‘I Could Barely Sing a High C’: Pretty Yende Finally Conquers Lucia

“I think we are experiencing a big change,” she said. “The world might not see it. But the operatic world is really breaking this wall, and we have to thank the opera houses and casting directors.” - Pretty Yende

Feature: New York Times

When the soprano Pretty Yende was training in the young artist academy at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, coaches suggested she study the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“I thought they were crazy,” Ms. Yende said recently.

She had some good reasons: Her young voice was lusher and more velvety than most Lucias; the part’s florid coloratura was difficult for her; her upper range was insecure. “I could barely sing a high C,” she recalled.

But it was more than vocal reticence that gave Ms. Yende pause.

“I thought it was an impossible role for me,” she said during an interview at the Metropolitan Opera, where she sings Lucia through May 10 after triumphing in the part in Paris and Berlin. “I asked my teachers, ‘But who looks like me and sings this repertoire?’ ”

At 33, Ms. Yende has become one of the most accomplished and charismatic coloratura sopranos of her generation. Last season at the Met she appeared in three productions; her recent Met appearance as Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” will be broadcast nationally on PBS on April 29.

She will be the soloist in the Met Orchestra’s concert at Carnegie Hall on June 5, singing Mozart’s “Exsultate, jubilate” and the solo in the finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Next season she stars in “La Fille du Régiment” and “Les Pêcheurs de Perles.”

But when Ms. Yende was growing up in a Zulu-speaking home in South Africa, the daughter of a businessman and a primary schoolteacher, she was aware of few role models for a black girl who wanted to be an opera singer. As human beings, she explained, we are inspired by the “pictures” of life we see.

“I guess at the time I hadn’t seen so many on the world stage like me,” she said. Singers like Leontyne Price and Kathleen Battle had by then paved the way for black artists, but while growing up, Ms. Yende was essentially unaware of their existence in what seemed to her an almost all-white field.

While she had been a standout vocal soloist at church, she had originally planned on going to college to study accounting. But at 16, she saw a British Airlines commercial that used a few phrases of the gorgeous soprano-mezzo duet from Delibes’s “Lakmé.” She fell instantly in love, and went from music school in Cape Town to that formative training stint in Milan — where the great soprano Mirella Freni strongly advised her to explore the bel canto repertory — and a thriving international career.

It was during Ms. Yende’s performance in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” early last year that the extent of her gifts was fully obvious. Her singing was sweet (you believed she was a young woman smitten with a charming stranger) yet sassy (she knew she had to wriggle free of her overbearing guardian). Her voice was even throughout its range, and she tossed off dazzling passagework clearly. Her gleaming high notes suggested not a soprano showing off, but young Rosina coming into her own.

It didn’t hurt that she’s plainly beautiful, with an open face and radiant smile. In her culture, she explained, parents give their children names “to follow,” to “bring them luck.” (One of her brothers is named Prosper.)

As a teenager, Ms. Yende dreaded her name. “I didn’t feel I was pretty at all,” she said. But she came around. Her name is “delicate,” she said, with “so many subtleties” — suggestive of “wish and will,” sentiments that still guide her.

She showed up for “Lucia” at the Met this month with clear ideas about the opera and the inner strength of the character, a role closely associated with great divas like Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. To rescue her family from ruin, Lucia is bullied by her brother into marrying a wealthy lord rather than her beloved Edgardo, who comes from a rival family. Every aspect of Lucia’s being, Ms. Yende said, especially her consuming passion for Edgardo, is thwarted.

Within everyone who is unable to express their inner feelings is a “kind of hidden strength” that they hold onto like “a survival instinct,” Ms. Yende said. Lucia’s desperation culminates in one of the most challenging mad scenes in opera. Forced to marry a man she considers her oppressor, the unhinged Lucia stabs him to death on their wedding night. Ms. Yende sees even this harrowing act as evidence that Lucia “is clinging to a kind of willfulness” that she shows to the world through murder.

You sense Lucia’s tenaciousness coursing through Ms. Yende’s performance of the mad scene on her latest Sony recording, “Dreams”; even in the character’s delirium there is a chilling directness, even defiance, to her singing. And it was fascinating to watch her in the Met’s spartan basement rehearsal room during the first rehearsal for her five-performance run, a revival of Mary Zimmerman’s slightly updated 2007 production.

This was a run-through of Lucia’s first scene, accompanied only by piano. In fluent Italian — Ms. Yende lives in Milan — she discussed fine points of the music with the conductor, Roberto Abbado. But the main business was to go through the blocking with the singers — especially Ms. Yende, who had only seen the production years ago, when it played at La Scala.

At the start of the rehearsal, Sarah Ina Meyers, a stage director, explained Ms. Zimmerman’s concept while emphasizing that the production was designed to be “open to interpretation.” In Lucia’s first scene, she has come to the fountain in a park near her family’s castle, waiting surreptitiously for her lover. She tells her maid, Alisa, that she has seen the ghost of a young woman who was stabbed to death by a jealous lover at this very spot. In Ms. Zimmerman’s staging, a silent dancer appears as the ghost, seen only by the emotionally vulnerable Lucia.

It’s essential, Ms. Meyers said, for Lucia to “keep the fountain alive,” in a dramatic sense, during this scene. Ms. Yende vividly responded to the suggestion. She sang the long, winding phrases of the aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” her sound warm yet bright, both youthful and wracked with premonitions. But she kept glancing nervously at the fountain — represented in the rehearsal room by a few tossed-together chairs and boxes — hovering near it then stepping away, entranced yet fearful.

Later, Lucia moves into the defiantly animated aria “Quando rapito in estasi,” effusively anticipating the joy her lover — her light, her everything — will bring. Ms. Meyers gave Ms. Yende the staging choice of holding hands with Alisa and twirling her around, or just grabbing Alisa’s hand and sending her off spinning by herself.

The second option would make it easier to execute the coloratura roulades during this, well, ecstatic music, but Ms. Yende preferred for the two women to twirl together, like impish schoolgirls.

“I think it will help me release a bit,” she said. From the evidence of her confident singing — with clean runs, shapely phrases and, after all those worries early in her career, effortless notes above high C — she was right.

Ms. Yende’s success hasn’t pushed aside her questions concerning race and opera. For sure, she said, classical music institutions, music schools and universities have much work to do to recruit young artists who have been historically excluded from the art form. On the positive side, though, Ms. Yende said that both opera companies and audiences have mostly embraced colorblind casting.

“I think we are experiencing a big change,” she said. “The world might not see it. But the operatic world is really breaking this wall, and we have to thank the opera houses and casting directors.”

She mentioned that next year the Paris Opera will mount a new production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” directed by Simon Stone (“Yerma”), for her to sing Violetta for the first time.

“That is something historic,” she said. “A big change is happening.”

New York Times