Mairi is also a pianist for the Opera Holland Park Inspire outreach programme, bringing opera to community centres and charities. In the Spring of 2018 Mairi attended the Solti Accademia Repetiteur Course in Venice, Italy and was a scholar of the Franz Schubert Institut in Baden, Austria in July 2017. She was assistant conductor for Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the Berlin Opernfest in August 2018. Mairi has performed at the Barbican as part of the LSO Guildhall Artists scheme, the Wigmore Hall and LSO St Lukes. Mairi holds a Guildhall Artist Masters degree in piano accompaniment with distinction. She was associate accompanist for the University of St Andrews and was assistant Musical Director for their production of Madeleine Dring’s A Cupboard Love and Vaughn Williams’ Riders to the Sea. She is grateful for the support of the Dewar Arts Awards.


Creative Team

Tom Randle - Composer

Tom Randle is best known as a renowned tenor with a global career spanning over three decades in performances with major opera houses, festivals and symphony orchestras. Early training in conducting and composition, combined with a natural gift for melody and dramatic form sees his composing gaining the same reputation as his singing pedigree.

By channelling his deep experience in creating new roles, Randle has forged a distinctive harmonic language while retaining close ties to the time-honoured theatrical structures of compelling and dynamic storytelling. 

Recently, Randle’s music has been premiered at the Buxton, Dartington and Presteigne Festivals, at the Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio, Opéra de Lille, the Broad Stage Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the London Barbican and Cockpit Theatres, King’s Place, Snape Maltings Concert Hall and the Tête à Tête Festival of Contemporary Opera.

Shortlisted for the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Award for Composition, Tom has twice been commissioned by the National Opera Studio to produce new works for them. Other Collaborators have included the pianist Joanna McGregor, soprano Gillian Keith, violinist Emily Sun, baritone Rodney Gilfrey, the Ipswich Choral Society and the Fitzwilliam, Alinde and Consone Quartets.


Nikki Racklin - Librettist

Alongside composer Tom Randle, Nikki wrote LOVE ME TO DEATH, a modern opera about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, which was performed at the Barbican Pit Theatre and the Tête à Tête Opera Festival.

Nikki wrote FIRST LADIES, an all-female musical, for British Youth Music Theatre, staged at the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth. She has adapted Jennie Buckman’s award-winning radio play DEPTFORD WIVES, based on the diaries of a cross-dressing female shipwright, with an extended run planned for 2021. Nikki’s Soho-set musical adaptation of Henry James's novel THE WINGS OF THE DOVE was recently showcased at the Criterion Theatre.

Nikki has adapted Michael Morpurgo's novel WHY THE WHALES CAME about fear and prejudice in WW1, for production in Plymouth next year. Her adaptation of HALF BROKEN THINGS, Morag Joss’s award-winning psychological thriller, had a recent sharing at the Tristan Bates Theatre and is currently being developed for a site-specific, al fresco staging in a country-house setting.