As a 16-year-old, Pretty Yende was sitting with her parents in their rural South African home watching TV when a British Airways ad came on. As the sweet music swelled and voices intertwined, Yende was mesmerized. The only problem: She had no idea what to call the beautiful music she’d just heard.
“So I went to my high-school teacher the following day and I asked him what it was, and he told me it’s called opera,” Yende explained to NPR last year. The commercial had played the duet from Delibes’ Lakmé. “If you have the talent, you can do it,” her teacher told her.
Yende learned quickly. Now, her sparkling debut album, A Journey, unfolds like a musical diary chronicling the 31-year-old soprano’s fairytale rise to fame. After her studies at the South African College of Music in Cape Town, the awards and debuts began piling up, many of which are reflected in the arias she sings in this recital.
The album opens with “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini‘s Barber of Seville, an opera that served as Yende’s Paris Opéra debut earlier this year. It’s a smart leadoff performance, introducing the voice’s many assets: creamy warmth, a focused vibrato, shimmering and easily placed top notes. She tosses off the aria’s pyrotechnical flourishes with élan while revealing the spunky character of Rosina.
The aforementioned Lakmé “Flower Duet,” with a winsome-voiced Kate Aldrich, is an obvious choice, as is the Bellini aria that follows. “Ma la sola, ohimè,” from Beatrice di Tenda, helped Yende earn three prizes at Plácido Domingo‘s Operalia Competition in 2011. Here, Yende spins a silky bel canto line, carefully adding tinges of sadness to music that sometimes sounds brighter than the solemn text.
Read the entire feature at NPR Music