On a recent cold and rainy afternoon, Pretty Yende sat on a couch in the press room of the Metropolitan Opera House, retracing the path that took her from a childhood in South Africa to her acclaimed Met debut last month. On Jan. 17 she received a raucous standing ovation from the audience after singing Adèle in Rossini’s “Comte Ory” opposite the star tenor Juan Diego Flórez. Now, dressed in leggings and boots and wearing rimless, flexible glasses that resisted her frequent attempts to fix them in place, Ms. Yende, a 27-year-old soprano, looked more like a graduate student than like a diva.
In the interview, this self-described “church girl” from Piet Retief, a timber- and paper-producing town near the border with Swaziland, was poised and quick to laugh, modest but quietly confident. She sings Adèle two more times at the Met, on Saturday and Tuesday. Since Ms. Yende’s debut, her phone has been ringing with offers from agents. So far, she said, she has turned them all down.
“This is my year to study,” she said. “It’s a Verdi and Wagner season, and I don’t have so much Verdi or Wagner.” Then she added, with a giggle, “ Yet.” She is studying the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” with the venerable bel canto singer Mariella Devia; Ms. Yende plans to move to Paris and learn to speak French.
“Prima la salute, poi la musica,” she said in accent-free Italian, which she learned over the past three years while studying at La Scala’s Academy of Lyric Opera in Milan: “Health first, music second.”
Ms. Yende said she needed courage to accept the Met’s offer to step in for Nino Machaidze, the soprano who had been scheduled to sing Adèle but fell ill. The call came a mere month before opening night, and because of communication delays and visa troubles, Ms. Yende had effectively just one week to learn the part.
“I had never heard the opera before,” she said. “So when I got the call, I said, how can I say yes? But when I looked at the score, I thought, ah. It’s not like a Susanna, where you have many recitatives. It’s ensemble work. And it’s beautiful music, which got into my ear quite quickly. I knew that I could do it, you see.”
What she couldn’t have foreseen was the manner in which she would make her first entrance: stumbling down a flight of steps after a brief pantomime appearance during the overture and falling hard on her hands and knees, to the gasps of audience members. But instead of shaking her up, she said, the fall helped release tension, as she saw its comic aspect.
“I thought, why am I laughing? I have a huge aria to sing, and now I’ve bruised myself. But I guess there had to be something that pulled the whole mind to one place. And it had to be the fall.”
Singing at the Met, she said, “takes a lot of courage, but also a lot of humility, because people come from all over the world just to hear you. God knows why; people are going through a lot of things. We have this gift of music, and to be able to share that takes a huge responsibility. And probably I had to be reminded that I am entering a zone where I am actually going to be carrying that responsibility, and I should just remember to keep my feet on the ground.”