Artist of the Year: Superb soprano Pretty Yende hits a high note

Artist of the Year: Superb soprano Pretty Yende hits a high note
South African soprano Pretty Yende. (Photo: Screengrab YouTube)

Pretty Yende is an artist at the height of her powers, crooning for no less than a king.

South African opera diva Pretty Yende topped off her performances around the world over the past several years by singing at the coronation of Britain’s new king, Charles III, heard globally via a live television broadcast.

Growing up in the small town of Piet Retief, KwaZulu-Natal, she says she began to think about the idea of studying opera when she was 16 years old, after hearing a TV commercial that featured the famous Flower Duet from Leo Delibes’ opera, Lakme. Pursuing that dream, she attended the University of Cape Town’s opera school under Virginia Davids, and then it was on to Milan, Italy, for three more years of study at the Accademia Teatro alla Scala. Along the way, she captured some of the premier international singing prizes for young opera singers, including the Hans Gabor Belvedere and Operalia competitions.

By the time she had sung the lead role in Massenet’s Manon for the Cape Town Opera, more than a decade ago (and witnessed by this writer), it was already clear she would become a musical force to be reckoned with. In fulfilling that early promise, in succeeding years, she has sung operatic roles in Britain, the US and Europe, including lauded performances in such venues as New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera and La Scala in Milan.

Choosing roles

In her career, she has carefully chosen the casting offers she has received, focusing on bel canto roles particularly suited to her soprano voice. A partial list includes Elvira in L’italiana in Algeri, the temple priestess in Aida, both Barbarina and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Musetta in La Bohème, Micaëla in Carmen, Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, Rosina in The Barber of Seville and Adina in L’elisir d’Amore. Additionally, she has performed and recorded concerts with Andrea Bocelli and solo recitals in such legendary venues as Carnegie Hall.

A decade ago, when she substituted on short notice for another singer who had a medical emergency, the New York Times’ opera critic wrote: “On Jan 17 she received a raucous standing ovation from the audience after singing Adèle in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory opposite the star tenor Juan Diego Flórez… Ms Yende said she needed courage to accept the Met’s offer to step in for Nino Machaidze, the soprano who had been scheduled to sing Adèle but fell ill.

“The call came a mere month before opening night, and because of communication delays and visa troubles, Ms Yende had effectively just one week to learn the part.”

Five years later, the Times described another stellar performance in New York City, this time in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, writing: “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…  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.”

Putting in the work

American opera conductor Kamal Khan, who often works in South Africa, wrote of Yende: “I think Pretty Yende has made a huge impact because of her willingness to do the hard work – learn the languages fluently, study the intricacies of agility and cantofiorito  … in short, do the opposite of ‘flash in the pan, easy attention getting’ roles.

“The number of ridiculous, premature and simply wrong offers she has turned down in the years I have known her, and during the period when I was advising her regularly, is extraordinary. She is an artist who knows her mind, and her success will only increase as she comes into her own and … insists on what has integrity to her.”

And Jeremy Silver, another foreign conductor who works and teaches in South Africa, summed up Yende’s success and impact on future musicians, writing: “Pretty Yende represents the first of a new generation of South African opera singers who have taken the world by storm. Her energy, charm and charisma, allied to her attention to detail and a formidable technique have endeared her to audiences far and wide.

“She also serves as a beacon to young, aspiring South African singers who understand that, if they apply her work ethic to their own talent, they could also have the possibility of a fulfilling, transformative career.”

2023 has been a standout year for Pretty Yende on the global concert and opera stage and beyond – and she fully deserves our selection of her as artist of the year. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Isolde Swanepoel says:

    Pretty Yende my favourite diva! Iove her voice and I am so proud of what she has attained on the stages of the world!

  • G. Strauss says:

    Pretty Yende is a phenomenal talent in the opera world, one of the finest voices, with an unbelievable range, in the opera world in a long time. She makes me proud to be South African. And kudos to the people who spotted and trained her voice to what she is today.
    I only wonder about her decision to sing at the coronation of an English monarch, considering their part in our bloody past. No one in this country or on this continent should bow to them. They are parasitic monsters.

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