Arts & Entertainment
Oratorio Society of New York, Bloomingdale School of Music, The Brick Presbyterian Church
His beautiful, expressive voice has taken tenor and composer Ongama Mhlontlo from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape to the stages of New York. He creates and performs original music, as well as teaching and premiering his compositions. This year alone, his achievements include premiering his latest song cycle Stranger in New York at Don’t Tell Mama in New York, performing at Carnegie Hall with the Oratorio Society of New York and being the tenor soloist in Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri at Brick Presbyterian Church. Ongama performed the lead role in Sarah Norcross Hough’s world premiere of Ulysses Missa at the 2022 New York Theatre Festival. The University of Cape Town graduate, who also holds a master’s in Classical Voice from the Manhattan School of Music, is passionate about sharing South Africa’s unique stories with the opera world through his compositions, programming and teaching. “I have a vision for South Africa to become a cultural powerhouse on the global stage. As history has shown, thriving arts and culture industries are often the hallmark of prosperous societies.” He says that being a performer in what is predominantly a Western art form, it is his duty as a creative to promote stories and music inspired by South Africa and the rest of the continent. Ongama says: “As an artist, what drives me to excel is my insatiable passion for storytelling. I believe that storytelling has the power to change the world and inspire others.”
- Bachelor of Music, Opera, University of Cape Town, 2019
- Master of Music, Classical Voice, Manhattan School of Music, 2021
- Premiered Stranger in New York song cycle at The Salon, Don’t Tell Mama, NYC, in February 2023.
- Performed five times at Carnegie Hall with the Oratorio Society of New York.
- Tenor soloist in Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri at Brick Presbyterian Church in March 2023.
- Played the lead role of Bloom in Ulysses Missa by Sarah Norcross Hough at the 2022 New York Theatre Festival.
- Performed Prince Barigoule in Columbia University’s Cendrillon (Cinderella) performance.
- Guest performer for Nelson Mandela concert at Manhattan School of Music, performing eMachibini and I Am an African, in March 2022.
- Carnegie Hall debut in Messiah performance in December 2021.
- Premiered uMkhulu Wethu, a song dedicated to IsiXhosa author Nelson Njengabantu Yapi at Bloomingdale School of Music in December 2021.
- Premiered first song cycle at the Baxter Theatre in April 2018.
One of my most cherished childhood memories is the annual Christmas carol service at St John’s Collegiate Parish, Mthatha, in December 2009, conducted by my mother. It was a special moment for me as I performed three solo pieces, which was something I had done before as I was already the assistant organist and had recorded an album with the choir at Mhlobo Wenene studios in Gqeberha in 2008. But what made that day unforgettable was the feedback I received from a lady in her 80s. She took my hands and said, “Your singing touched me, my son. Please don’t ever stop what you are doing; God will bless you.” This moment stayed with me throughout my childhood and has played a significant role in shaping my decision to pursue music as a career. It reinforced the power of music to touch people’s hearts and showed me the impact that music can have on people’s lives.
My advice to my younger self would be to remember that great things take time. As uMkhulu used to say, “Rome was not built in one day.” Don’t rush the process and make sure to put in the work every day — sing, compose and play piano. But also, remember to enjoy the journey and embrace every moment. The world is your stage, so make the most of it.
I have a vision for South Africa to become a cultural powerhouse on the global stage. As history has shown, thriving arts and culture industries are often the hallmark of prosperous societies. I want to use our abundant wealth of arts and culture to create unique and inclusive musical works that tell the story of South Africa to the world. With my ability to sing, I hope to contribute to this goal and help elevate the status of South African culture to new heights.