SA opera singer Pretty Yende, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the last years, has hit new heights in a Paris production of La Traviata where the heroine is a social media influencer destroyed by the same society that propelled her to fame.
In the new Paris Opera version of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece, the heroine Violetta is an internet celebrity like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, with her own brand of perfume and millions of followers.
Yet her fame turns to despair and solitude as she is forced to abandon her love for Alfredo — and the smiling emoji faces turn to tears.
Greeted with a standing ovation on opening night, the 34-year-old Yende, who was born in Piet Retief, conquered the vocal demands of Violetta in the first time she has taken on the emblematic role.
‘The perfect Pretty on Instagram’
But she also proved an inspired choice to star in the typically bold production by the in-demand Australian theatre, film and opera director Simon Stone, knowing all too well the pleasures and pitfalls of social media.
In Stone’s production, Violetta is a social media star with 147-million Instagram followers who shower her posts with likes, and even has her own perfume brand named Villain.
She and her lover Alfredo (French tenor Benjamin Bernheim) communicate obsessively via their phones using WhatsApp, with a revolving square screen showing their abundant use of emojis and selfies.
“We are always told to show ourselves strong, and then we end up suffering alone,” Yende, herself a keen user of Instagram with over 30,000 followers, said as the production got under way.
“I refuse to keep quiet about what it means to do what we do. I started sharing things and most people were writing me saying ‘thank you for saying that because no one is saying what it takes’.”
She also took an open approach “because I was trying to save myself from ending up competing with the perfect Pretty Yende on Instagram”.
The soprano decided on an opera career after hearing Delibes’s Flower Duet on a television advertisement at home. She then won a coveted place at the La Scala Academy in Milan.
Yende, who has won acclaim for various roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and London’s Royal Opera House, said she was right to hold off until now before taking on Violetta.
“I feel I waited just enough. Because I’ve been offered the role many times. Many, many times. Like five years ago many people wanted to offer it to me but I knew I wasn’t ready.
“Not because I couldn’t sing it — I probably could have winged it — but it would have cost me.”
Yende insisted that the interactions on social media have helped rather than harmed her as she made the difficult transition from small-town SA to training at one of opera’s most austere institutions, and then stardom.
“I’ve had very difficult times: leaving South Africa, going to the academy of La Scala.
“I needed something that could inspire me. And so I started making quotes and sharing quotes on my Facebook and on my Instagram and people started saying, ‘Oh my God, I needed to hear that!’”
Yende lavished praise on Stone, saying that despite the challenges of his sold-out production, she could “immediately connect” with him.
The usual salon where Violetta throws a party in Act 1 is replaced by a nightclub where Violetta smokes and looks constantly at her phone.
Other scenes take place at a Paris kebab joint called “Paristanbul” and a coworking cafe.
“It’s been the most inspiring weeks of my entire ‘Pretty Journey’ — hashtag! — I have never been so inspired by a director before,” she said.
Despite some isolated boos and grumbling on social media about Stone’s update, reviewers praised the boldness of the production and in particular the quality of Yende’s singing.
“The director hits the mark by shifting Verdi’s masterpiece to the time of Instagram, WhatsApp and coworking spaces,” said online music review Revopera, describing the “freshness, brilliance and agility” of Yende’s singing as “sensational”.
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We meet one of the most sought-after sopranos on the planet. After appearing in major productions around the world, South African singer Pretty Yende is performing a modern, social-media infused version of La Traviata at Paris’s prestigious Opéra Garnier. She’s on a mission to make classical music more accessible to people from diverse backgrounds and bring opera into pop culture. She joins us in the studio to tell us more.
Also, French electronica institution M83 and American pop-punk legends Blink-182 prove they’re still going strong with new records.
When Pretty Yende made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013, it was the result of a last-minute change in casting that both delighted and worried the opera world. Replacing Nino Machaidze after she became ill, Yende learned the role of Adèle in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory in less than a month. Whereas casting for a Met season is usually announced more than six months in advance, this seemed, even to cautious optimists, like a potential set up for disappointment.
“I was given basically a month, but I learned it in a week,” Yende told Observer backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House in the final week of her performance as Marie in La Fille du Régiment. “I don’t know how. When I look back, I was like, ‘I didn’t know I could do that.’”
But Yende has a history of mastering new challenges quickly. Growing up in Piet Retief, South Africa, she was a lifelong singer but had not developed an interest in opera until she was 16 years old. She would reach the Met Opera stage by age 27, just a little more than a decade later, by immersing herself in intensive training. She graduated from the South African College of Music (where she studied under Virginia Davids, the first black woman to sing in operas in Apartheid South Africa), and the La Scala Theatre Academy. By the time Yende reached New York, she was on the heels of high praise from singing Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème at La Scala and arrived with a collection of first prizes in opera competitions across Europe.
“When you’ve been working very hard and you’ve been dreaming so much, when opportunity comes, you think this is the time I take the jump,” she told Observer, reflecting on her first Met performance. “And you hope that it’s the right chance because there’s always a risk in life, but calculated risks are always worth the shot.”
The risk paid off. Soon after her Met debut, Yende began taking on more lead roles, many of which confirmed her as the first black woman to sing the character on a Western stage, such as when she performed the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Paris Opera in 2016. She garnered international attention for breaking long-held barriers in the opera world and continues to speak about diversity in casting, but is ready for the public to focus on what she’s doing with her characters.
“Being the first black Lucia at Lincoln Center is huge for me. Being the first black Lucia in Paris is huge for me. Being the first black person to have a new production of La Traviata in Opera Garnier in Paris is huge for me,” Yende said. “But I think that’s not important. The important thing is that we have this art that allows us to partake in a universal language of love through the music. And I hope that we as artists, and the opera industry in general, are playing a big part in teaching the world equality when it comes to that.”
With much more time to prepare for her role as Marie in La Fille du Regiment, Yende has developed a booming personality on stage. While the coloratura Soprano could just as easily rely on her voice to convey Marie, Yende’s knack for physical comedy gives the opera a new vehicle for storytelling. Her movements command the entire stage, her voice consumes the entire room. Or, as her co-star Kathleen Turner described it, “Pretty is one of the cutest damn things I’ve ever seen, and then she opens her mouth and sings.”
Yende’s acting has turned the heads of many critics and even won over Turner, who plays Duchess of Krakenthorp. Despite Turner’s reluctance towards opera’s signature acting style, she sees crossover potential for this young powerhouse to take on new genres.
“What Pretty does is reveling,” Turner said. “Her physicality in the character, her tomboyishness and throwing herself around on a pile of laundry…it’s really quite wonderful. And for an opera [singer] she moves very naturally. Every note is perfect and you’re never going to get that kind of voice on Broadway.”
Yende hasn’t shied away from the idea of Hollywood and says screen acting “is not far off” in her dreams for the future. A move that Turner, a veteran Hollywood icon, thinks is a smart one.
“She’s got the right instincts for it,” Turner said.
After playing Marie in two separate productions of La Fille, Yende has set the bar for a bolder, more headstrong Marie, demanding more physical and vocal challenges from the role.
“It was not by chance that I did the specific variations for Marie,” Yende says of her approach. “They had to reflect her strength and power, but agree with what Donizetti had in mind. And the hardest part and the most defining moment, I think for me in the whole piece, is when she has to sing ‘Il faut partir’ after Tonio (Javier Camarena) has declared his love. For the very first time we see pain, which we’ve never seen before. She hasn’t cried before this. She’s been just exuberant, full of life and determined. This is one of the very first characters that I’ve played [where] I truly understood her emotional weight.
Yende credits much of her abilities as an actress to her training in South Africa, where her teachers encouraged mult-dimensionalism even when it meant absorbing the feelings, experiences, even trauma of the character.
“One of my mentors in South Africa told me you’re going to have to learn to separate yourself from their emotional journeys, so that you don’t take them home. And I didn’t understand that. I was like, ‘What is he talking about? We’re just acting on stage.’ And then suddenly I play a role and I get home and I had a standing ovation. I had a fantastic night. Everything’s going well and yet I’m not feeling good. What’s up with that? It’s because we truly do carry their spirit.”
The emotional performance (and yes, La Fille is a comedy, but as Yende maintains, “Marie doesn’t know that”) rests on Yende’s own willingness to be vulnerable, especially to the public. She’s known for often sharing her personal insecurities with the press, a habit she formed early because she felt it was important to show young people it’s okay to make mistakes.
“I’m more happy than before to actually admit my insecurities because I think we get trapped into all this glory and this perfection,” she explained.
Yende’s devout Instagram following takes part in the conversations when she reports live from rehearsal life or shares several encouraging messages each day. “Your scars are someone else’s hope” and other sentiments line her social profile, addressing bluntly how perfection isn’t real but self-doubt, even with all of her accolades, still very much exists.
“I have recently started to truly not be afraid to actually talk about it on interviews,” Yende said. “I am still that timid girl who is afraid, but I’ve learned ways to handle that fear. I’m learning to accept the weight of what we do emotionally and spiritually, because we carry these characters’ emotional journeys. We actually host their emotions, so it’s not just a lightweight career. It’s deep. And so now more than ever I try to talk about it.”
It’s then that Yende points to a recent issue of Opera News in which she’s the cover girl, sitting on her throne in a royal purple gown. “That’s not me,” Yende says, pointing to her picture. “When you look at this picture,” she says while holding the magazine, “and you look at me and what I’ve been through, this woman on the cover does not cover the depth of what it truly takes. I’m not exempt for things like discouragement, rejection—self-rejection included— disappointment or sacrifice. Both are of value, but you can’t have her without me.”
This year, Yende is nominated for an International Opera Award for Best Female Singer. And with an upcoming third album coming with Sony and thousands of social media followers, it’s likely she’s destined for crossover stardom—with or without Hollywood—like the Pavarottis and Renee Flemings that came before her. But what stands out most is her resistance to diva imagery, citing her empathy as the vehicle for her acting, befriending the characters and taking on their strife.
“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t acknowledge my insecurities,” she said. “Empathy and humanness in what we do is too important. Marie helped me remember that.”
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It is a brief, charming moment — and subtle enough that some audience members may miss it. But it speaks loudly as a symbol: the distinctive clicks of Zulu, the African language, echoing from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
It comes during Donizetti’s comedy “La Fille du Régiment.” Pretty Yende, the bel canto soprano singing the title role — Marie, an orphan raised by an army regiment — ad-libs a brief spoken monologue as her character gives vent to overwhelming, conflicting emotions of love and frustration as she deals with laundry and peels potatoes.
In this production, by the director Laurent Pelly, the moment has always been an opportunity for singers to depart from the French libretto in a rush of words and sounds, flights of verbiage that leave subtitles in the dust. When Ms. Yende, 33, made the part her own in the current revival, she decided to incorporate Zulu, which she grew up speaking in South Africa.
As the broader field of classical music lags in diversity — and as opera companies have sometimes struggled to preserve what is great about works like “Aida,” “Otello,” “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot” while jettisoning their outdated, often offensive portrayals of non-European cultures — it sends a powerful message.
Could tell me a little bit about how this came about?
It started in one of the rehearsals, when I was doing the debut in Seville, Spain — instinctively, because it’s not scripted. I couldn’t find the vocabulary for what I truly wanted to say, that emotional part of Marie. And so I just started speaking Zulu.
The whole room, they were like, “We weren’t expecting that!” I wasn’t expecting it, either, but somehow, emotionally, I went that route. I didn’t want to plan it, because it’s one part in the show where she doesn’t know what she’s saying. She’s in so many emotional states. She’s in love, and she’s afraid, and she wants everything. And so when I started doing it in Zulu, the director was then like: “That’s interesting. It actually works. Do you want to keep it?” I was like, “Sure!”
What are you saying? It happens just after the man you love visits you at the regiment and is dragged off.
Well it’s different every night. The rough translation is: “Oh, my goodness, I really wanted to kiss him more, but what can I do? I have to work, now he’s gone! O.K., fine, I have to do what I need to do. This doesn’t have to be here, it has to be here! So that I can work properly. And then, of course, what can one do? It’s the military: left, right, left, right!”
But one thing that you probably heard was the clicks when I say “ingqondo,” which is “mind.”
What does it feel like to be able to speak Zulu at the Met?
It feels so wonderful because I never thought of having this kind of possibility to be able to literally have a piece of my true self onstage. We embody these characters, and we go through their emotional journeys. And we are somewhat restricted to their texts, and the music of course, and sometimes the production as well.
But somehow this production has allowed me this incredible privilege to actually show literally that a part of me is in the music, too. Saying that this is Pretty, and she’s playing Marie. And these two human beings are meeting together to express a common human emotional state. Because I, too, when I am crushing on a boy, don’t have words sometimes. That happens; it’s a human experience, which is truly wonderful.
When you were studying in Cape Town, were there Zulu operas that you sang?
No, unfortunately not. Composers have just recently started to really show interest in composing South African stories and operas. So who knows? Maybe next time at the Metropolitan Opera I wouldn’t have to improvise — it would actually be written down.
It seems like the South African opera scene is growing, with singers like you and the bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana and the soprano Golda Schultz, who is currently in the Met’s “Falstaff,” appearing around the world.
There’s incredible talent in my country, and if you think I’m the only one that can do what I do, it’s a big mistake. You’ll find 10, 20 people able to do that. The beauty is that each and every person, of course, they have their own unique gifts and the way they use it. But as far as talent is concerned, and opportunities — especially when it comes to black artists — it has really enhanced them and made them believe that they too can be able to express themselves this way. Because many others, before Mandela was released, were never given that opportunity.
So we are just enjoying this time. And the operatic world has truly opened its doors for us. In a sense, I think that music, as we’re dealing with harmony, is teaching the world that truly there shouldn’t be barriers. We can live in harmony and express our humanness together, through the arts.
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Over the past six years Pretty has become a force to be reckoned on stages across the world and has also scooped several awards in this time.
Last Thursday marked six years to the day Pretty made her debut and she took a trip down memory lane.
“17 January 2013… it’s a memory that truly defined many that have followed ever since. Grateful beyond words for all the opportunities and challenges that continues to contribute in giving life to the #prettyjourney.”
Pretty reflected on a post she shared on the night of her debut, explaining that when she was put on stage at the last minute as a replacement, she felt like she “didn’t belong”.
To add to the feelings of self-doubt she fell on stage even before she started singing.
“I fell (literally, on my knees) that night without having sung even one note…I fell forward!… picked myself up and sang my heart out. Why I fell? How? I don’t know all I remember was the feeling of ‘not belonging’ as I was ‘a replacement’. A last minute, unknown young South African singer and not the ‘star’ they (the audience) had booked for months to see.”
Pretty said she had to quickly get those thoughts out of her head and once she started singing they “vanished into thin air”.
Fast forward to 2019 and Pretty is currently preparing for her Paris debut.
“I can never find more appropriate word to express how privileged and grateful I am to music… it continues to pick me up every time & I get the honor of sharing it with the world.”
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La soprano sudafricana Pretty Yende ha agradecido desde Barcelona a la cantante Montserrat Caballé –fallecida este sábado– la ayuda en su carrera musical: “Acabo de saber la muerte de esta alma hermosa y esta leyenda”.
Lo ha dicho en un tuit recogido por Europa Press y que ha publicado a la mañana siguiente de coprotagonizar con Javier Camarena la apertura de la temporada del Gran Teatre del Liceu, con ‘I Puritani’.
“Mi más profundo pésame a toda la familia Caballé, que ha sido una gran ayuda en el desarrollo de mi carrera”, ha añadido.
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El Gran Teatre del Liceu obre oficialment la seva temporada aquest divendres 5 d’octubre amb I puritani de Bellini, obra cabdal del bel canto italià i que Vincenzo Bellini va escriure amb només 33 anys, poc abans de morir.
Aquest títol estarà en cartell durant tot el mes d’octubre, en deu funcions en què s’alternaran com a parelles protagonistes el tenor Javier Camarena i la soprano Pretty Yende i els espanyols Celso Albelo i Maria José Moreno, en els rols d’Arturo i Elvira.
Dijous 4 d’octubre tindrà lloc una preestrena especial dedicada als joves menors de 35 anys, amb preus especials, que va esgotar les entrades en poques hores.
Un dels problemes que presenta als nostres dies la recuperació d’òperes romàntiques és el caràcter inversemblant d’una gran part de les seves trames, les quals sovint poden resultar fins i tot absurdes. La directora d’escena irlandesa Annilese Miskimmon, que debuta al Gran Teatre del Liceu amb aquesta coproducció de la Welsh National Opera, la Danish National Opera i el Gran Teatre del Liceu que ja s’ha estrenat prèviament als altres teatres, és molt conscient d’aquesta realitat. Per això, en enfrontar-se a la dificultat d’explicar la tràgica història d’amor entre Arturo i Elvira, que acaba amb la bogeria d’ella, si bé excepcionalment aquesta es recupera del seu mal al final de l’òpera, tot fent encara més inversemblant la trama, Miskimmon va buscar un paral·lelisme històric que facilités la comprensió d’aquesta història als nostres dies.
L’acció principal d’I puritani es centra en la trama amorosa que explica l’amor d’Elvira i Arturo: ella pertanyent al corrent calvinista dels protestants, seguidors del republicà Oliver Cromwell; ell un catòlic que es veu obligat a ocultar la reina vídua de Carles I per evitar-ne la captura a mans dels puritans. La fatalitat vol que Riccardo, purità enamorat d’Elvira, enganyi la jove amb una falsa acusació de traïció en l’amor per part d’Arturo, i això fa que ella esdevingui boja.
Per facilitar-ne la comprensió i, sobretot, la complicitat del públic amb la tragèdia que viuen els protagonistes, Annilese Miskimmon estableix un paral·lelisme entre els fets narrats a l’òpera, en temps de la guerra civil anglesa al segle XVII, i el clima de conflicte present encara en ple segle XX entre protestants i catòlics, accentuat per l’actuació de grups paramilitars (IRA) partidaris de l’escissió del Regne Unit a favor d’una república independent d’Irlanda.
Miskimmon crea així dos arguments paral·lels i similars que tenen lloc en dos plans diferents: l’un a la Irlanda del Nord al segle XX, en escena; l’altre, al cap embogit d’Elvira, que reviu la trama dels enamorats en temps de la guerra civil anglesa el 1653, en què Bellini situa la narració original.
L’acció comença a Irlanda del Nord l’any 1973. Elvira, una jove protestant, estima Arturo, un jove catòlic. L’entorn social d’Elvira, pertanyent a l’orde d’Orange –una organització protestant extremista– es prepara per a la marxa anual en honor de la memòria del líder protestant anglès Oliver Cromwell. Riccardo, líder de l’orde, és el promès destinat a Elvira, malgrat que ella estima Arturo, el qual la correspon. Les diferències religioses i el conflicte obert entre els defensors d’una república independent d’Anglaterra i els unionistes fan impossible que es materialitzi l’amor entre la parella. L’estrès causat per aquesta situació fa embogir Elvira, la qual comença a delirar. En el seu deliri, el seu entorn es transforma en l’ambient calvinista del segle XVII: els membres de l’orde d’Orange apareixen caracteritzats de calvinistes i Arturo, el seu enamorat, ha de salvar la reina vídua de Carles I, que ha estat decapitat pels partidaris de Cromwell i de la república protestant. Enganyada per Riccardo, Elvira en el seu deliri se sent traïda per Arturo, però el retorn a la realitat la fa ser conscient que Arturo li és fidel i li diu que la separació de tres mesos que han hagut de suportar li ha semblat com si hagués estat de tre secoli –tres segles en italià–, els tres segles que separen el món mental d’Elvira del real. Aquesta és la connexió principal amb el nou pla interpretatiu que estableix la directora irlandesa. Miskimmon veu en I puritani un exemple claríssim de com un conflicte esdevingut fa tres-cents anys es perpetua en el temps pel fet de pertànyer a l’imaginari col·lectiu d’una comunitat. La dramaturga irlandesa es basa en el seu propi relat personal, ja que ella és fruit de l’amor entre un protestant i una catòlica, els seus avis, que van desafiar el seu temps i la tradició per amor. La seva intenció amb aquest relat és recordar la fortuna que suposa el fet de viure en una societat on l’amor entre dues persones és possible al marge del seu origen i les seves creences; un fet que, desafortunadament, en altres temps i circumstàncies ha desembocat reiterades vegades en conflictes, fins i tot dins d’una mateixa comunitat.
Les millors veus del moment per al repertori belcantista, al Liceu
La proposta musical d’I puritani presenta dues parelles vocals de primer nivell per als papers protagonistes, començant per la formada pel tenor mexicà Javier Camarena i la soprano sud-africana Pretty Yende, que ja han interpretat conjuntament aquesta òpera amb gran èxit de crítica a la Metropolitan Opera House de Nova York. El càsting alternatiu està format pel tenor canari Celso Albelo i per la soprano granadina María José Moreno, dos dels cantants espanyols amb una carrera internacional més consolidada.
La principal dificultat d’aquesta òpera, per a les sopranos, tal com Pretty Yende i María José Moreno van explicar en roda de premsa, radica en el paper que Elvira ha de fer en aquesta producció, en què la dicotomia entre el que és real i el que és fruit de la imaginació d’ella mateixa és més accentuat visualment al llarg de tota l’òpera. Això, sumat a les dificultats intrínseques del paper musical d’Elvira, que conté més d’un número de virtuosisme vocal, fan d’aquest un dels papers més compromesos per a les sopranos coloratura.
Per als tenors Javier Camarena i Celso Albelo, el paper d’Arturo representa la seva lluita contra la tradició de l’execució de totes les notes sobreagudes escrites a la partitura, que releguen a un absurd segon terme tot el compromís vocal que aquesta òpera implica per al tenor durant tota l’obra, en què es demana una línia de cant i una elegància i expressivitat d’extrema dificultat. L’atractiu per les notes sobreagudes que té escrites aquesta òpera, particularment el Fa 4 per sobre del Do de pit, prové dels gustos de l’època en què va ser escrita i, sobretot, del fet que Bellini va escriure aquest paper per a la veu de Giovanni Battista Rubini, famós cantant del segle XIX.
El cast d’I puritani es completa amb les veus de Mariusz Kwiecien i Andrei Kymach com a Riccardo, Mario Mimica i Nicola Ulivieri com a Giorgio, Lidia Vinyes-Curtis com a Enrichetta di Francia i Emmanuel Faraldo com a Bruno Robertson. L’Orquestra i Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu actuaran sota l’experta batuta en el repertori belcantista de Christopher Franklin.
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