Soprano Pretty Yende, who returned to the Metropolitan Opera last Monday as Pamina in The Magic Flute and who will give her Carnegie Hall recital debut this Monday night, has to continually pinch herself. “I have to keep reminding myself that I am the story, I am the dream!” she says, remembering a time during her studies in South Africa when she watched a performance by her Flute co-star René Pape on video and wished that one day she could sing on stage with him at the Met.
Yende’s story, which began in Piet Retief, a township in the timber-growing region of Mpumalanga, is peppered with magical elements that could have been dreamed up by Gabriel García Márquez if it weren’t for the irrepressibly joyful tone of the narrative.
Her idyllic childhood culminated in a Eureka moment when the then 16-year-old Yende, on track to become an accountant one day, heard a British Airways commercial featuring the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé. Thus began what she calls a “journey of music” that would take her first to Cape Town, then to Milan to study at La Scala’s Academy of Lyric Opera, then to the Met in January 2013 where she made her stunning debut in Le Comte Ory,replacing a sick Nino Machaidze as Adèle—a role she’d never sung—with just one month’s notice. She famously took a spill down the stairs during the first scene on opening night, only to laugh it off in the wings and return to deliver a performance that set off a chain reaction of ovations, rhapsodic reviews and frantic calls from booking agents.