Thirteen years ago the South African soprano Pretty Yende had never heard of opera. Since then, she’s trained at La Scala in Milan, won Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition and performed at the Metropolitan Opera with tenor Juan Diego Flórez. And it all started when she heard a few seconds of Delibes’s flower duet on a television advert…
Opera wasn’t something you grew up with. How did you become an opera singer?
I heard an ad on TV when I was at home with my family in 2001 and I heard this music – I didn’t know what it was because I had no experience of classical music. So I went to my high school teacher the following day and I asked what it was. He told me that it was called opera and I asked, ‘is it humanly possible?’ – it sounded supernatural to me! He said ‘of course’ and I said ‘I need to do that. Teach me how to do that.’ So he advised me to join a choir and I never looked back.
Eventually you went to Milan to study at the Accademia Teatro alla Scala…
Having grown up in South Africa, going to Italy was a really incredible experience. It was the hardest thing ever – I didn’t speak the language but it was a great opportunity because I got to interact with incredible artists like soprano Mirella Freni and baritone Renato Bruson. I learnt the language, the Italian way of singing and saw how passionate the Italians are with their music – and to be able to call La Scala my home is incredible, they’ve been a great support to me. I also learnt how to cook pasta!
In 2011 you won first prize at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition. How did that affect your career?
I’d been applying for Operalia for five years and they were not taking me. But I wanted to be in the competition because I knew this competition was special – it doesn’t feel like a competition because of having Domingo there. So in that fifth year – which was the year I decided not to apply any more – they took me. It was a very difficult time in my life because I was finishing the academy of La Scala and my grandmother had passed away, and Operalia was one experience that brought light. It pushed me to the next level.
It wasn’t long after that you were asked last minute to sing the role of Countess Adèle in Rossini’s little known opera Le Comte Ory at the Met – opposite Juan Diego Florez. What was that experience like?
It was amazing. It taught me more about the music but, what it was also about finding myself. I never knew I had the brains to learn a role like that in just seven days, I never knew I had the courage to stand next to Juan Diego Flórez in the Met and I never knew that even when I fell over on my first entrance I would be able to get up and sing as if I’d never fallen. I’m grateful to music for allowing me to know how much strength I have.
What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced so far?
I think the most challenging thing is to know that there is a difference between the way you look at the art as an artist and the outcome. I can never control how an audience can feel because they listen to it based on their experiences. It’s been hard for me to accept that I cannot make an audience see a role the way I see it and that’s life.
What do you think can be done to give more children from South Africa more opportunities to discover classical music?
I think we need to be big enough to inspire, which is why I’ve set up a foundation in the small town of Piet Retief where I grew up. I never knew that in just twelve years I could achieve what I did, but that leap of faith changed my life and all because I heard ten seconds of opera. In 2013 I gathered kids from in and around Piet Retief and they saw the orchestra for the first time live, I shared my story and I performed in my home town – in the very same hall I used to perform in before I went overseas. The dream is to have at least one child in every village in South Africa able to play an instrument or know about classical music.
Pretty Yende performs a programme of works by Rossini, Donizetti, Poulenc, Bizet and others at Cadogan Hall on 15 May at 7.30pm. Visit: www.cadoganhall.com
Photo: Kim Fox