Manuel Escorcio: Dialogue with a South African international singer

Manuel, a freshman student at Helderberg College in South Africa, was singing in the shower. The dormitory preceptor followed the music, listened from the hallway, and later suggested that Manuel join the choir and augment his talent with voice lessons. From that day on, Manuel Escorcio has not stopped singing.

Escorcio is a legend in South Africa where, as principal resident tenor for the Cape Town City Opera, he sang in over 40 productions ranging from Mozart’s The Magic Flute to Donizetti’s The Barber of Seville and Lehar’s The Student Prince. Dedicated fans voted him twice as South Africa’s “Most Popular Singer”—in 1986 and 1990. Three of his 27 recordings have achieved gold status and one has gone platinum. His compact disk Symphony of Praise won “Best Gospel CD” award in 1996.

Escorcio graduated from Helderberg College in 1972 with a theology diploma. Although he had planned to serve as a church pastor, his musical talent drew him away from that goal into the exhilaration of public musical performance. He completed a baccalaureate in music at the University of Stellenbosh in 1976, and then studied under talented mentors in South Africa and England.

Escorcio earned a Master of Music degree in 1982 at the University of Cape Town. His dissertation, “Parallelisms and Analogies Between the Genre of Opera and the Genre of Drama in Shakespearean Plays,” describes the direction his life had taken since that musical shower at Helderberg. Awards and successes came in multiples for Escorcio. The Portuguese government awarded him the title of “Comendador of the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator.” In Salzburg, Austria, he won the award as “Best Singer” from the Academy of Music. And his native land lauded him as the “Most Popular Personality in the Performing Arts.”

Then in 1992, confronted with a feeling of personal emptiness, Manuel Escorcio returned to his religious roots. “I wanted to do something more positive than self-centered performing,” he says. “I wanted to serve God fully.”

You were a highly successful opera star; now you are in a Christian musical ministry. What is the difference, and how do you feel about the change?

As an opera star I was in it for myself, just “to make a great noise” so people could see how good I was. My entire vocal experience was directed toward vocal prowess—to show off what I could do. I wanted applause for myself and desired the greatest possible number of solo bows. Although I still need vocal prowess and excellence, the primary function now is the message rather than the vocal technique. I am not in this to sing lower or higher than the next guy. My music has become subservient to God’s message. I have become a vehicle for Him, a voice imbued with the Holy Spirit. Best of all, I have never been happier!

Why did you choose to change?

I was tired of the empty, angry, pride-filled world of the opera. It’s a very lonely place. There are always a dozen singers waiting for the moment when your voice fails you. You’re alone in a place where no one will step in to help you. The opera is also an unbalanced and volatile world where every department is empty of Christ and filled with superficiality. I had everything—money, fame, praise—and yet nothing. I was miserable.

Do you miss singing opera music?

No. I cannot do that anymore. Not since the Holy Spirit spoke to me in 1990. A Christian friend came to me in one of those special moments of need and urged me to face the issue of my spiritual connections. Remember, I studied opera for 13 years. I had compromised on the Sabbath and much more. He showed me that it was time to come back.

You left a high-visibility, well-paying job when you resigned as principal resident tenor at the Cape Town City Opera. What has happened to your career since then?

I am on an adventure with God, and my life is a ministry. Occasionally I sing some light classical music and sell art pieces from artists I value as a way to secure income so I am able to give life to my ministry. Imagine how special this is. I receive an invitation from a friend or an acquaintance who loves good music and fine art. So, I load my Volkswagen van with art, a stereo system, background tapes and a box of CDs and travel to their home for an evening of music and ministry. My job that evening is to share my best friend Jesus with my new friends at the home. Many times there will be 60 or 70 of the neighbors who have come to buy paintings, socialize, and listen to good music. Me? I am there to minister!

What brought you to add fine art sales to the music on these social evenings?

I discovered that quality paintings gave me a perfect opportunity to talk about God. Somehow I seem to know what people are looking for and so they contact me asking for specific types of original art. I locate what they want, bring it to the exhibitions and then talk with them, honestly. The first way for me to communicate about God is to be an honest art dealer—a Christian with Christ’s business ethics. Invariably, along with the art, I give them a gospel cassette or a compact disk. Often, I speak long and joyfully about my Christian principles and discuss how God wants to be part of their life.

What makes this ministry effective for you?

People trust me. You can never give a Bible study without first connecting to the people. Make them your friends. Show them that you can be trusted. Don’t use your Bible as an AK-47 to eliminate the opposition and prove your truth. Instead use the Bible to share the love of Christ and make them your friends. Talk about Jesus and emphasize the points that connect us as Christians.

Your personality is a blend of energy and emotion. How do you “keep on giving” day after day?

I try to keep fit. I jog three to four times per week and eat healthfully to keep my energy level high. I walk alone in nature, listen to good music, read great books, and revel in God’s love. Giving can only happen in proportion to the energy I have. I give, not just an operatic act, but a real giving—sharing, communicating, comforting, strengthening, and building the body of Christ. You see, for me there is no such thing as an audience anymore. They are now just my friends and it is my job to “break the bubble,” to get straight through to their hearts. One minute we laugh and the next minute we cry. All the time I am giving straight from my heart to their hearts. It is exhausting! And it is the most energizing thing I do! There is one other thing. The “giving” comes from God, not me. What he gives me I must pass on. I cannot help it.

What is your greatest hope?

To hear success stories from the people who have failed: the drunks, the policeman killer, the ones who went to the depths and are now experiencing the miracle of grace. To be reminded often that grace is not a theory but the real thing! I want to be a small instrument in God’s wheel of life. Then, when God pours the oil of the Holy Spirit on me, the wheel flies!

What counsel do you have for how music should be used in the church?

We must use music that reaches into the hearts of children. I love classical organ and “Almighty” music for church worship. But, God is like my father. He has many different facets. Sometimes He is a judge. At other times He is a teacher, friend, listener, and more. We must not use all of our energy to portray Him as the stern long-haired judge. We must show Him as the one whose life is filled with fun! Imagine, He makes hippos fat and cuddly and the entire host of angels breaks out laughing. Then, He makes giraffes and the whole angelic host sings aloud at the sight. God is never boring. He is always varied and challenging, and our music must show Him as He is. We must cast aside our preconceptions and make music that draws children to Christ. When we reach the children, we reach the future.

What advice do you have for young Christians who have great musical talent?

Four things: (1) Do not allow harsh criticism to discourage you from pursuing what God asks you to do. (2) As you feel and develop your music idiom/language/style, do it with guidance from God. His pure, sincere, honest, grace-filled love will run farther than you can run away. Don’t accept a cheap Jesus; instead, revel in the richness of His gift and share it with joy. (3) Never abandon Jesus because of what another person may have done or said to you. (4) Do not forget the basics. To be special means to be different inside, in your attitudes and decisions. Your difference is the difference of grace. Focus there.

Interview by Dick Duerksen. Dick Duerksen is the director of spiritual development for the Florida Hospital, Orlando, Florida. Manuel Escorcio’s address: P.O. Box 565; Newlands 0081; Pretoria, Jauteng; South Africa. E-mail: M_escorcio@hot mail.com

Religious albums available: Symphony of Praise, I’d Rather Have Jesus, I’ll Walk With God, My Favorite Hymns, I Have Returned, Irresistible Jesus. Secular albums: Simply Classics, The Tenor Voice, Love & Romance. For sales information contact: Manuel Escorcio, c/o Debi Austin; 805 Evergreen Drive; Lodi, California 95242; U.S.A. Phone 209-339-0317.