Pretty Yende knows how to make an entrance. The first time British audiences heard the South African soprano’s voice it was in the very first notes of Porgy and Bess, singing a gorgeously rich and soulful Summertime in Cape Town Opera’s production, which travelled to Cardiff and London in 2009. A few months earlier I had been given a sneak preview, hearing the same voice give full cry to Gershwin’s lullaby in a muggy rehearsal studio in Cape Town. I met her for the first time after that rehearsal. In ten years, Yende told me matter of factly, the 23-year-old saw herself “singing in the biggest opera houses in the world”.
“I said that?” Yende, now 33, seems momentarily outraged at her chutzpah. She is sitting in a conference room backstage at the Bastille, the hulking 1980s theatre that is the home of the Opéra National de Paris, where she is starring in Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. “I didn’t say that I dreamt it?” She chews it over a bit more. “All I know is that my hopes have always been positive. When I reach some goals they inspire me to go further.”
In the end it took a lot less than ten years for Yende, who last night won the Readers Award at the International Opera Awards in London, to reach the world’s top stages. In 2013 she made another spectacular entrance — though less than seamless — when she jumped in as a replacement in Rossini’s comedy Le Comte Ory for her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in January 2013. Before she’d even sung a note she tripped on a flight of steps and fell flat on her face.
It was a “wake-up call” to her own sense of impending panic. “I felt so nervous and out of place. I’d just learnt the opera in seven days. It was with Juan Diego Flórez. At the Met. So I was in the wrong psychological space. And for me to get the focus . . . it had to be WHAM. The ground.” She picked herself up and opened her mouth. “I could hear everyone’s heartbeat. It was so silent. But I was up, I sang and it was incredible.” Last year she sang an unprecedented three productions at the Met during the spring — Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and (as another emergency substitute) Bellini’s I Puritani — before making her Covent Garden debut in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. “She has everything,” Anna Picard wrote in The Times of her performance.
Yende likes to think spiritually — her tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts often reference her “journey” (sorry, her #PrettyJourney), but it’s an odyssey worth recounting. She grew up, the eldest of four children (her sister Nombulelo is training as an opera singer too), in Piet Retief in Mpumalanga, a remote eastern province of South Africa. She sang in church or on the way to church (a four-mile hike). “Gospel music . . . hymns at home every supper,” Yende remembers. She wasn’t a totally pious teenager — there was also r’n’b, “but the old r’n’b,” she clarifies. However, the turning point was seeing a TV advert for British Airways. Most of us try to forget the Big Tune, aka Delibes’s Flower Duet from Lakmé. It’s fair to say that it changed Yende’s life.
“I just wanted to know what it was. I didn’t know it was humanly possible to sound like that, it really sounded that foreign to me. So when my high school teacher told me about it, that it has a name, it’s called opera and, yes, it’s humanly possible, I said, ‘Teach me how to do that.’ ”
She was lucky. Not super-lucky. Her school didn’t have an orchestra — it didn’t even have a piano — and there wasn’t an opera company for hundreds of miles. However, in 2001, on a mission to broaden access to art forms previously confined to white South Africans, opera had been introduced into music curriculums. The first piece of opera that Yende sang was the Flower Duet, “but in English, because I went to a community school and you couldn’t learn French”.
The first time she sang with an orchestra was at the inter-provincial competition where Yende represented her school and state. “We were booed on stage because we came from ‘the province that can’t sing’. They looked down on us.” Other competitors had even turned up with costumes borrowed from local opera companies, while Yende and her schoolmates just wore their best frocks. “I’d never been as terrified in my life and I decided I would never again be as terrified on stage.”
The next year she won the soprano solo category, which was her passport to music college in Cape Town, more than 1,000 miles away. Her father, a taxi driver (her mother is a teacher), insisted on driving her. “It was 18 hours, I’d never been away from home. We drove the whole night.” On arriving at Cape Town’s South African College of Music she realised how much she had to learn. “I didn’t know my ‘Do’ from my ‘Re’.”
Her headmaster had once pleaded with his top pupil (another first, a girl had never taken that prize) to consider accountancy rather than opera. Her thrifty instincts helped her when she was coming to the end of her studies and plotting her next career moves. In the opera world that meant Europe. “I was seeing most of my colleagues not pursuing their careers internationally and I wondered why — because they had all the tools and the talent. I realised it was financial constraints. I thought, ‘How can I get myself out there without breaking the bank account of all those rich people in South Africa who usually support artists?’ — so I decided that maybe if I entered the big competitions and only asked for one return ticket then I could do almost an entire world audition.” The gamble worked. “It sort of ended up with me winning all of them,” Yende says, in a kind of sorry-not-sorry way. She was the first artist to win the first prize in every category in the Belvedere competition in Vienna and went on to win first prize in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition.
Joining the La Scala Academy of young artists and being mentored by the retired soprano Mirella Freni, who had a famously long and carefully nurtured career, protected her from some of the dangerous job offers that came flooding in. “Mostly because of the colour of the skin. They were like, ‘Oh, your voice is too big, what can you sing . . . maybe Aida? No, you’re too young — maybe Porgy and Bess.” Gusts of laughter. “So I’m grateful to Mirella Freni because she advised me the way she made her career.”
That meant focusing, as Yende still does, on the bel-canto repertoire of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, requiring utmost technical discipline, pure legato phrasing and plenty of agility. “She said that will teach you about your instrument, teach you about your breath.”
It will be her bedrock when she does move on to bigger repertoire. And yes, Aida is on the list. The trailblazing black American soprano Leontyne Price called it “my warrior part, my heartbeat”. Yende acknowledges the influence. “When you look at opera singers who look like you, of course you aspire to do what they do.” Her first Verdi, however, will be as Violetta in a new Traviata for Paris next year. “I’ve waited for this. Not just because of the vocal line, but because Violetta is a woman, and so different from the girls that I’ve sung.”
After the dismantling of apartheid there was a boom in black operatic talent from South Africa. “It was there all along,” Yende says. “When I look back I realise that there were many people who were much worthier than me, but the opportunity was not given to them. I honour that and carry that with me.”
She is depressed, however, by the lack of support given in South Africa now to encourage wider access. “The country doesn’t acknowledge the arts as much as they could. The government doesn’t realise how much South Africans are contributing to the world of opera.”
On the country’s prospects more generally she is more circumspect. Her uncle was recently murdered in a robbery, which she says has shaken the entire family. “Injustice is always there,” she says, but she focuses on the role that arts can play “where I’m not able to take sides”. On a more positive note she’s also hoping that her school choir could collaborate in a future opera recording. They do at least have a piano now.
Piet Retief is still her home, although she also has a flat in Milan. (She is “happily single”, she adds.) It’s there that most of the band of supporters she calls her “Pretty Army” are based. Her parents may not be opera buffs, but they are still the people whose advice she values most. When she comes back home, what’s the most ordinary thing she likes to do? “Cleaning,” she says, beaming. What? Dusting? Hoovering? Sink unblocking? Enthusiastic nods. “Like I used to do when I was in high school. Just cleaning my home.” At least her latest gong will be kept spotless and shiny on the mantelpiece.
Pretty Yende’s latest album, Dreams, is out now on Sony Classical. She sings in Benvenuto Cellini at the Opéra National de Paris to April 14 (operadeparis.fr)