Bravo, Fitah!

A stunning voice from Madagascar

by Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85
Winter 2011

Supporters of Fitah Rasendrahasina might say that he sang his way into Calvin College: “It was his voice that made me think about getting him to come here,” said Henry Hoeks ’58. “From the moment I first heard him, I thought, ‘Calvin people have got to hear this gorgeous voice.’”

Rasendrahasina would add that it was the hand of God that ushered him here: “I have had surprising lessons all along the way. I cannot explain how or why things have happened the way they have; I just believe in it. God works in so many ways we cannot understand.”

Rasendrahasina’s presence as a student and tenor in Calvin’s music department is a gift to the community that comes along only rarely, according to Joel Navarro, Calvin music professor and Capella conductor. “His voice is one that comes to Calvin College, and even arguably to our city, once every generation or so. The last one we had with such a maturity, intensity and dedication was Michelle De Young, who is now one of the top-tier sopranos in the U.S.,” he said.

Always a singer

His path to Calvin was not an easy one. Rasendrahasina grew up in a family of theologians in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, an island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa. His grandfather served as the first president of the Church of Jesus Christ, a Reformed denomination; his father is the current president of the church, and his mother is a theologian and part-time teacher.

Rasendrahasina has always been a singer. He started with the children’s choir at church at the age of 5. By 16, he had joined a professional choir. “That’s when I was starting to discover that I have a gift,” he said. “They say I have a beautiful voice; they say I should study music.”

In between, at age 11, Rasendrahasina spent some time on Calvin’s campus when his father, Lala, studied at Calvin Theological Seminary. “That is really when the connection started,” Rasendrahasina said. “My mom and I were here with my dad, and we regularly attended Woodland Christian Reformed Church [which meets on the Calvin campus].”

Years later, after the family had returned to Madagascar, the legal government was overthrown in a military coup. The ousted president of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana, was a member and lay leader of the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar and thereby affiliated with Lala Rasendrahasina. During the political unrest, Fitah’s father was detained for six hours for questioning by the new military government; the family knew they were not safe.

So in April 2009 they sought refuge in Grand Rapids, where they had friends and a connection. Fitah joined the Woodlawn CRC choir and when members heard his voice—most for the first time—they were nothing short of amazed.

“He sings like Pavarotti,” said Hoeks, a Woodlawn member.“When I heard him, I knew that Calvin would be the beneficiary of having him here and that the kingdom of God would be the ultimate beneficiary through his gift of music.

“I asked him if he would consider coming to Calvin—if that would even be possible,” said Hoeks.

Though he had spent some time studying at the Anglican Music Institute in Antananarivo, Rasendrahasina had most recently been a student at the University of Madagascar, majoring in law and Anglophone civilization.

“I was incredulous,” said Hoeks. “I talked to one of our pastors Mike Abma and together we said we think we ought to encourage him to come to Calvin.”

It takes a congregation

So an informal group of Woodlawn members, all Calvin alumni, decided to make it their project to raise support for Rasendrahasina as a student at Calvin. Last year, nearly 150 Woodlawn members contributed to the effort.

“It was always the plan for me to finish undergraduate school back home and then look for a graduate program here,” said Rasendrahasina. “But when this gift showed up, I said, ‘Since this is here I’m just going to go for it and figure it out from there.’ Everyone was so willing to help me out and so encouraging, I felt very comfortable coming to school here.”

Verlyn Schultz ’59, Rasendrahasina’s frequent accompanist and a Woodlawn supporter, first heard him sing in the summer of 2009. “The first time he opened his mouth, it was unreal,” he said. “I couldn’t believe a 20-year-old kid sounded like that.

“I could sense how quiet it got in church; when he ended it was deathly still. You could feel the silence. You knew that he had touched people.”

Rasendrahasina had the same effect on the Calvin community when first he sang at the Named Scholarship Dinner last fall. He was invited for an encore performance this past fall at the same event.

“Music is a powerful thing to me,” said Rasendrahasina. “When I sing, it’s not just about hitting the right notes; it’s communication between you and God and you and the audience. You deliver the passion and empathy. The real power is the ability to lift up people though music, so everyone can feel the same emotion and can breathe it in together.”

Rasendrahasina is pursuing a career as an opera singer, a field in which there is opportunity, but also much competition, according to Robert Nordling, Calvin’s orchestra conductor.

“This could very well be ‘I used to know him when,’” said Nordling. “He is potentially a major talent, to which must be added the right repertoires and the right teachers and the right advisers and a lot of work. There are a gazillion singers looking to fill an opera-singing role, but if someone has got ‘it,’ and they are willing to add to ‘it’ these things, then they find a way.”

Rasendrahasina already has gotten his first break in that area with a role in Opera Grand Rapids’ production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut last winter.

Through the parents of a fellow member of Capella, Calvin’s concert choir, Rasendrahasina was introduced to Opera Grand Rapids’ board of directors. His audition brought him a secondary role for Manon Lescaut. By the maestro’s request, Rasendrahasina also served as understudy to the second major tenor. “And at the last minute the second major tenor backed out for health reasons,” Rasendrahasina said, “so I got the role.” He was the only undergraduate in the opera company.

Rasendrahasina’s season with the opera gained the attention of the company’s benefactors. This past spring he received the Betty Van Andel Scholarship, the largest award given to an exceptional student of music from the greater Grand Rapids area by Opera Grand Rapids.

His future—after graduating from Calvin next year—includes auditioning and applying for graduate schools. “I haven’t mastered my technique yet,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn as far as music is concerned. I don’t consider myself a top singer; many singers learn for 10 or 15 years before reaching the highest level.”

One in 500

The biggest challenges are still ahead, as explained by Calvin voice instructor Roger Scanlan: “He has great potential in a field in which it is very difficult to compete: About 1 in 500 has a successful career.”

Rasendrahasina is well aware of the challenges. “My option is to establish a certain «level of presence here or in Europe,” he said, “and then I have a big vision for my country. I am the first Malagasy to perform in an opera in the U.S. Art, like opera, is not valued in Madagascar; it doesn’t have its place in society.

“My vision is that I am just the messenger for all of the artists and singers—there are so many people with beautiful gifts. I would like to have them study here [in the U.S], or I could teach and share my knowledge so they can develop their gifts.”

The community at Calvin is shaping that big vision, he added. “It feels like I am here at the college trying to strengthen what I believe,” he said. “This will shape my identity when I go out in the real world.”

Schultz is convinced that Rasendrahasina will also shape the people who hear him. “He has a voice and manner of delivery that touches people,” he said. “Some people sing and it goes in one ear and out the other. When you hear Fitah sing, it does something to you.”

Whether that’s as an opera singer or not, Rasendrahasina is leaving that to God. “When I reflect I totally see myself as a singer, but my experience shows me that God is always present. My whole life is a series of blessing and surprise, so who knows? I know God has a plan.”