Rushed over to New York as a last-minute replacement, Pretty Yende announced her debut at the city’s Metropolitan Opera by falling flat on her face. But by the time she’d finished singing, she had the audience on its feet, writes Nadia Neophytou
Falling down flat on your face is perhaps not the most graceful way to make an entrance on to one of the most acclaimed stages an opera singer can hold. Yet when Pretty Yende looks back on her life one day, the little stumble she took during her debut performance at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) in New York will surely be overshadowed by the applause and acclaim the 27-year-old soprano received – and the greater stride she made in her career as a soprano of world-class note.
In the intro of Le Comte Ory, a comic opera by Italian composer Rossini, Yende’s character, Countess Adele, comes out for a small pantomime sketch. It was in this part, as she walked out on to the stage, that the fall happened during the opening performance in January. Although the reviews couldn’t but mention it, there were a few other points they didn’t shy away from either: The New York Times highlighted the standing ovation the South African singer received, while the New York Post said she “may just be the Met’s next big star” and The Wall Street Journal lauded her “effervescent voice”.
At one of the Saturday performances, the whoops and bravos shouted out after her first aria reverberated around the beautiful walls of the Met, as Yende more than held her own next to the opera’s protagonist, Juan Diego Flórez.
Meeting the singer backstage after the show and seeing her dressed in jeans and a casual blue-and-green jersey, it becomes apparent just how far a cry she is from the diva she plays on stage. Her mother and sister – who have also expressed an interest in singing – have come from Mpumalanga to see her perform. Unlike Yende, it’s their first time in the Big Apple and they’re not used to the bitterly cold New York day. But the mood in the room where former students of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Yende’s alma mater, have gathered is jovial and warm.
It’s a gesture not lost on Yende, who thanks everyone individually for coming – from former medical students who are now well-known doctors in New York, to fellow singers from the UCT College of Music, where Yende spent from 2003 to 2007 completing an undergraduate degree, followed by a two-year postgraduate one.
She hugs one of the male singers she studied with, Musa Ngqungwana, who’s currently at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and they share a laugh about how they haven’t seen each other in four years.
It’s her training at UCT that Yende credits with helping her land here, within the hallowed halls of the Met.
Born in Piet Retief, a young Yende, after watching a British Airways advert with a snippet of opera in it, found a desire to sing and share her voice with the world.
And so far she’s doing a, er, pretty good job of it.
After UCT’s College of Music, she went on to La Scala’s young-artists programme, where she became fluent in Italian within six months and began focusing on Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini. While in Italy, Yende won the prestigious Operalia Competition, founded by one of The Three Tenors, Plácido Domingo, as well as a number of other awards and accolades.
In 2009 she won first prize in the Montserrat Caballé International Singing Competition in Barcelona, Spain. She had previously won all four sections of the Hans Gabor Belvedere International Singing Competition in Vienna, Austria, in twin categories: the Audience Prize, and Opera and Operetta.
This year, however, was meant to be strictly for studying. That is, until the Met Opera called, asking her to fill in for another singer, Nino Machaidze, who had dropped out of Le Comte Ory because she’d fallen ill.
“This has been one the most exciting challenges I’ve ever had to face,” she says. “And I’m very grateful to have had the courage and the drive to actually do it. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have been here today.”
Taking up the incredible opportunity was indeed a courageous move. She had only 11 days to learn the opera – as it was one she’d never sung before – and problems with visas and travel issues meant she also had little time to rehearse with the cast.
But you’d never have been able to tell had you been in the audience for any of her performances, says Peter Gelb, general manager for the Met.
“She did remarkably well,” he says. “Especially when you consider that she’d never starred in a major opera in a leading role. It’s nothing short of miraculous that she had this triumph.”
For Yende, it was a triumph she “enjoyed immensely”. She knows that in taking to the Met Opera, she shared the stage with illustrious opera singers like Renée Fleming.
“The realisation that it’s a historical stage and so many singers have been here, and that I get to share that at the age of 27, is such a blessing. I’m very grateful,” she adds.
Listening to the cheers of applause afterwards also became a rewarding affirmation of her path. “Oh, to feel the love and energy from the audience has been amazing; that they are also encouraging me, saying: ‘We understand, and we love the music’, is amazing.”
Yende isn’t the only South African to find an audience abroad. Last year, Mthetho Maphoyi sang at the TEDxTeen conference in New York City, and Bongiwe Nakani and Thesele Kemane,
also graduates of the UCT’s Opera School, sang at a special UN event honouring Nelson Mandela.
But Yende’s star looks set to shine brightest right now. Gelb says it won’t be long before Yende makes it back to the Met Opera. “Now that the audience has got to know her, and embraced her remarkable gift – her beautiful, silvery and exciting voice, and her natural stage instincts – they want her to come back.”
Yende has jetted off to Vienna to take part in another production of Le Comte Ory after word of her performance in New York spread.
Whatever comes next, and no matter how long she has to prepare for the next step in her career, there’s no doubt this young singer will take it all in her stride.
Even if she happens to fall again along the way.
» She is completing her training at the Accademia Teatro Alla Scala in Milan.
» European performances include Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo; Bizet’s Carmen; Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess; and La Bohème.
» In 2010, she debuted at Teatro Alla Scala as Berenice in Rossini’s L’occasione fa il Ladro and in Rossini’s Italiana, and in Le Nozze di Figaro.
» In 2011 she won Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition and performed in New York with Andrea Bocelli.
» She is a previous winner of the Belvedere International and the Prize La Siola D’oro.
» She is billed to perform as a recitalist at Wigmore Hall in London in June.
» Her concert repertoire Mozart and Brahms among others.
» She has taken masterclasses with opera heavyweights Montserrat Caballé, Renée Fleming, Raina Kabaivanska and Mariella Devia.