When Menzi Mngoma decided to get a job as an Uber driver, it was mostly out of necessity. The 27-year-old has a fiancé, kids and his parents to support, and his life's passion, opera, wasn't paying the bills.
But he was also making a bet. "You need to be well-connected to go overseas," he told NPR. Though he's currently based in Durban, South Africa, Mngoma dreams of becoming an international musical sensation; he thought that driving Uber might help him make connections with people who could further his career.
After more than a year, the bet finally paid off for Mngoma. In late May, he was driving a woman from Johannesburg named Kim Davey while she was in Durban for a business trip.
"From the moment I started chatting to Menzi in the Uber, I just knew he was a kind and special soul," Davey says. They got to talking, and Mngoma revealed he is an opera singer. Davey asked him to sing; he complied with several arias. The videos she took of his performance, showcasing his lyric tenor, have since racked up hundreds of thousands of views on Facebook.
And how talented is he? Tim Ashley, opera critic for the Guardian, wrote that Mngoma sang "perfectly decently and with no strain at the top [of the voice]."
The exposure has rocketed Mngoma to semi-stardom. He has since been interviewed by radio and TV stations across the country and auditioned for the Cape Town Opera. He has even been invited to participate in iPop, an international talent contest in L.A. this December — a step toward his dream of international stardom.
Mngoma says he always stuck out a little in his hometown of Richards Bay, a seaside community near Durban with a high unemployment and poverty rate (though his family wasn't very poor, he says, they were also far from wealthy). While other boys played soccer, he'd be cooking or cleaning or spending time looking at sheet music and playing DVDs to learn about different musical styles.
He says he's been singing since "I knew myself" and turned to opera when he was 14. "It [made] me feel so unique around my age group," he says. "Most people listened to R&B." His friends called him Pavarotti after the famed Italian tenor. It's fitting, then, that Mngoma's favorite aria is one that Pavarotti and many other tenors have recorded from Verdi's La Traviata.
When he first performed it in high school, his music teachers were impressed, he recalls. "For a very young guy like me in grade 8, [they were] surprised — I can go to every range, I can pronounce the Italian in the way that I did," he says.
Mngoma says he's always been a hard worker when it comes to singing, sometimes too much so. He says he failed a term in high school because he was always sneaking away from class to sing.
He's taught himself but also taken lessons. He says he practices about 2 hours a day four times a week.
After high school, Mngoma moved to Durban in 2011. He sang in choirs and landed some roles in operas. But his various gigs didn't add up to a living. Before he drove an Uber he taught singing at a primary school.
Mngoma still hasn't been able to quit his day job. But he believes his future as a full-time performer might not be too far off.
On Friday, Mngoma put out his first single, "Feel the Love," which he calls "pop-era" — a mix of pop and opera. East Coast Radio arranged for Davey to fly down from Johannesburg and surprise Mngoma in studio. The two, who've become close friends, hugged fiercely. "His reaction was priceless," she says.
You can preview the song here. And even though it's definitely not opera, Mngoma is just happy to be singing for a worldwide audience.
Susie Neilson is an intern on NPR's Science Desk. Contact her @susieneilson