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‘Things are happening at the exact tempo of my heartbeat,” says Pretty Yende, the 28-year-old acclaimed South African soprano who has stolen the hearts of the international opera world.
She is returning home next month for two concerts, one in Gauteng at the Teatro in Montecasino on November 14 and the other in Cape Town on Saturday, November 16 at Artscape (both at 8pm).
Yende knows her career seems to be moving at lightning speed. Some fear burn-out, but the pace makes her very happy. She is content to be returning home to feel the sun and the openness of her people.
For someone who only discovered opera at 16, she feels she has to grab every opportunity that comes her way.
Talking via Skype from Milan on Wednesday morning, she said she’s excited about returning home not only to perform and catch her breath but also to start building and growing her foundation. “I’m especially interested in small rural villages,” she says. “I want at least one child in every village to play an instrument. I know there’s lots of hidden talent out there.” Future dreams include art schools in every village.
Yende speaks from experience. She grew up in Piet Retief and sang her first solo in church at the age of five. But she only learnt about opera when she heard the Lakme duet playing as background music to a British Airways ad.
“My grandmother had planted the seed of music when I was very small and those beginnings were historic,” she explains with a nod to everything that’s happened since. But she didn’t know that opera existed and had to ask a teacher to explain what she had heard. “It’s strange, I know, because I watched movies and stuff but opera just didn’t register.”
She wasn’t sure this heavenly singing was humanly possible but when her teacher explained what it was, she knew she was put on this earth to sing. And more specifically to sing opera. “When I first heard those sounds, my soul knew I had found home,” she says.
Like her beginnings, the rest keeps unfolding like a fairytale. The Department of Education introduced opera to schools at that time and she entered a competition as a soloist singing the exact song that had first pricked her consciousness. She won and the money helped pay for her university studies.
Yende had to persuade her parents that music, rather than accountancy, was the way forward as she had been offered a scholarship from Wits University to take the business route. There was always singing in her family, both at home and in church, but they regarded it as a hobby. “I begged them to give me two years,” she says.
She graduated cum laude from the South African College of Music, at the University of Cape Town, with a Performer’s Diploma in Opera as well as her postgraduate studies in opera (performance) and started entering competitions.
“That was a way to make my way internationally,” she says. The competitions could get her noticed and, because she kept winning, she started paying her way.
She first came to international attention in 2010 when she was the first artist in the history of the Belvedere Competition to win first prize in every category.
In 2011, she was the first prizewinner of Placido Domingo’s Operalia Competition. Starting to rise like a meteor in this outrageously competitive world, she made her professional operatic debut at the National Theatre in Riga as Micaela in Carmen.
A 2011 graduate of the Young Artists Academia of the Teatro alla Scala, she made her debut with that company in 2010 as Berenice in Rossini’s L’Occasione fa il Ladro and has since also appeared as Norina in Don Pasquale and in the autumn of 2012 as Musetta in La Boheme.
She has since made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the notoriously closed opera circuit has flung open its doors to this African princess with a name that perfectly describes the bubbly young singer who is determinedly claiming her place on the world stage.
Talking about her personal life, Yende says she is happily single. To tune out she listens to gospel and jazz – classical music would be work. “Gospel to heal the soul and jazz to chill,” she says. She loves cooking because she enjoys food but she eats to stay healthy. “I’m aware that my lifestyle demands lots of energy so I eat well.”
She’s recently mastered Italian and is moving to Paris next year to tackle French. “I want to learn as much as I can,” she says. And it seems as quickly as possible. This is someone with a head and a heart that drives her. She has grown along with the foundation she started early in her career and which is now established. “I’m so privileged that I grew up in a free country. If it had been earlier, I wouldn’t have had all these opportunities,” she says.
With this in mind, she wants to spread the generosity that fuelled her life. “I want South Africa to sing!” Looking ahead, she says she wants to be president at 40. I’m not sure she’s joking.
Presented by Showtime Management, U-Live and Universal Music South Africa, the Yende recital includes Rossini, Bellini, Gounod, Bernstein (West Side Story), Balfe and Gimenez. Bookings at Computicket.
For further show information visit www.showtime.co.za