South African soprano Pretty Yende made an unexpected and highly acclaimed Met debut in 2013 when she stepped in as Adèle in Le Comte Ory on short notice. Since then, she’s enjoyed a string of high-profile successes. The up-and-coming diva explained to the Met’s Jay Goodwin why it takes an operatic village to ensure her sensational rise.
In the last five years or so, your career has exploded, with debuts and leading roles at the Met, La Scala, the Paris Opera, and the Bavarian State Opera. You’ve given a solo recital at Carnegie Hall, and in the spring, you’ll debut at Covent Garden. How have you adjusted?
For me, it didn’t feel fast at all. I always say that overnight successes never truly happen overnight. When I sang Adèle in Le Comte Ory on short notice at the Met in 2013, it seemed like an overnight success because it was not planned. But for me, as an artist who has been looking forward to singing at the Met for so long, and having worked and trained for many years, I knew that I had more to win than to lose when that opportunity came. All the things that are happening now were life goals, and for me, it feels like the right pace. If it weren’t, I would be overwhelmed, but instead, I’m so excited, and I’m continuing to make new goals. Also, I’ve been very fortunate to have what I call the #PrettyArmy. It’s a group of people who are guiding me through my journey—my vocal coach, my vocal teacher, and other people surrounding me who have experience in this industry, but also who allow me to ultimately make my own choices. It’s all a dream come true.
This season, you’re back at the Met as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, one of opera’s most beloved heroines. She’s such a spitfire—funny, confident, clever, and completely in control. Is she a natural fit for your personality?
Absolutely. There’s such joy and spontaneity in the role that correspond very well with the kind of personality that I am. I love to act very much, and she loves to do that, too. And when she loves, she loves for real. I’m a girl, too, who loves for real. And she’s clever. She’s a person who enjoys being the only lady among all these men, and actually making a choice to stand up for what she wants and to be loyal.
You’ve developed a reputation for singing many of the leading ladies of bel canto. What do you try to bring to that style of singing?
This repertoire truly resonates with my soul. Though “bel canto” means “beautiful singing,” it also calls for a deeper personal expression that asks so much of the singer artistry, phrasing, a beautiful line, an understanding of what the character wants and of the intentions of the composer—and then incorporating all these elements into what I, as an artist and as an actress, want to portray. It helps me to have courage to dig deep inside myself and not be afraid to find my own unique way, to find a sound that would not be compared to another person.
Also this season, you make your role debut as Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, at which point you will have sung four completely different types of characters here—Adèle, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Rosina, Elvira in I Puritani, and Juliette. How do you adapt to portray such different people?
One of the things I have appreciated the most about the bel canto repertoire is that it allows me to know my own instrument and teaches me how to take full command of it. So when I sing Pamina or I sing Juliette, I don’t sing it with a different voice. I sing it with the same instrument, and the technique never changes. But the music, coming from different composers, brings out different sides of the voice. And, of course, I have to allow each composer to challenge me and to teach me. So I will be Juliette in in my own way, which I’ve learned from the bel canto repertoire.
When you make a dramatic character switch, like the one from Rosina to Juliette, does it bleed into your real life as you try to embody these different personalities?
No, not really. I get to play princesses and countesses, and I get to be called a prima donna, but I’m just a girl from South Africa who found music and an amazing gift, and I love to share it. I need to be mindful not to become the ladies that I play because some of them are quite far from who I am as a person and from what I believe.
As you travel all over the world and sing all of these roles, what do you do to stay energized and handle the pressure?
I don’t feel the pressure! Pressure is a burden that has no positive input on my life. I call pressures, fears, disappointments, and expectations “uninvited guests” to the party of my mind. And I have to keep that space very clean and healthy. If uninvited guests like that come, the whole house would crumble. I would become overwhelmed and unable to be myself—a person who lives every day with the same joy for this music that I felt when I heard it for the first time.