I first heard soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon in 2002 in the voice academy at Natal University.
She stood out not only because she was good, but also because she was the one white face in a very talented and otherwise all-black class. And they delivered Mozart and Gluck with an African twist: Brandon and her friends decided to accompany the funeral scene of ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ with the raw and ringing sound of a Zulu processional. As crucibles of talent go, this was an excellent one to be formed in.
Seven years later I watched Brandon win the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier competition at the Wigmore Hall. The artistry I had seen in its infancy had matured, thanks to solo work with the Cape Town Opera and tutoring at the Royal College of Music. She had now emerged as a recitalist who coloured and weighed every phrase with fastidious authority.
It was as an associate artist of the Classical Opera Company – which has helped propel many young singers to fame – that Brandon came back this week to the Wigmore, for an event which would also be broadcast on Radio 3. As the high point in a symphony concert, she would sing three of Mozart’s most intricate arias, two of which had been composed for the Czech soprano Josefa Dusek, who was one of the first singers in history to specialise in concert work; one aria had been designed to test her powers to the limit.
Brandon’s bearing was gracefully regal as she launched into ‘Ah, lo previdi’, in which Andromeda vents her fury at her lover’s suicide and declares her willingness to emulate him. Moving from rage to resignation to passionate yearning, she followed the music’s emotional line with lovely assurance, with her voice at times a delicate thread, and at others deploying rafter-raising power. Then came the Contessa’s ‘Dove sono’ from Figaro, nobly honoured in all its sad beauty. Brandon’s timbre was even throughout the register, with a vibrant warmth in her top notes; in the daunting ‘Bella mia fiamma’ she negotiated the awkward jumps with confident ease. Acoustically this concert wasn’t ideal – a 25-piece band was far too big – but a point was made, and will be made again in the autumn when she sings the Contessa for real on the Glyndebourne tour. Then London’s big opera houses may start to take notice.