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Published on Feb 23, 2015
Pretty Yende pulls no punches when she talks about her career. “Look beyond the glitz and glam and know how much you need success.”
During a whirlwind two-day visit to South Africa, the celebrated soprano took some time off to speak to 350 young people from Cape Town Opera’s Community and Outreach programme about her incredible journey from Piet Retief to the world’s opera stages. She was clear that talent alone isn’t enough. Achievement takes burning ambition, dogged determination and a huge dose of commitment.
Pretty’s journey began in high school, when she saw a British Airways’ television advertisement featuring the Flower Duet from Lakmé.
“It was just 10 seconds long, but it stirred my soul. I knew what I needed to do,” she recalls.
Some 13 years later things have come full circle, with British Airways flying the now internationally recognised soprano from the Accademia della Scalia di Milano in Italy, to South Africa, to perform at a prestigious eve of parliament function in Cape Town. What has happened in-between is remarkable.
“I joined the school choir and was told that I wasn’t a singer and didn’t have a voice. But I knew I could do it if I was taught because I’m a good student.”
Her determination took her from high school to UCT, where she studied under Virginia Davids, the associate professor of singing. Pretty graduated cum laude.
Without the wherewithal to study internationally that might have been the end of her budding career if it had not been for her perseverance. She started singing at prestigious international competitions. More importantly she won. Her list of achievements include winning all the big prizes at the Hans Gabor Belvedere as well as wins at Montserrat Caballé, Savonlinna, Leyla Gencer and Bellini.
In 2012 winning Placio Domigo’s Operalia competition led to her becoming the first black opera singer to perform at the famous Teatro All Scala.
A year later she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with Juan Diego Flórez. With minimal rehearsal and despite falling onstage on opening night, she went on to deliver a performance which won a standing ovation and critical acclaim. Her career has taken her to opera houses in Moscow, Vienna, New York, London, Edinburgh, Los Angeles and Barcelona. Back in South Africa her message to the young people at the Cape Town Opera was: “There’s a lot of talent and opportunity here, but to turn it into success we need people who dream bigger, work harder and never give up.”
Before leaving she made sure that someone else would get a chance to visit one of the world’s great opera capitals by handing over two British Airways tickets to Cape Town Opera. Pretty’s debut album will be out later this year on Sony Classics.