That’s what one of Omo Bello’s singing teachers said about her when she first heard Bello perform. Since then, the young soprano from Nigeria has been winning prizes and enthralling audiences in Italy, France and other countries.
Bello, 27 years old and based in Paris, won first place in the prestigious Anselmo Colzani international singing competition in Budrio, Italy, earlier this year, in addition to three other prizes in Europe (most importantly first prize in the 2010 Luciano Pavarotti Giovani competition in Vercelli).
Her latest award is the 2011 Cziffra Foundation prize for exceptionally talented young musicians. She will be giving recitals in several French cities throughout November, and recording her first album in 2012.
Bello stands out not only for the purity of her voice but for the “naturalness” of her stage presence. She makes audiences believe in the joy, sadness, confusion or whatever other emotion her character is portraying, because she herself seems to believe in it. Her facial expressions and hand movements are those of a good actress who makes acting look easy.
During a recent concert at the ornate Châtelet theatre in Paris, the audience seemed delighted as she sang the aria ‘Glitter and be Gay’ from Leonard Bernstein’s opera Candide.
“You always have to go the extra mile to make it seem effortless,” she told SWAN in an interview at a noisy café in northern Paris a few days later. “On stage, you have to let go of yourself, but there’s still a part of you in every role you play.”
Bello was studying cell biology and genetics at the University of Lagos when she was invited to sing at a concert organized by the French cultural centre there. When he heard her, the cultural attaché to Nigeria, Jean-Yves Gillon, felt that her talent had to be nurtured, and he quickly arranged for a scholarship in France, although he later admitted he had little knowledge of opera. Like many others who have heard Bello sing, however, Gillon said he was touched, moved to tears.
“I had to come to France to do auditions to find out if there was a talent, and if I could continue with this,” Bello recalls.
Bello stands in front of a hip-hop poster in Paris
She didn’t have the “level or technique” to get into the Conservatoire National de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP) straight away, but there was no doubt that the voice was there, according to singing teacher Peggy Bouveret.
“When I first met her I could see that there was promise but I wasn’t at all sure she could do it, but she was very brave and she had determination,” Bouveret said. “She did have the beginnings of a voice although it was far away from what she needed for a career. Still, she had promise in every way.”
With this knowledge, Bello decided to embark on her new adventure, but first she wanted to complete her bachelor’s degree in cell biology and genetics. At the end, it all became a bit of a race - she graduated from the University of Lagos on a Friday and travelled to France the following Sunday, back in 2005.
She began her opera classes at the regional conservatory in Toulouse, and after two years moved to Paris to the Conservatoire National. Her scholarship covered work with singing teacher Bouveret, who is known for developing talent. Bouveret stressed that Bello should try to maintain her natural approach to singing.
With courses in piano, vocal technique, theatre, dramatic arts and languages (French, Italian, German and Russian) under her belt, Bello graduated from the conservatory last June, giving a 50-minute recital of music by Handel, Schumann, Mozart and other composers as part of the ceremony.
“These past four years have been so intense,” she told SWAN. “Opera is an art form that teaches you immense discipline.”
Asked how she feels when she sings, Bello responded: “Singing does a lot for me. I’m not necessarily a very extroverted person, but singing gives me pleasure, and I want to take pleasure in what I’m doing. God made the human voice into the most complete instrument, and it’s very gratifying.”
Her audiences tend to feel the same way. Paris resident Clarisse Deletre who knows Bello both personally and as a singer says the Nigerian touches people because of her belief in what she does and because of her great will to work.
Deletre’s daughter Cecile, an ethno-musicologist, had met Bello in Nigeria, and the family welcomed Bello into their home when the singer arrived in Paris.
“Omo quickly learned French, which she writes almost faultlessly now, and she got used to the cold, the customs and accepted the difficult life of Parisians who don’t have a lot of money,” Deletre told SWAN.
“She has effectively become a part of the family. We all believed in her from the beginning,” she added.
Deletre’s 85-year-old mother told Bello that one day she would be singing at the MET in New York and that the family would all make the trip to applaud her.
That day hasn’t arrived yet, but Bello did audition for the MET in April. She was told that she needed to do more work, which she says she looks forward to completing.
“The growing process never stops,” Bello says. “The day you stop growing is the day you start sinking.”
Meanwhile, she is “giving back” to Nigeria, where she grew up in a family that listened to classics such as The Sound of Music and to African-American opera star Leontyne Price.
Bello has returned to sing in Abuja each year since 2007 and is lending her support to the construction of a conservatory of music and an opera house. Her parents –an architect and a lawyer – were initially skeptical of her career choice, but they now believe she did the right thing in coming to Europe.
“I was destined for the sciences, and my father (the architect) couldn’t understand this singing business,” Bello laughs. “But you have to do what makes you happy, don’t you?” – A.M.