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Meet the SA singer who is now an international opera star

2016-09-04 09:58
Pretty Yende
Pretty Yende. (Picture: AP)

Cape Town - When Pretty Yende started studying opera at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, she would leave her Skype app open to hear the sounds of her family back home in Piet Retief, Mpumalanga.

While learning to speak fluent Italian in a few months, it was her mother’s bean stew with bones that she missed the most.

"It was hard when I arrived in Milan. It was September and dark," she recalls.

"I had to be reminded of my ambitions by my dad. He told me: ‘You said you would take on the world. Now do that: live. You are not coming home; this is your new journey.’"

Yende, the eldest of four siblings, born to a businessman and a primary school teacher, took heed.

Seven years later, Yende’s family still grounds her whirlwind career, which now spans prestigious theatres and packed auditoriums across the globe.

"Being part of South Africa and the rainbow nation, I have always been aware of cultural diversity beyond being a Zulu girl. This has helped me to adapt," she says.

Next month, the 31-year-old soprano is set to headline the Italian opera Lucia di Lammermoor at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, France. In December, she will play the title role in Roméo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in the US, where she will also join a bevy of top international artists at the Metropolitan’s 50th anniversary gala concert on 7 May.

In the Washington Post, Yende’s talent has been described as "a voice that can reach to the stars".

This week, she visited Cape Town and Johannesburg to promote her debut album Pretty Yende: A Journey, which features seven milestone tracks from her career.

After the press interviews, she will unwind with family in Piet Retief for a few days.

On Wednesday, she smiled often while speaking to City Press at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town.

"It is a whirlwind kind of life; sometimes the reviews are good, then they are bad. You need something to centre you, and for that I have my Christian faith and my family," she says.

"I am always one SMS away from my mother ... I love going home. Even if it is just for a night to have my mum’s food."

While abroad, she likes to keep her fingers on the pulse by listening to Ukhozi FM on her phone, she says.

As she sips coffee, Yende explains that unlike many vocal artists, she does not avoid dairy products.

"My voice and me, we have negotiated, we have compromised," she jokes.

She describes music in visceral terms: it makes her body tingle, she says. Sometimes when she hears a note, "it feels like time stops".

She hopes to convey the sunshine of her home country around the world: “The sunshine I find in South Africa, it is so special. They do not have it like this in Europe.

"I hope to bring that sunshine into my performances," she says.

Yende’s passion for music was ignited by a British Airways TV advert featuring the Flower Duet from the French opera Lakmé by Léo Delibes, which she saw while watching TV with her parents when she was 16.

At the time, she ditched plans to become an accountant and landed a scholarship at the SA College of Music in Cape Town instead.

"I did well at accounting at school. If I had become an accountant, I would have been good at it. I am driven. Whatever I do, I give it my all. But I would not have been as happy; it would have lacked the joy."

In 2009, Yende won first prize in operetta and opera at the International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition in Vienna, after which she enrolled at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

Although she is eager to start her own family, Yende says there is no rush. “I am a singer, but also human. I would love to have a family and look forward to being a mum. But right now, I am happily single thanks to my parents, who taught me to be free,” she says.

“Marriage is one of the most precious things, and one must be ready.”

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