Pretty Yende’s mission is to bring joy to the world. Whenever the conversation takes even the slightest negative turn, she pulls it back on track and continues explaining why opera and classical music are an important force for positive change.
In fact, Pretty’s personal ‘big issue’ is her foundation, launched in 2013, that facilitates classical music education for South African children. “I am so grateful for the platform I have on the world stage to reach as many people as possible. It is my dream to help children experience the joy of music and inspire natural talent. I would like each child to learn to play an instrument.”
She has taken off 30 minutes to talk to us during her rehearsal for the demanding role of Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, being staged at the Opera National de Paris. She is the first black performer to take on the role of Lucia at that venue and is in six performances.
When she speaks, her accent is a colourful mix of Zulu and Italian, but it is her singing voice that has entranced audiences and reviewers alike. After her recital debut at the Carnegie Hall in 2014, New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe summed up her appeal in this way: “A gracefulness that is decidedly divine seems to radiate from Ms Yende.”
Sounding totally self-possessed on the phone, Pretty says: “I did not grow up in an operatic culture, but my whole family is into music.” In her home town of Piet Retief in Mpumalanga, music was part of the fabric of life with choral singing a big feature. South Africa is “a singing nation” she once told The New York Times. “Music is something that we are born with. It’s like the African rhythm; it’s like a heartbeat. In Sunday school you will have to sing one song, and a little girl will start harmonising it. Just like that, just by hearing. It’s that kind of world.”
Born in 1985 in what she calls “a normal home”, her plans were to become an accountant. But she changed her mind when she saw a British Airways commercial on television and was struck by the sublime beauty of the soundtrack – “The Flower Duet” from Delibes’s opera Lakmé.
The 16-year-old decided then and there opera was her future. “I was so touched by the music; I wanted to be part of that world. God gave me the voice; the talent was there. I did not know that opera existed till then; those 10 seconds changed my life.”
She started participating in competitions and auditions that saw her receive scholarships to pay for her opera training at the University of Cape Town’s South African College of Music. Virginia Davids, the first black woman to appear on opera stages during the apartheid years in South Africa, took her under her wing.
“I graduated cum laude, therefore all my fees were sponsored. Then I had to think about how to get myself onto the international stage. It was important for me to participate in international audition tours and competitions.”
In 2009, she became the first artist in history to win first prize in every category in the international Belvedere singing competition in Vienna. In 2010, she won first prize at the Vincenzo Bellini International Competition and was accepted into the prestigious young artists’ programme at Milan’s La Scala opera house. She was only 24.
Graduating from Italy’s Accademia Teatro alla Scala in Milan, a world of opportunity opened up for her. In 2011, she took Moscow by storm, winning first prize at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, The World Opera Competition. In 2012, she continued blazing her way towards the great roles, playing Musetta in Puccini’s La Boheme at La Scala.
Her really big international breakthrough came in 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the role of Adèle in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. She was 27.
That may have made her vulnerable in some ways, but she realised early on that “opera is a business as well as a magnificent art form. I now have what I call the ‘Pretty Army’; a group of lawyers, vocal teacher, managers, friends and associates whom I call on to negotiate contracts and look after the business side.”
Now 31, Pretty recently visited South Africa to launch her debut album A Journey. On it she sings the Delibes aria that first drew her to opera and a selection of other arias that have served as milestones along her journey.
Currently she is mastering the ‘bel canto’ style required to fulfil her role as Lucia. “Bel canto is very challenging and the pinnacle of a soprano’s achievement,” she says. In part it means executing highly florid passages with consummate skill, using accent and emphasis to match the quality of the voice to the emotion of the lyrics.
But it’s not the first time she has played the tragic Scottish lass. In 2013, she performed the role at Artscape in Cape Town. A standing ovation after Act II inspired reviewer Esther Lim to compare her to the greatest divas of all time, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.
Looking back on that 2013 performance now, Pretty confesses: “I never saw myself doing Lucia, but I had the privilege to work on it with conductor Richard Bonynge, the husband of the late Joan Sutherland. The role seemed like a big job, but it got better every time I performed it. I am one of few performers to have the privilege of walking in the footsteps of the great exponents of the role, Sutherland and Callas.”
She does not single out one role as her favourite, but is learning to master each iconic role as she is given the privilege to perform the great operas.
“In the bel canto repertoire, I still want to master the lead female characters in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Elisabetta, a set of operas often referred to as the ‘Three Queens’. ”
However, she also looks forward to telling South African stories through opera when the time comes. “It would be great to sing in Zulu and composers have written indigenous works. However, I love learning different languages. The skill of an artist is to give honour to the intentions of the composer.”
Articulate and clearly a rigorous scholar, Pretty credits her parents for teaching her joy. She loves living in Europe and travelling to distant places, but her parents – “they are just a Skype call away” – are her emotional anchor. “My parents created a happy home and I will never lose the joy that they gave me as a child. My parents were great communicators and endowed me with emotional centredness. I am fortunate and blessed to have a supportive family where the values of humility and simplicity prevail,” she says.
“Artists receive so much praise and glory they can fall prey to vanity. I am blessed with parents who remind me I am just a human being and that all life matters.”
When asked about what issues keep her awake at night, she insists that “a good night’s sleep is a gift. I sleep soundly no matter how stressful the situation. For me to be free to express as an artist, I cannot carry fear, as it is poisonous to my spirit. Staying joyful is important for the voice and the person.”
And she has every reason to be.