15th November, 2023
Why I dumped medicine for classical music - Francisca Chiejina
Published By: Ayorinde Oluokun
Francesca Chiejina is a personification of determination and grit. When her father took her to the Musical Society of Nigeria at eight where she learnt how to play violin and piano, little did she know she would one day become a world-class soprano. Still, midway through a premed programme at the University nof Michigan, she dumped medicine for classical music, an act of courage which didn’t go down well with her parents. Twelve years on, Francisca has become one of the most-sought-after opera singers in the world. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH, she speaks about her journey to stardom, why she dumped medicine for classical music and her Kobo Arts Foundation.
Could you tell me how your journey to stardom started?
(Laughs) It’s a long story. But I will try and give you a quick version of it. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria and left when I was nine years old for the United States. Before I left, I took my first music classes here at MUSON . . . I think I was about eight. I took violin and piano lessons. When we moved to the United States, my parents made sure we still kind of kept in musical things. And in high school, when I was 16, I fractured my left ankle playing soccer. And I had to do some kind of after school activity. To graduate, you have to always have some extra curricular activity. I could read music from studying at MUSON, so I joined choir because the gossip then was that it was quite easy to get an A. So I joined choir and kind of fell in love with it for the first time, vocally, actually with music.
I had a lot of teachers who encouraged me, telling me “you have a voice, you have a voice, you have good ears.” I think it was because of my MUSON training. I didn’t quite listen though. I was 20 years old and half way through a premed course at the University of Michigan when the same thing kind of happened. I was singing in choir for fun at college and teachers there were saying “you have an extraordinary voice, you should think about it, you should think about it.”
And little by little by little, I kept falling more and more in love with music… the call to music kept coming back. At 20, I took a leap of faith and changed my course from medicine to music. This is where the story has kind of taken me (laughs). I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in music. And I took another leap to the United Kingdom to study at the Guildhall School. Pretty soon, the leaps of faith came from others. First of all, from the Royal Opera House: taking a chance on me and inviting me for my first professional gig. I made my professional operatic debut at 24 years old at the Royal Opera House (laughs). So I think my journey has been quite intense, incredible, fortunate, everything you can really think of. I am just here for the ride. I’m riding the wave.
When you were eight years old you were part of the MUSON Junior School…
Yes I was part of the MUSON Junior School, I guess that’s what they call it. I learned to read music. I remember learning to play piano. I remember learning to play violin. I wasn’t so good at piano but violin was better. And violin ironically is closer to a soprano voice. That must’ve helped.
At that young age did you ever envisage going into classical music someday in the future?
No, no way. If you told me at twenty years old that this would be my life now, I would think that it was a joke (laughs). So, I definitely I didn’t envision myself doing this. I envisioned myself when I was very little being a medical doctor and this just happened (laughs)
Then what happened at the University of Michigan? Why the switch?
It’s quite a contrasting career, unlike going from medicine to physics or something related in a way. As I said, the call from music just kept getting louder and louder and I kept getting encouraged by music teachers around me. And I just felt that if one person says so, that’s nice, but six people say it, then there is something to notice there, as in my talent, or at least potential at the time. To be honest, being on my feet for four hours at a time doing biology labs was a lot less fun to me than singing in a choir and creating beauty with my voice. So I just took a risk. I thought if I fail, I can go back to medicine…but if I wait too long, singing might pass me by.
When you were making that shift, definitely your parents weren’t happy that you were jettisoning medicine for classical music. How were you able to convince them that the career path you were toeing was the right path for you?
Oh my goodness! I cannot tell you how, I want to say, devastated and heartbroken my parents were when I switched my career path. I’m happy I can laugh about it now. But at the time, oh my goodness. There were tears, begging and pleading, and prayers (laughs) and Masses put out on my behalf. But we’ve come to an understanding. I make a comfortable living as a singer. Not only do I make a comfortable living, I’m also happy and fulfilled. So my parents think I’m really blessed. I mean, how often do you really get both? Most people make a living and survive. I’m content. I’m actually joy-filled and making a living. So I’m pretty lucky.
Aside from your parents, some people played very important roles in your life, people like Joyce DiDonato. Could you tell me about your experience with her and how she influenced your career?
I met DiDonato in 2014 when I started my masters at The Guildhall School. I think I was maybe two months into my degree and I sang for her agent at the time. And he said, you need to sing for Joyce. And I sang for Joyce in the masterclass and she was so filled with encouragement. Again another person encouraging me, encouragement filled with love and support. We’ve kept in touch ever since. She’s been kind of a mentor, keeping an eye on me and making sure I’m ticking along in the career. And this kind of thing is what I envision for my future: if I keep going slowly and steadily as I am right now, I hope to be able to do similarly for others. She was an example for me in many ways in that sense.
What was your experience like working with your teachers at the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme?
Jette Parker was quite an intense two years. I finished my masters at the Guildhall and jumped right into the deep end of one of the most prestigious operatic institutions in the world: like are you kidding me!? The Royal Opera House! I want to say the Royal Opera House is one of the top five opera houses in the world. To finish a masters degree and to stand next to people who’ve been singing for 20, 30 years and to try and sound as good as them, It was very much like being thrown into the deep and trying to stay afloat . . . thankfully, I did.
There were so many teachers and I can’t really go into naming them, because literally at least 50 people whom I came across. So many. At least like once a week I would be meeting a different acting coach, a different movement coach, a different language coach. So many people. It’s a huge resource that Opera House gave to me. To this day, there are so many lessons that I have still yet to digest because there is so much and they keep popping up at the most opportune times in my career when I need them.
You are the first Nigerian to perform at Carnegie Hall. And you performed in so many great opera houses like the Royal Opera House, BBC Proms, to mention a few. How do you feel each time you are on the world’s stage?
Carnegie Hall as well happened quite early in my career. Again, it was with Joyce. She was giving some masterclasses at Carnegie Hall. That was how I got to sing there. So this happened in 2018. When it’s happening, I try not to focus on the fact that it’s happening And just focus on the task at hand, which was singing and singing well. And after the fact, realizing that Oh crap I have just sang at Carnegie Hall. And I think that approach is helping me through my career.
Classical music has always been seen as eurocentric, westernized, as something reserved for the whites. How do you feel as a one of the few Africans performing in what is usually regarded as a white domain? Have you ever felt different from others?
Even in the past like six years, it has changed a lot. Obviously not the majority, but there are quite a lot of Africans in the art form now, especially from South Africa. But I guess the Nigerian numbers are still quite low. But we are coming up. I feel pride and I feel privileged as well to be able to share my identity on a stage which doesn’t often see the like. And quite a few people, usually children, come up to me after performances to say “It’s the first time I’m seeing a black girl as a leading role on that stage and it has really inspired me”. Or “it’s the first time my daughter has seen this representation. It has really inspired us. So thank you for being there, thank you for existing on that platform”. So, again, I can’t really focus on the fact and the responsibility it is to be one of the few, but I just try to focus on the task at hand. And after the fact, whatever comes up, if it touches people, if it changes people’s lives, I’m lucky to even be part of that. But I try not to focus on the responsibility and the weight of it because it could be overwhelming. But I’m happy to make other people happy.
Could you speak on your albums, “Transfigured” and “Our Indifferent Century”?
Yes I have two albums that came out this fall. “Transfigured” by Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective and “Our Indifferent Century” with my friend Natalie Burch. Natalie and I met at Guildhall, we’ve had a long working relationship. And Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective sent me a message after seeing my performance at the BBC Proms.They were very impressed.They respected me and my musicality and they thought we had to record something together. So I was invited on both projects.They were not my babies in a way… but I’m the main singer on both albums.
You said you wanted to make opera popular in Africa or you wanted to make Africans fall in love with opera …
i don’t know if I have the power to make opera popular in Africa . But as I said trying to do this art form that I love with excellence will naturally attract people and when they see people like me, an African, doing it, they might feel like they can do it as well. Because the people that inspired me when I was younger (Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price) I saw them singing on YouTube and I thought I could give that a go, I can do it too. So I’m hoping to pass on the same gift.
Why did you launch the Kobo Arts Foundation?
I launched the Kobo Arts Foundation quite recently. We have our fist scholarship recipient Valentine Umeh who has gone over to The New England Conservatory to study singing. He is a Nigerian tenor, an Igbo man. Basically, I just think I have been given so much. And as I mentioned previously in this conversation, a lot of people have encouraged me, have kept pushing me to keep going. Have verbalized and given me tangible things to express that they believe in me and I’m trying to give something tangible as well to other people, to say I believe in them. And so I have started this foundation to encourage Nigerians, especially Nigerian musicians at the MUSON School, my alma mater, to help further their education abroad and hopefully in return, like myself, come back and share with everyone else. And hopefully the main goal is that we won’t have to leave to further hone our skills in classical music. That’s the goal.