Omo Bello was born in Nigeria but trained and found success here in France. She's recorded a solo album of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, was nominated for a Victoires de la musique award, and most recently performed in the presence of President Macron to mark the abolition of slavery in France. She talks to RFI about making her way up and using her success to develop classical music back home in Lagos.
"Looking back I realise how hard it was, I didn't realize while climbing because I was carried by this huge need to sing, to make music, this passion. It's looking back that I realised oh my!"
Omo Bello laughs heartily as she recalls arriving in France in 2005 to study at the Conservatoire in Paris after she was spotted by the Institut Francais back in Lagos.
She came alone, didn't speak the language, armed simply with a passion for singing and an iron will to succeed.
She was colourblind at first and despite often being the only black face on stage or in the audience, she tries to keep that naivety.
"If not, it makes it too hard to express the beauty, the joy, the love that you feel when you want to make music.
"You can chose to look and say 'oh dear lord this is terrible there should be more colour equality' or I personally chose not to see. I just see human beings, I see people making music, loving to make music."
"I love Italian music, bel canto, and I also love French romantic operas, so that means for me a good mix of French and Italian opera arias. An orchestra would be "l'idéal" for a second album."
Becoming a role model
In 2017 she returned to Lagos to perform at Muson, the Musical Society of Nigeria, and was amazed by the reaction.
"I wasn't expecting the reception in terms of awareness of what I do, who I am, because opera, obviously is not well known in Nigeria."
She hadn't counted on the powers of social media.
"What I realised was that a huge community of classical music lovers had formed online through social media and many got to know me on youtube, facebook etc.
People came to her with "emotional stories of how they'd encountered classical music" and it had changed their perceptions. It was no longer "burial music, sober and boring".
"I realised I'm actually a sort of a role model to these people, to be able to aspire to do things that appear impossible, that break boundaries."
Omo Bello Foundation
Fired up with their enthusiasm she launched her own foundation "to discover, develop and eventually promote musical talents in children". And disadvantaged kids in particular.
"The child who starts early playing instruments, learning music, has a fighting chance later on," she pleads. "The one who starts at two, because his parents couldn't afford to pay the fees of piano lessons, most likely wouldn't be able to make it on an international level.
"So we want the children to have a fighting chance if they chose to have musical careers, and also to build hope."
Bello is convinced that the only thing stopping the development of classical music and opera is Nigeria is the absence of structures: "formal institutions where people can be guided in their musical journeys, concert halls, an opera house, a theatre, a conservatoire, in Nigeria".
"For me there's a lot of music going on but it's all over the place. Musicians are just “doing it” in church, in the corner in some jazz clubs, but we don't have the possibility to become the professionals that they deserve to be."
There's no lack of talent, passion and energy.
"The energy in Lagos, I've never seen that anywhere in world. If that can be channeled in a proper way it can yield such unbelievably huge results."