“It is quite challenging,” says the South African soprano Pretty Yende, marooned in Barcelona and waiting to see if her remaining performances of Verdi’s La traviata at the Gran Teatre del Liceu will be going ahead. “Singing is like a sport. After a long break, muscle memory gets compromised. We must learn to have more trust and say to ourselves, yes it has been a long gap, but mentally and physically we have to get our mojo going. We need to get back to cruise control.”
It is hard to imagine a singer better suited to raise the spirits after such a downbeat year than Yende. When she is on stage, the sun seems to shine — a good example is her bubbly Adina in Donizetti’s comedy L’elisir d’amore, a role she has sung in New York and London. Here is a singer who radiates happiness in front of an audience.
“I was shy at first,” says Yende, “but my first steps in opera helped to make the stage a place where I am happy to be. That has contributed a lot to my singing and stage performance. I don’t want the audience to feel tense. My wish is to show them what I felt when I heard the music for the first time, and that joy is always an inspiration to me when I am performing.”
Opera-lovers will have a chance to judge for themselves on New Year’s Eve, when a gala recital will be streamed live from the Parktheater in Augsburg, Germany. Four leading singers — Yende with fellow soprano Angel Blue and tenors Javier Camarena and Matthew Polenzani — will join in a festive programme of solos and ensembles from the ornate 19th-century theatre, a rotunda of glass and iron.
The recital is part of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s “Met Stars Live in Concert” series, which remains on track despite some changes of plan, necessitated by illness or the inability of singers to travel during the pandemic. Thousands of people, deprived of live music and often of their social lives, have tuned in night after night.
It is good to see Yende in the New Year’s Eve line-up. Her duo evening with Camarena had to be postponed when the tenor fell ill, but nothing lost, the new programme is bigger and better. There will be favourite numbers from Donizetti to Lehár, and a clutch of popular Italian songs — a welcome chance for the singers to get their vocal cords oiled again after nearly a year of cancellations.
Yende is still only 35. In her family home in South Africa there was always music after supper and her grandmother’s singing lessons went so well that she was soon performing in front of the congregation at church. Then by chance she heard the British Airways commercial featuring the flower duet from Delibes’ Lakmé, and that set her off on a new tack. “I was touched by something almost supernatural, but had no idea what it was,” she says. “I asked a high school teacher and he said it was called opera. Little did I know the part it would play and how it would lead to the privileged life I have now.”
At the University of Cape Town she came into contact with Angelo Gobbato, who was then the director of the university’s opera school; the Italian-born Gobbato evoked the “magic” of opera for her. He taught her the importance of learning Italian as if it was a mother tongue and how to communicate with an audience (“I have to know the meaning of everything that is being sung, not just my own role”) — skills that have fitted her for an international career.
Yende has come a long way in a short time. In 2011, she won Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. A whirlwind of debut appearances followed, including La Scala, Milan, Opéra National de Paris, Bavarian State Opera and the Royal Opera in London.
The turning point of her career, though, was her debut at the Met as Countess Adèle in Rossini’s Le comte Ory, a role she learned in a week after another singer pulled out. “It was a calculated move, jumping in for these performances, not a total unknown,” she says. “That was thanks to Gobbato and the experience I took from learning in South Africa, which had given me the love of performing on stage.”
Yende is the most successful of a generation of young singers to come out of South Africa. A combination of fine voices, good teaching and an ambition to do well has created an enthusiasm for opera, most obviously shown by the successful tours of the Cape Town Opera to the US and Europe. The only surprise is that there have not been more who have enjoyed Yende’s international success.
“The country is blessed with incredible voices,” she says, “but it takes more than that. It is not easy to be outside of our country and to feel comfortable living in Europe or wherever. That point of a career is a make-or-break time. It can be quite a lonesome journey, because you are always on the road. A big part of live performing lies within the individual, so if the human being is not feeling OK, the singer on stage suffers a lot.”
Even so, there are others coming up. Is there any young singer in particular she would like to mention? “As a big sister, can I recommend my younger sister, Nombulelo?”, she asks with a twinkle in the eye. “Born in 1991, she is already doing well and winning competitions.” The Yende brand name should do her no harm.
Streaming on December 31 and available on demand for 14 days, metopera.org