In just 10 years, she has conquered a career in classical music that would usually take a lifetime. South African opera star PRETTY YENDE shares her inspirational story … from growing up in Mkhondo to conquering New York, and her dreams beyond that.
Pretty Yende is magnetic. I’m instantly drawn to her when we meet for the first time on a freezing day in New York City, where she’s being prepped for the cover shoot and the city that Yende calls “home for now”. She is charming, polite, calm and as her name would indicate, beautiful. At the young age of 33, Pretty is also one of classical music’s brightest stars.
The South African opera singer is currently playing the part of Marie in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which opened in February to rave reviews. “Most of the girls I’ve been playing are not happy; this one is at least closer to me! She’s raised with freedom and love. She’s celebrated – I feel very close to her.”
Pretty grew up in what she describes as a truly happy home. It not only grounded her but provided the confidence to dream big. Born in the town of Mkhondo, her mother was a primary school teacher and her father a businessman: “I was always happy at home and never knew hardship. I knew my father would do anything for me and that my mom was always there. I had so much warmth, love and protection growing up – that is what anchors me and I’m so lucky to still have all that.”
This family love and support is what gave her the courage to leave South Africa in 2009 and follow her dream of pursuing opera. She had been singing solo in her church choir and at the age of 16 she saw an airline TV commercial that featured the soprano-mezzo duet from Delibes’s Lakmé. It wasn’t just the ad’s music that inspired her, but the images changed her view of the world too. She wanted to dream big and see the world. For Pretty, her God-given voice was bigger than her and something she wanted to share.
“I grew up in a sharing community, I wanted people to feel what I felt and I needed to share this.”
And so her plans to study accounting changed. Instead she took up music studies at the University of Cape Town and was subsequently invited to continue her studies in opera at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan – the first-ever black student to do so. While Yende isn’t the first black woman to grace illustrious opera stages – she stands on the shoulders of African Americans Leontyne Price and Kathleen Battle – she is the first South African and her rise to fame is unprecedented. In just 10 years, she has conquered a career in classical music that would usually take a lifetime.
Her soprano voice, hard work and tenacity has seen her playing the leading characters in operas such as Carmen, Lucia di Lammermoor, Roméo et Juliette and Don Pasquale performed in the most famed theatres including the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, Opera National de Paris, Metropolitan Opera in New York, Milan’s Teatro all Scalla, Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Liceu Opera Barcelona. Pretty’s on-stage charisma is enchanting, her voice is entrancing and her megawatt smile illuminates even the darkest seat at the back of the opera house. It’s her deeper ability to empathise with the characters she plays, though, that makes her so captivating to watch.
Like any rise-to-fame story, there have been some challenges, and her initial move to Milan was the hardest. “I couldn’t speak, hear, see, taste or feel anything that I knew. My language, my food, my home, my climate – everything was different. That was hard but my family was there to remind me that I was the one who said I would go and see the world.” She still counts on her family and her Christian faith as her biggest support system, and finds comfort in the knowledge that home is always there. “I love that when I go home – I can still be me. I miss the normal life of just being a girl who goes to church”.
THE HERE AND NOW
Fast forward 10 years and Pretty not only speaks her native languages of Zulu, English, Xhosa and Swati, but is fluent in Italian and French, and can understand German and Spanish. “I can thank my musical ear as I can hear the sounds. I love to express myself and being South African with access to so much diversity, I am open to many languages.”
As a freelance artist, she calls herself a gypsy girl, only settling in one place for a few months – something she admits can be hard and sometimes draining. New York and Paris are her favourite cities. She’s now excitedly considering putting down more roots in the Big Apple. “I’m thinking of buying something. The Tribeca area would be my first choice – I love the apartments there and the area is so vibey.” When she’s not performing or rehearsing, Pretty loves spending time in New York’s many museums or hanging out with friends. “I love all the museums. These cultural visits are opportunities to expose myself to everything, keeping an open mind and constantly learning.”
Pretty’s schedule is intense though and she’s mostly either at the theatre or at home. Cooking is another love and one of the ways she switches off. Pretty prepares and cooks most of her meals and even travels with her own spices from home to remind her of the aromas that she misses. New York may be known for its plethora of cuisine options, but there are still a few things you can’t find. “My craving for South African foods such as tripe, beans, pap and a braai never goes away!”
When the conversation turns to the future, it’s not surprising that Pretty knows exactly what she wants. Just as she is on stage, she is deliberate and mindful about what lies ahead. Her dream is to get to Hollywood and try her hand at acting. In La Fille du Régiment, she shares the stage with Kathleen Turner and has spent time with the Golden Globe award-winning actor, talking about her next steps. “I’ve always felt that opera isn’t that far off from what filmmaking does, which is tell stories. It’s just that we sing the story. I’ve always been interested in acting and opera allows me to do that. I feel there shouldn’t be a divide between what we are doing in the arts, be that in music, opera or films – they can be interconnected.”
There have been a few enquiries to tell her story with actresses such as Kerry Washington, but Pretty wants the opportunity to tell the story herself: “The story of the girl with the impossible dream, the girl with the gift. To tell the human story; that I dreamt and took the leap of faith and now I’m living the dream.”
Later this year, Pretty will achieve another milestone – she will be the first black woman to play Verdi’s iconic heroine, Violetta in La Traviata to be performed at the Opera National de Paris. After spending a day with Pretty, absorbing her passion, warmth and enthusiasm, and watching her move effortlessly in front of the camera in the sub-zero temperatures for the shoot you see here and on the cover, there is no doubt that this South African superstar and her big dreams have a bright future.
MY NEW YORK
Pretty Yende’s recommendations of where to go if you’re in the Big Apple.
CENTRAL PARK Everyone should walk it. It’s where I exercise, walk and run.
LE PAIN QUOTIDIEN A wonderful bakery and coffee shop. lepainquotidien.com
JOE AND THE JUICE Great juices and good coffee. joejuice.com
SYLVIA’S RESTAURANT This community favourite serves African-American soul food. sylviasrestaurant.com
RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE They make one of my favourite steaks. ruthschris.com
LANDMARC A lovely French-Italian bistro in the Time Warner Building. landmarc-restaurant.com
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM With one of the world’s largest and finest art collections, the Met is a unbelievable. metmuseum.org
LINCOLN CENTER One of the cornerstones of New York’s culture and a must-see. The fountain is beautiful. lincolncenter.org
MEXICAN FESTIVAL RESTAURANT Authentic Mexican cuisine and wonderful music on Fridays. mexicanfestivalrestaurant.com
FIND Pretty online
WORDS Sam Growdon