Opera star Pretty Yende heads home

2013-11-03 10:00

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Pretty Yende sits pretty as the shining star of South African opera, basking in roars of bravos, whistles and whoops on some of the biggest stages in the world.

Her story of a girl who heard about opera just 10 years ago by accident is about the possibilities this art form, often seen as for the “elite”, presents.

That she has shared the stage with greats ranging from Andrea Bocelli to Tony Bennett to Celine Dion is the stuff dreams are made of.

Speaking via telephone from Milan, where she is based, Yende dismisses my suggestion that she is in music exile, given that opera stars in South Africa often have to leave the country to pursue their passion.

“South Africa is important to me, but there are more opportunities in the world and there is nothing wrong with exploring more cultures out there. My heart is where my music is,” she says.

“I am having an incredible time, but I do miss home a lot, my family especially.

And the food. I miss pap. Over here in Italy, they have polenta, which comes close, but it’s not the same texture. Milan is also grey and misty. I miss the African sun.”

Yende believes there have been some gains since 1994, when some talent was unearthed.

“A lot of treasured talent has been buzzing and we implore the support of the government. We need financial support.”

Yende, from Piet Retief in Mpumalanga, gained international acclaim when in 2010 she became the first artist in the history of the Belvedere Competition to win first prize in every category. In 2011, she won first prize in Placido Domingo’s Operalia Competition.

She is also a graduate of the Young Artists Academia of the Teatro alla Scala, where she debuted 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 Bohème.

She has been based in Milan for the past five years. She speaks fluent Italian and is learning French and German, the other two primary languages of opera. “As an artist, my quest is to be fully rounded,” she says.

Her fame trajectory has been on the up. In January, she performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which she calls “humbling”.

Yende was roped in as Countess Adele in Le Comte Ory after Georgian coloratura soprano Nino Machaidze pulled out at the last minute. Yende had to learn the music within a few weeks. Her debut earned a favourable review in The New York Times.

Yende comes to the stage of The Teatro at Montecasino this month to perform a recital programme that includes Rossini, Bellini, Gounod, Bernstein (West Side Story), Balfe and Gimenez.

“To say I am excited to be coming home to perform is an understatement.”

President Jacob Zuma has bestowed the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver on the soprano in recognition of her achievements.

Despite the applause and attention, Yende reckons she still leads a modest life. “We are not as big as Hollywood stars. People do recognise us, but it’s far from movie-star status.”

Yende’s feet and heart are in the right place as she reflects on her life. “If you forget who you are, whatever you achieve will mean nothing. I’m not different.

I always remember my hometown and my country. I see so much pride in the people of Piet Retief whenever I visit home,” she says. She launched her foundation in August with the view to starting an art school in the town.

Yende continues to hold her own against the best in the world and says she hardly ever gets overwhelmed.

“Everything I have acquired came in the right time, and I deserve it for the hard work and preparation I put in. I fully recognise that this opportunity could easily bypass me for someone else.”

Her forthcoming appearances include dates in Paris, Washington, Barcelona and London’s Covent Garden.

» Yende performs at The Teatro at Montecasino in Joburg on November 14 and at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town on November 16. Both concerts begin at 8pm. Tickets available at Computicket

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