ABOUT 13 years ago, Pretty Yende heard opera for the first time and resolved to make it her career: “It was as if my soul knew what it was even though my mind and body didn’t,” she says.
These days, Yende is one of the country’s proudest exports. She was the first South African to be invited to take part in the young artists programme at the Accademia Teatro La Scala in Milan, is the first African artist ever to graduate from La Scala’s Academy of Lyric Opera, and has delighted audiences in many of the world’s most prestigious opera houses in Moscow, Vienna, Milan, New York, London, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Barcelona and other cities.
In 2013, she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver by President Jacob Zuma for, “Her excellent achievement and international acclaim in the field of world opera and serving as a role model to aspiring young musicians.”
Yende returned to South Africa briefly in August and joined students from her alma mater, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) South African College of Music and the head of its opera school, Professor Kamal Khan to perform at the Baxter Theatre. Funds raised by the one-night concert were donated to the Diemersfontein Excellence Out Of Africa Trust, which helps other promising young South Africans develop their talent.
Having been based in Milan for most of the past five years, Yende was pleased to be home, even for a short visit: “There is no place like home,” she says. “I am who I am because of where I grew up. Having that and being rooted in it has helped me get where I am today. I can never forget that.”
After debuting at the Metropolitan Opera (The Met) as a last-minute replacement in Le Comte Ory in January last year, she’s currently rehearsing for the role of Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, which is on at the New York opera house in October.
This will be followed almost immediately by Il Barbiere Di Siviglia in Oslo in which she plays Rosina. In February, Yende will be at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in the role of Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor and, in March, she’ll play Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro in Los Angeles. Thereafter, she’ll prepare for the role of Norina in Don Pasquale at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. She has also been invited to sing her first Elvira in I Puritani in a new production at the Zurich Opera in 2016.
Yende, whose story of hearing two female voices singing the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé in a British Airways television advertisement when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Ndlela High School in Piet Retief is well-known, was described by British classic music critic, Michael White as “disarmingly focused on what she wants”.
“She floored me with her cool, matter of fact determination – which has clearly been the force behind all she’s achieved so far,” he added.
White is not the only one struck by Yende’s resolve. Virginia Davids, herself an award winning opera singer and associate professor of singing at the College of Music, recalls the first time she heard the young woman’s voice: “I got this phone call in September (when Yende was in her final year of high school), “Hello, my name is Pretty Yende from Mpumalanga and I’m coming to UCT next year and I would like to come and study with you.” I remember saying to my husband, “I’ve got this cheeky kid on the phone who insists that she must come and study with me.””
And study with Davids, Yende did. She credits the vocal coach for teaching her to fully appreciate her voice, its distinctiveness, and how to use it to convince audiences and win their hearts.
“(Davids) taught me the best lessons any artist could hope for. She spent time with me, encouraging me to love my voice. She taught me to accept it and to understand it’s not just the sound that matters; the world of music is much deeper. She showed me that if I was willing to go beyond that, then I’d be special. If I just wanted to make beautiful sounds like everyone else, then I’d just be normal,” she says. “Even when, in my early days at UCT, I realised there were many people with so much talent, who had been singing for much longer than I had and I worried that I couldn’t do it, she taught me to love my voice.”
But, insists Davids, it was a two-way thing. Seldom has she encountered a student so dedicated to her craft, and so willing and determined to perfect it: “Also, (Yende) loves going on stage and I think that is a special quality that the audience feels,” she says.
When the young soprano graduated cum laude from UCT, she couldn’t afford to study internationally. But, true to nature, she didn’t allow that to deter her dream and so began entering international singing competitions.
Winning the Hans Gabor Belvedere, Montserrat Caballé, Savonlinna, Leyla Gencer and Bellini international singing competitions during 2009 and 2010 and Placido Domingo’s Operalia Competition in 2012 not only introduced her to the world stage, but also won her a place at the Accademia Teatro La Scala. Here, among others, she studied with Italian soprano greats, Mirella Devia and Mirella Freni, who she says, taught her to “really know what I would like from my voice” and “made me realise what great hands I’ve been in during my career.”
When Australian conductor and pianist (and also husband of the late soprano Dame Joan Sutherland), Richard Bonynge worked with Yende on Lucia di Lammermoor in Cape Town two years ago, he praised both her beautiful voice and her ability to learn quickly. This was put this to the test when Yende was asked, with a few weeks notice, to step into the role of Countess Adele in Le Comte Ory opposite Juan Diego Florez at The Met last year.
After just 11 days rehearsal, Yende made her New York debut by taking a fall during a small pantomime sketch during the overture on opening night. Although she fell hard onto her hands and knees, she went on to perform with aplomb and received a loud standing ovation for her performance opposite Peruvian Juan Diego Flórez, who many consider the world’s best tenor.
This month, as she prepares with less haste for the role of Pamina in Die Zauberflöte at The Met and a solo recital at the Ubuntu: Music and Arts of South Africa at Carnegie Hall (also in New York and both events take place in October), Yende is more than a year older and an established professional who recently signed with Zemsky Green Artists Management, which represents several of the world’s leading opera singers. But she is, she insists, still the girl from Piet Retief whose dream it is to sing opera.
“Every inch of my soul resonates when I sing because I think that is my gift,” she says. “I can only give myself. And I thank God for the talent. And I thank God for the ears that listen.”
(First published in Business Day in September 2014.)
P.S. If you’d like to stay up-to-date with news about Ms Yende, you’ll find her official Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Pretty–Yende/121489077889343