Born to Sing.
Born to Sing.
South African soprano PRETTY YENDE has achieved international celebrity.
© Gregor Hohenberg for Sony Classical.
“ROSSINI HAS ACCOMPANIED ME to many doors. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the same success had I gone with another composer.” South African soprano Pretty Yende is speaking in Pesaro, Rossini’s birthplace, so the composer is naturally on her mind. It is indeed striking how many of her debuts have been in Rossini operas. In 2010, while still a member of La Scala’s young-artists’ program, she made her debut on Milan’s great stage as Berenice in L’Occasione Fa il Ladro. From that early “burletta per musica,” she skipped to one of the composer’s late French masterpieces, Le Comte Ory, for her Metropolitan Opera debut in January 2013 alongside Juan Diego Flórez, and she repeated the role of Adèle not long afterward when she first appeared onstage in Vienna, at the Theater an der Wien.
So it is little surprise that she speaks of a “homecoming” in Pesaro. “The whole of the bel canto repertoire has helped to release me and liberate my voice. But even more than Bellini and Donizetti, both of whom I love, and who have accompanied me on other debuts, it is Rossini, with his coloratura, that has really made me understand my instrument—and he doesn’t leave you with enough time to complicate things!”
Yende’s other Rossini roles to date include Fiorilla (Il Turco in Italia), Elvira (L’Italiana in Algeri) and of course Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, one of two operas bringing her back to the Met this winter. But her experience in Pesaro in August, where she sang Amira in Ciro in Babilonia opposite Ewa Podles´, points to further possibilities. “Ciro is my first serious Rossini opera, and it makes me think, ‘Yes, let’s go!’ I want to look into more of his seria works—obviously Tancredi, but also Adelaide di Borgogna, a piece I’ve fallen in love with. Then there’s Zelmira, Mosè in Egitto and Le Siège de Corinthe—there are a number of roles that I feel will be interesting for my voice.”
For all the credit she gives Rossini, Yende is something of a door-opener herself. Dedication and determination have been hallmarks of the thirty-one-year-old’s extraordinary rise; among the burgeoning new generation of black South African opera singers, none has had more international success. It’s fitting, therefore, that her new Sony album is called A Journey, and many of the tracks are arias she has sung at key moments in her career. Metgoers will be happy to find both of this winter’s operas represented—Barbiere as well as Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. She is equally at home in French repertoire—“My voice loves to sing French!”—and one of the highlights of 2017, apart from May’s Covent Garden debut, as Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore, is Auber’s rarely performed Fra Diavolo in Rome next fall.
It has indeed been a long journey for Yende, who still—though now based in Milan—regards the small town of Piet Retief, in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province near the Swaziland border, as home. Growing up in a Zulu-speaking family, she first encountered opera in the form of a few bars from Lakmé in a television commercial for British Airways. She asked her high-school teacher what it was and whether it was humanly possible. “He said, ‘Of course it’s humanly possible,’ so I asked him to please teach me. There was something so powerful about the way the voice touched my soul that I knew this was the path for me.” Already lined up with a scholarship to study accounting at the University of the Witwatersrand, she took a leap of faith—together with her whole family, among whom she was the first to go to university—when she changed direction to enter the University of Cape Town’s opera school.
Yende remains full of praise for her lecturers there, and for the experience she gained, beginning with her student debut as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But with typical acuity, she noticed something. “None of my fellow students was really moving on. I asked myself why. Financial constraints were a big part of it. I had to find myself a way of getting to Europe, without spending too much money or asking for too much sponsorship. So I chose competitions, going into them with the feeling that I was not there to compete but to audition. I was saying, ‘I’ve just discovered this talent, this is what I’ve learnt so far, do you think it’s worth it?’”
Jurors around the world decided that it was. In her first competition, at ’s-Hertogenbosch in 2008, she won several prizes, and in 2009, she went on to become the first singer in the history of the Belvedere to win first prize in every possible category. The trophies fell to her, too, in the Caballé, Gencer, Bellini and Savonlinna competitions. After she became the first artist to win three prizes at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, in 2011, she decided to quit the competition circuit. “Cardiff was always asking if I was going to come. But once I won Operalia, I decided to stop. It was not such a nice feeling to arrive and find the other girls saying, ‘Oh, you’re here, you’re going to win.’”
Possessed of diamanté tone and a megawatt smile, Yende still takes charge of the stage wherever she goes. That includes the song-recital platform. One of her favored encores, Bernstein’s “I Feel Pretty,” proves it is not only bel canto that she was born to sing… (John Allison is editor of Opera magazine and music critic for the London Telegraph).
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