Lawrence Barasa describes himself as a self-taught opera singer, because he has perfected his skills as a classical performer mainly by watching online videos.
The operatic tenor has now been selected to attend the Spotlight on Opera, a month- long mentorship programme for classical singers at the Texas State University in the US from June 29.
Last weekend, he performed a special recital at the Nairobi Gallery to celebrate this achievement and to showcase the skills that have won him such admiration.
Mr Barasa was introduced to opera while on a tour in the UK as a member of the Kenya Boys Choir in 2010 when one of the group’s tour managers gave him a CD of the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
“Listening to this amazing voice sparked my interest in opera, but I was unable to find the right training once we returned to Kenya after the tour,” he says. As luck would have it, he met Valerie Kent of the Nairobi Music Society (NMS) and her husband, Tony Davies, who was then also a pianist and conductor of the ensemble.
The couple gave him informal lessons on operatic singing for around five months during which time he also benefited from master classes with other experienced performers at the NMS concerts.
“I learned how to use the full range of my voice and I also spent many hours watching YouTube videos on operatic performance,” he says.
He also joined a Facebook group of opera singers and trainers and was able to benefit from the feedback offered by some of the most accomplished experts in this genre who watched his videos.
One of those who was impressed was Cindy Sadler, the American founder and programme director of the Spotlight on Opera who suggested that he should apply for the 2016 mentorship programme.
“I didn’t even need to audition for selection into the programme because the videos of my performances were already a showcase of my abilities as an opera singer,” he says.
In April 2016, Mr Barasa was selected to attend the professional development programme, which is now in its 10th year and trains selected singers in voice lessons, acting, diction, the business of singing, finances and social media.
The group of trainees also stages performances at various venues in Texas and elsewhere in the US. For Mr Barasa, this opportunity is the culmination of his long determination to succeed as an opera singer.
In 2011, he applied for a scholarship to study opera performance at an Israel University and even though he was not successful, he kept his focus on his dreams.
His solo performance of Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” during the 70th anniversary of the Kenya Conservatoire of Music in 2014 was one of the unforgettable moments early on his career.
In March 2016, Mr Barasa performed his very first recital at the Kenton College in Kileleshwa accompanied by Tony Davies on piano with a repertoire that included “Die Natcht” by German composer Richard Strauss, “Un Aura Morosa” by Mozart and Nessun Dorma by Giacomo Puccini.
“I uploaded that concert online and many people felt that I just required some performance mentorship to become an accomplished opera singer,” says Mr Barasa.
“Opera demands complete dedication and discipline,” he adds.
“To be able to sing and breathe right, I have to be fit and eat the right diet consisting of lots of fruits and vegetables while avoiding acidic foods.”
He rehearses with the Boys Choir of Kenya during the day and then spends the evening working on his own singing.
While opera is largely an individual effort, singing with the choir is a reminder of the values of teamwork in music.
“Remember, it is the choir that built me into an opera singer,” he says.
Last weekend, Mr Barasa performed at a send-off recital before leaving the country to attend the Spotlight in Opera programme in Texas.
His repertoire consisted of a diverse programme of classical pieces like “Don Giovanni, an opera by Wolfgang Mozart, “Lydia” by composer Gabriel Faure, which was his first attempt at singing a piece in French and a duet with soprano singer Maryolive Mungai.
The concert also had an African flavour with two chants in Yoruba and Luo, both performances accompanied by the Boys Choir of Kenya.
When we spoke to Mr Barasa last week he was in the middle of a rehearsal session with a joint group from Starehe Boys and Girls schools for the Nairobi County Music Festivals.
“We are practising vocals and choreography for a Negro Spiritual, which we will present on stage in a few days time,” he explained.
He knows that there are many other promising singers who can develop into opera performers but lack the opportunity to discover and develop their skills.
For now, Mr Barasa may be focused on exploiting all the professional opportunities that will be available in the US but his dream is to ultimately train many young Kenyan singers to benefit from his own experiences in operatic performance.