Fairytale comes true for SA opera star Pretty Yende

2016-10-14 20:00

Paris - She was a black South African girl from the back of beyond who dreamed of singing opera after hearing a British Airways advert on television.

Fifteen years later Pretty Yende is one of opera's fastest rising divas, a star of Milan's La Scala, New York's Met and a top billing at London's Covent Garden.

The singing "sounded so supernatural I thought it could never be human", Yende said of the Flower Duet from Delibes' opera Lakme which was used in the now classic airline advert.

"I was 16 and in high school and my teacher told me, 'No, it's called opera.'

"When she told me it was humanly possible (to sing like that), I said 'You have to teach me', and that's how my journey started."

And quite a journey it has been.

The 31-year-old soprano is the only singer to have ever won all the main prizes at the renowned Belvedere Singing Competition in Vienna.

In 2011 she pulled off a similar clean sweep at Placido Domingo's Operalia world championships in Moscow.

And on Friday, in the wake of the release of her debut solo album by Sony, she will become the first black singer to play the lead in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Paris Opera.

"There is nothing stopping anyone now," she told AFP. "This is a great time."

New wave of black stars

But Yende was born into the apartheid system in the remote Zulu town of Piet Retief near the border of Swaziland when systematic discrimination against the country's black majority was rigidly enforced.

"I never knew apartheid myself. I'm very grateful to my parents because they protected me from it," Yende said. "It was only when (Nelson) Mandela was released that they told me about it."

Her big break was a scholarship to the University of Cape Town a year after she heard the British Airways advert, where she was taught by Virginia Davids.

During apartheid when "black singers were not even allowed to take music studies", Davids was the first black woman to appear on a South African opera stage.

"All the technique I have now, to master my voice, comes from her," she said.

Yende is one of a wave of South African singers led by Pumeza Matshikiza - "the Callas of the Townships" - who is six years her senior, who are breaking through internationally.

"I bet that in the next 20 years lots of South African talent will come through on the world scene," she said.

'Whole country sings'

"The whole country sings, we have it in our DNA. Our mothers sing us to sleep, our fathers sing when they are going to work; we sing when we're happy, we sing when we're sad.

"I started to sing at church with my grandmother when I was five."

Little did she know then that she would be making her stage debut at La Scala, which snapped her up after her triumph in Vienna.

And in 2013 she brought the house down at the New York's Met when she replaced the Georgian star Nino Machaidze in Rossini's Comte Ory despite tripping during the overture and landing in a heap of satin on the floor.

The New York Times said her voice had a "luminous sheen... and she delivered some of the most difficult coloratura passages with scintillating precision".

Not long after, she replaced Cecilia Bartoli in the same role in Vienna. Since then she has had starring roles in Berlin, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Hamburg and Paris, with further leads in Munich, the Met and her debut at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London in May.

But her dream is to play all "Donizetti's three queens "Anne Boleyn", "Mary Stuart" and Elizabeth I in "Roberto Devereux", she said.

In the meantime she has set up a foundation to help others up the ladder after her.

"The aim is to educate as many people as possible, especially in the small towns and villages in South Africa, about classical music," she said.

"I was lucky because my father had a TV and I saw that ad and today I'm living my dream."

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