Golda Schultz is a bright new star on an upward trajectory in the opera constellation. At just 35, her life has taken a circuitous path, from her native South Africa to a plethora of dazzling opportunities and premieres, including Pamina in last year’s Met Opera production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. She makes her San Francisco Opera debut on Nov. 17 as the angel Clara (Clarence in the original film) in the West Coast premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Schultz’s father, a classical-music lover, was exposed to a lot of European and American music that was banned in South Africa, from Haydn and Beethoven to the Eagles and Cat Stevens, when he was studying to be a math professor in Germany. He snuck a lot of bootleg tapes into South Africa when he returned. Her mother, a registered nurse, loved classical, R&B, and musical theater. Schultz grew up with a wider exposure to music than many in her country.
After switching majors from journalism to music at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, she went on to get a master’s degree in music at the University of Cape Town. She then moved to the U.S. to attend Juilliard, followed by a two-year position at the Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) in Munich, Germany. Since that time, she has been in demand for performances, including debuts and premieres worldwide.
Animated, enthusiastic, and eloquent, with a penchant for laughter, Schultz chatted with me recently in the Press Room at the War Memorial Opera House, about her rapid and somewhat unplanned journey to the opera stage.
What was it like growing up in South Africa during apartheid?
It was a double-edged sword growing up in South Africa during the end of the 80s. At that time, because of the racial classifications, our family had more rights than darker-skinned people, so we were allowed to go to places that other blacks weren’t allowed. You got to go to the theater on your own special theater days, so you got exposure, but not in the same way as other South Africans.
I was exposed to culture because the law allowed it, and it was a part of my life because my mother was very fervent about it. Both my parents understand the fundamental access that a well-rounded education gives you, and because they weren’t allowed it as much as I was, they pushed really hard for me to have a good grounding.
When did you first discover that you liked music?
I was 3 or 4 and plunking on my mom’s cousin’s piano, and my mother wanted me to stop because we come from a culture where the piano is in the family room and you shouldn’t be making noise on it, you should be playing music on it.
But my mom’s cousin said, “No — listen carefully — she is actually figuring out a tune. She has an ear for music, even though she’s very young.” She was the one who suggested that I get music lessons. She knew someone who took young kids and taught them the Suzuki method on the violin, and the Suzuki method opens up everything! I started taking violin lessons and I loved it, and it became the instrument that carried me through school.
You grew up in Cape Town and then moved to a Bophuthatswana. What was that like?
My dad wanted to become a professor but there were no jobs at the university where he was teaching so he got a job offer in one of the homelands. The homelands were these pockets in South Africa where blacks could govern themselves. It was a country within the country of South Africa, but you didn’t necessarily have the same social laws and social restrictions as they do in the rest of South Africa. It was called Bophuthatswana, and there were casinos there, so there was a lot of money, and they had an excellent education system.
They had this cultural center there for extracurriculars — an artists’ school daycare that the government had organized. You could go as a child and pay a very minimal fee — and just try things out. They had a music department, so I got violin lessons and theory lessons and piano lessons there. That was my musical education, and it was like being in conservatory.
Did you do any singing when you were younger?
Singing came very late. I was singing in school choirs, but it was always just something fun to do with your friends — it was never something I thought I was going to do, because there were always better people singing the solos. I just really wanted to play violin and be in an orchestra. So I haven’t been singing long — I feel like I’m just late to the party.
You were a journalism major in college with a music minor. Why did you choose that?
The idea of journalism was because I like doing stories. I loved books and history and always loved discovering other people’s stories.
You had a big problem with stage fright, but overcame it with the help of immersion therapy. Tell me about that.
I remember when I went onstage it was terrible. I got ash white, I barely could hear anything, my blood was pumping so loud I couldn’t hear myself think or speak, and then — I sang — something, and I said thank you very much — and I fainted.
I discovered I had terrible, debilitating stage fright. That went on for six months, and if I hadn’t been forced into immersion therapy by my professor, I don’t think I’d be standing onstage. He saw something — he told me: “You’ve got talent and you can sing,” and I swapped my major from violin to singing.
How did you feel about singing after you got over the stage fright?
I started just enjoying the singing so much and enjoying the discovery of the stories and the research, and the opening up of scores, and looking and listening, and imagining how it’s related to some historic event, and just how it’s all connected. I got so fascinated, and listened to recordings. I listened to the whole of Figaro and listened to Kiri Te Kanawa sing “Porgi, amor” in a language that I didn’t fully understand, but knowing how sad she was, and how hopeful she still remained — hearing all of that in her voice — I was flabbergasted.
You changed your major from journalism to music. How did that come about?
There came a moment when I was just about to graduate university with my journalism degree, and I’d been dragging singing along with me because I didn’t want to give up that library of music and that experience that was still so foreign and unknown to me.
Then the head of the department, David Scarr, called me into his office after a concert and said, “After you finish your journalism degree, I think you need to stay and do a bachelor of music because I think you’re not going to be a journalist — I think you actually have a voice that is worth listening to.”
What do you like about doing opera?
Opera by definition is work — the Italian definition of the word opera is “to work.” It is the working of all art forms coming together — the art form of music-making, the art form of acting, the art form of dance and movement, all coming together.
So it’s a question of how much more do you want to add to that? How much heart do you want to add to it? How much joy do you want to add to it? How much visage do you want to add to it, and how much stagecraft? Those tiny fine details that people don’t necessarily think of as being important, it’s all those fine details that make it art.
Do you enjoy rehearsing?
For me, it’s more exciting to me to be in a rehearsal room than it is to be onstage. Once you’re onstage and performing, you can only go so far at making [new] discoveries. But in the rehearsal room, everything is allowed. You can go as extreme as you want to, or as minimal as you want to, and people tell you to do more — or less — or that you are absolutely on track. In the rehearsal room, I’m all about — I want information — let me learn from you, and what can I give you to help you get better? That give and take is very exciting.
What about being onstage?
Once you’re onstage, you’re feeding off the audience and their reactions. It’s not about me learning anymore, it’s about the audience gaining something. I’m just a conduit — I’m just there to serve. That’s much more important when onstage.
Tell me about It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a new telling, and it’s about the characters — Clara Oddbody and George Bailey and his family and how people who watch it can see themselves in that experience. It’s a very special lovely story because it’s a part of American culture. It’s written so beautifully and musically appropriate to the story. Jake is so wonderfully giving to the voices, and Gene has cut it down to such a beautiful, fine streamlined story, while still keeping in so many of the iconic aspects.
This whole piece has been about creating this warm blanket of sound, so that by the end of the opera, you just feel yourself wrapped up in what the meaning of the story is. Life is good — life is demonstrably good, if you would just look, and I feel that’s a very pertinent message in the times that we all find ourselves in, because there’s so much bad happening and it makes you very sad.
But in all of that bad, if we look very carefully at it, all those bad things are just these pockets and pebbles that allow a ripple effect of kindness, and if we would stop looking at where the pebble dropped, but rather at the ripple of kindness that it creates, that’s what’s important.
Is it challenging to sing in English?
When you sing in your own vernacular, it can be challenging. I am not American, so it is actually easier for me, because I am not singing in my traditional vernacular. Once your muscle memory kicks in and you’ve learnt it properly, you have to do the same things you do when you are learning something in Italian or French or German. You have to know which part of the vowel sound needs to be stressed. The vowels are what count, and the consonants should not stop or diminish the sound. So you try to find a way to modify your vowels and make sure that everything lines up.
How do you feel about the role — have you been able to resonate with it?
It’s a beautiful role. Clara is a very impatient, full-of-joy person, and she just wants to do good. I feel that’s something that so many people resonate with — you want to do good, but you just don’t know how. And what I find so fascinating is that that’s how she starts. She’s hanging around in heaven and she wants to be a first-class angel, but she doesn’t know how.
But then she hears from all these people who are in a situation where they don’t know what else to do but to pray for someone, and even doing something as small as praying for someone can effect so much change, because their prayers reach her and that spurs her into action.
It is such a powerful message, and that’s what I think we all forget — I don’t have to change the world, I just have to think about this moment right now, and how I can make this moment better for someone else.
Sounds like Clara is a perfect role for you. Have you brought anything new to the role?
It’s a very special opera, and it’s such a privilege to be one of the first few casts to bring it to life and be part of setting the tone for how it’s heard and seen. Talise [Trevigne] did a great job in Houston when she originated the role of Clara. I’ve taken a lot of what I heard as inspiration and taken a lot of what she’s put into the soundscape, and added it to my own experience. That will then inspire someone else to try something new and that’s what is so nice about it — being a part of a legacy.
I’m excited about that. I think this is going to be a very lovely festive season in San Francisco. It’s a beautiful story that I can help tell. Bring the family — bring friends — and bring tissues.
What do you think is your special gift that you bring to opera?
I believe — I hope — that I bring joy. I’ve thought about it for a very long time — why am I here, and what am I doing? I feel like my job is to show people that there’s joy to be had. It’s there — you just have to open your eyes to it. That’s where I feel most comfortable — bringing as much joy as I can into a moment.
Correction: As originally published, this article misspelled Golda Schultz's last name in the title.