Classical singer and conductor, May Ombara is comfortable on stage as a member of an ensemble or even conducting an orchestra, but staging her first solo recital has given her sleepless nights.
“It feels safer as a conductor because my back is to the audience but a solo concert is personal and feels vulnerable,” says the 23-year-old ahead of debut recital at Kenton College, this Saturday.
“When I am conducting then I am facing people I know and have worked with to understand the performance. When I am alone then it is terrifying,” says the free-spirited vocalist.
She has arranged the repertoire for her first show, intriguingly titled Vagabond, to reflect the changes in her own life and the struggles she has coped with.
“I felt that many people I know were moving forward in life, yet I was stuck at one stage. It feels lonely. There is anger when you feel that are not doing as well as everyone else.”
“I am telling a story about leaving home and by the end, I sort of find a home somewhere in the world,” explains the singer who is graduating with an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Nairobi next month.
“The word vagabond has a negative connotation but it describes my wandering and it is also the title of one of the pieces in the concert programme by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The art songs (vocal music composition written for one voice and piano accompaniment) are based on the works of composers who turned poetic texts to music when facing 1existential crisis in their own lives
British composer Williams took the words of poet Robert Louis Stevenson and turned them into a collection of songs called Songs of Travel first performed in 1904.
There are three pieces from this collection featured in the concert, Whither Must I Wander, The Vagabond and the closing song I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope.
The concert opens with the words, ‘home no more home to me, whither must I wander’ to sum up the journey of the wanderer, from a happy childhood in a home full of ‘kindly faces.’
As they grow up, the friends depart and the house now stands lonely and cold as the wanderer says even though things will be alright, but home will never be the same again.
“It is nice to have people listening as I vent,” says Ombara, tongue in cheek. “You just hope that the experience resonates with the audience.”
The concert also celebrates the therapeutic power of music for the mind, body and soul through Franz Schubert’s An die Musik (German for Ode to Music). “When you have had a bad day and you just put on your favourite music and suddenly you feel so much better,” says Ombara.
One of the challenges for the performer has been delivering the text in different languages. “English is fine, so is German, but my French is horrible,” she says with laughter. She is also performing pieces in Finnish and Swedish languages.
Ombara has also set out to introduce composers whose works are not regularly performed, such as Toivo Kuula from Finland, whose piece translated as Summer Night in the Churchyard describes the peace and tranquillity of a house of worship.
“I have found security in faith even though it is still a journey, but having something to believe in is an important part of life” she says.
Ombara compares the concert set-up to a duet between her voice and pianist Joe Davis Kabuba. “It is like a duet between two solo performers. We have been rehearsing together once a week and the rest of the time separately.”
The repertoire explores a range of emotions and that has meant that there are parts of the performance when she is a little overwhelmed by emotions.
“My voice cracks at some point but I have to work towards a balance in emotions because I would not want to break down in the course of singing.”
Ombara regularly performs with the Nairobi Music Society and the All Saints’ Cathedral choir. She is also a conductor with the Kenya Conservatoire of Music Symphony Orchestra and the Junior Chamber Orchestra and is a member of the Four Sopranos, an all-female vocal quartet.
One of the highlights of her career was being picked as an understudy for the title role in the opera Nyanga Runaway Grandmother written and produced by Rhoda Ondeng, in 2021.
Incidentally, her love of opera started in 2016 as a student at Precious Blood School, Riruta, when Ondeng was among the professionals invited to mentor the girls in various forms of classical music.
“Listening to Rhoda’s voice left me saying ‘oh! Wow!’ Who would have thought that many years later I would be part of her production,” she says.