Golda Schultz: ‘Odd is the word for this Last Night of the Proms’

The South African-born soprano on making music in lockdown, her nearly career as a journalist and the joy of cocktails

Born in Cape Town, educated at the Juilliard School, New York, and now based in Munich, the soprano Golda Schultz, 37, stars in the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall on 12 September, 8pm, live on Radio 3, BBC One and BBC Sounds.

This is the oddest of years to sing in the Last Night of the Proms. How’s it going to work?
Oh man, I think “odd” really is the way to describe it. It’s definitely interesting. Classical music is having to think more like jazz. We’re improvising constantly. We’ve got various frameworks to follow – from the government, from the BBC – about how big an orchestra can be, how close we can be to each other, how long we can stay in a rehearsal room together. There’s an endlessly changing flow of yes-maybe-no… then, I hope, back to yes. It’s a rarity for any musicians to get together right now. That’s the excitement. I’m longing for it.

You’ll be in the Royal Albert Hall?
Yes, I’ll get to stand on the Albert Hall stage, with Dalia [Stasevska, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor] and the orchestra. I made my Proms debut in 2018 and it was amazing – the arena full of Prommers, every seat in the place sold. This time it’ll be just a big old room, with a bunch of musicians. I’m sad not to have an audience but thrilled to be performing live, in the space. I’ll be singing some Sondheim, from A Little Night Music. I adore musicals. That was my mum’s first show she saw on Broadway. I was a student at Juilliard at the time – 2010. I saved all my money to take her.

Do you see the row over Rule, Britannia! as a storm in a teacup or a serious issue?
That feelings have run so high shows how much people care about this event, but it’s important we remember that music can bring people together. It’s an honour to be invited to sing at Last Night of the Proms and I want the programme we present on the night to remind everyone of the unifying power of music.

Have you had any chance to sing in these past months?
I’ve been lucky – I sang in a gala in Munich in March and in the Metropolitan Opera’s gala in April. Then in July, in Turin, I took part in Mozart’s Requiem to a socially distanced audience of 200 health workers. No words can describe how emotional that was. We all applauded each other at the end. There wasn’t a dry eye. It still tears me up just talking about it.

Was music always part of your childhood in South Africa?
From the start there was music in the house. Mum would have on Motown, the Supremes, the Temptations, old-school R&B, while Dad would be listening to Haydn, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel. Then the three of us – I’m an only child – would listen to South African music too: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Yvonne Chaka Chaka. As a student I had a passion for house music and electronica. I have no clue how to sum up the kind of music I like.

Your mother, who named you after Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir, was a big influence?
Yes, she chose Golda because she liked the idea that people had elected this woman to rule – here was someone who stood in the line of fire for her country, a strong name to live up to. My mum’s a registered nurse who studied child psychology. She encouraged creativity as well as a more formal education. She noticed that I was musical, and soon I was learning violin, recorder, piano, singing, joining choirs, singing solos at school. Both my parents thought music was important in fostering time-management, problem-solving, teamwork. They weren’t expecting I’d make it a career.

You started out doing a journalism course at university?
My dad, a maths professor, thought it would be a sensible back-up.

Sensible? Being a journalist?
Yes. Mad, I know. But I soon switched to music. I still have to pinch myself that I can support myself by basically – as an opera singer – playing pretend.

You used to have “fainting goat syndrome” – stage fright so badly that you fainted after performing. How did you overcome it?
When I was a student I would sing, then come off stage and pass out. It kept happening. My head of department at Rhodes University [in Grahamstown, South Africa] said, if I’d fainted before performing, he’d have told me to give up. But the fact was I had to sing, to persevere, even though I suffered. It made me cry, that someone who barely knew me could see there was a little spark in me that wanted to survive, to thrive. I wouldn’t be doing this now without him.

And instead you’d have been a journalist?
I’d probably have been the worst kind of horrible, crabby, snarky critic who complained about everyone singing because deep down inside I wanted to do it myself.

Watch Golda Schultz singing Summertime from Porgy & Bess with the Metropolitan Opera.

On the question of diversity in classical music, is it fair to say the situation is improving?
It’s improving, but it’s far from there yet. Yes, there are people of colour, people who look like me stepping up on stage. But is this translating into the way the whole industry is run? We don’t know because those are the parts – backstage, in the administration, the boardroom – that people don’t see. It’s imperative people from minority ethnic groups are in positions of leadership. It’s still a novelty. It’s where women were 30 years ago.

What’s in your diary for the autumn?
After the Proms I’ve got a Mozart opera in Munich, but then the diary’s blank. I trust that when concert halls open up again, things will arrive. But who’s to say that being booked up years ahead is the way to live? Lockdown has been a time to rethink. I’ve been baking, reading, giving my vocal cords a chance to recover. And I’ve been learning how to make a lot of cocktails. Today, I’m having a Zoom cocktail with friends.

What’s on the menu?
Passion fruit with a shot of champagne. Pornstar martini. Sounds atrocious, doesn’t it? I’m getting quite a lot of practice…


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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