S2E3: Pretty Yende: Taking the Opera World by Storm

November 28, 2022
In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, host Makhtar Diop sits down with operatic soprano sensation Pretty Yende.

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In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, Managing Director Makhtar Diop sits down with operatic soprano sensation Pretty Yende. Yende talks about her journey from a small town in South Africa to opera houses around the world, and the possibilities that arise when diverse voices are included in the global operatic mainstream.

Episode Highlights

Makhtar Diop [MD]: Hello, and welcome to our Podcast Creative Development with IFC. I'm your host Makhtar Diop. And today it's my pleasure to welcome opera singer Pretty Yende to the show. This talented South African woman has taken the international opera world by storm performing leading roles in the world's biggest opera houses. In so doing, she has broken barriers for future generations, and raised awareness about the value of inclusion and diversity, not only in opera and classical music, but more generally in creative art. So it's a huge pleasure to have Pretty today with us. So let me start Pretty last year, I watched you in Vienna, La Traviatta. I was just mesmerized. And it was such a wonderful and extraordinary performance. And I think that the room would just give you one of the loudest standing ovations that I've seen. So tell me a little bit, let's start with that performance. How did you feel? you were saying that you are not feeling well, and you didn't know how you will be performing. But when we watched you, you were so full of energy that I couldn't believe it.

Pretty Yende [PY]: Apparently, there's an irony to that. Normally, when we don't feel so well, we concentrate more, and those performances become our best performances. But I remember that performance very well. It was quite a special night, especially in a role that truly means a lot to me. I sang it for the first time in Paris in Garnier, it was a new production, which was tailor made for me which we, which we then brought to Vienna. And it was really, really extraordinary, I still have goosebumps thinking about it. Because those are the kind of reactions that you can never plan. Because as a performer, you always wish to have that connection with an audience. And I'm blessed that everywhere I go, I have that privilege of having a connection with an audience like that every time.

MD: You are so talented. You've been trained in South Africa, in Italy, which is a land of opera, and coming with the best grade of your school, and impressing everybody. And then recently you received L’order des Artes et des lettres from the French government, which is a very, very high order. Tell us a little bit about your journey and how you are living today.

PY: So my journey started actually from my hometown, where I was born in Piet Retief. With my grandmother, I remember every night after supper, we would sing music from the church, hymns. So she will teach me hymns. And then she'll say to me, once we get to the church, you have to stand in front of the congregation and sing for them. Obviously, I was a very shy girl. But then I didn't want to disobey my grandmother. So I would stand in front of the congregation and I started to sing. And the reaction from the congregation was something extraordinary to me, because seeing them smiling and happy because of what I'm doing, inspired me to have courage and say, I actually like this. I like that I make other people feel that way. Fast forward a few years in 2001. When then I heard for the first time the opera via an ad on TV. I heard this music of opera and it was something extraordinary, it actually sounded supernatural because for me, I could not believe that human beings could have such a gift. I mean, I had known music. I had been singing in church, so I know what we can do. But that was like another world somewhat divine. So I went to my high school teacher the following day at the time, and I asked him what it was. And he tells me it's called opera. At 16, I said to him- I didn't even know it had a name - I said to him, Can human beings do it? He laughed at me because he could not believe how naive I was to think that it was something out of the ordinary. And then he said Yes, Pretty if you have talent. Absolutely. You can be able to be taught and you can do it. I demanded him to teach me because my grandmother had taught me. So that journey led me to Europe, winning competitions. The first competition that I won was actually in Vienna, where I won all the possible prizes in that competition in the history of the competition. And that got me the invitation to go to La Scala in Milan where then I did the young artist program there. And then the rest is history, I jumped in at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2013, at short notice, and my career just took off from there. But my main base has been in Europe, obviously, because I'm based in Milan. And so I sing a lot in Europe, in Paris, in Spain, and in Germany. So it's truly extraordinary.

MD: Pretty, let's go back to your earliest days, your formal training actually started pretty late, because people who have your career start much younger, their formal training. So when we talk about gift, you have a special gift, because to be able to start later, your formal training and be able to achieve what you achieved was just amazing. If you want to take a single thing, which was important to give you that will, to work hard and also to find the inner voice that you were able to express at that time when you were a younger person in South Africa, what is it?

PY: Will. I had so much will, I was so taken by what I had heard that when the teacher said it was humanly possible, I said, surely I can do this. But little did I know that with that will, already, there was something inside of me that was already there, which was the gift. Because I remember very well when I heard it, my heart knew what it was, but my intellect, my mind did not know about it. And so that persistence of not giving up, that curiosity of wanting to know what it is, that refusing to be told that I cannot do it - ‘just teach me’- is something that has led me to be here. And of course, I have to thank my parents for that. Because they taught me that if you believe in anything, if it's good, do it. Don't ever hesitate, because you can achieve anything you can you can ever dream off in life

MD: It’s interesting, because this is something that I'm hearing from women who have been very successful in art that you know, regardless of what you will find as adversity, if you have the will, and the commitment, and you have the support - because here you talked about your grandmother was an inspiration - you can do it. I will not ask you the question that everybody is asking you, but I have to talk about it. Oh, you are one of the first black women from Africa - that question. So I have to ask you that question because people want to know, but I know that you have been hearing it so many times that you want to say something about it. So answer this question the way you want to do it. And I will totally sympathize if you don't want to answer that question. Because you must have heard it so so so many times. And it's a bit of a stereotype and cliche.

PY: You know, one of the things that I think make my story unique for me, I don't know about anybody else, when they see me as the first black woman to do this, the first black woman to do that. I don't see it that way, I appreciate it. And I don't look at it as pride in a way, I look at it as a privilege in a way, in an industry where you see less of people who look like me, doing the roles that I do on the global stage. My core, which is, I think, our truth as human beings is what our gifts, is what we have, matters so much more than how we look or whatsoever. If I'm making this career just because I'm black, then it's really a poor career. But if I'm making this journey of life because of the gift that I have, that's true wealth for me.

MD: This is so powerful, what you just said because I personally feel it at a much lower level than yours. But this is what I feel also. Often these references to being the first black or the first something in a place is misleading. It’s trying to touch, I would say, the vanity of people saying I am different from other people, I am better than other people of my group. And I think it's often a story of opportunity that is offered to people. and my view often to people who are saying that is a lot of people with a characteristic racial or others who could do what one is doing at a particular time, but they have been overlooked. So my message is always look at the hundreds and hundreds of Pretty’s that you haven't seen, who haven't been given the opportunity to do what she's doing.

PY: Exactly because it seems like a phenomenon. They asked me why now all of a sudden, so many South Africans? And I say to them, Well, I'm a generation of hope, meeting possibility and time. There have been so many before me, that were just not given the opportunity, nor time, let alone studying . And so on my shoulders I’m carrying those people who wished they could have had what I have. And that's why I really honor what I'm able to do with the gift that I have at this point in time, and not looking down on anybody behind me, or in front of me. I’m just really appreciating this incredible life journey in a way to be able to share it in this way. Also, when those questions come, they make us go back, we need to move forward. Because we are forward. It's no more a phenomenon anymore. We know about it. Let's talk about tomorrow. Let's build and dream and tomorrow rather than always being referred back.

MD: Pretty you sound like another great, great South African artist who inspired a lot of us, Miriam Makeba. And when you hear Makeba with her beautiful voice, even when she was talking, it was like hearing a song. And it was quite amazing to see when she she met Harry Belafonte, when she was with Hugh Masekela and all this. Her telling her own story, and a lot of things that you said, remind me of what she was saying about looking at the future not looking behind us. She was really a voice of inspiration and voice of hope that I'm hearing. So did people like Miriam Makeba inspire you?

PY: I've always been inspired by anyone and everyone. Because in each and every one of us, there's something unique and special that we can always be inspired by. But as far as the music genre is concerned, of course, those are the legends we had in South Africa, including Sibongile Khumalo, and many, many, many others. And unfortunately, I didn't have the privilege of meeting Miriam Makeba. But I know she was also given the order by the French, a while back in her time. So it's quite an honor that a few years later, I'm following those legendary footsteps. So I'm very grateful for that.

MD: South Africa be the place of so much music creation Dudu Pukwana, Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, all these legends came from South Africa. What is so special in South Africa? One of the things that struck me is that when you hear the voice from South Africa it is quite unique. And the only thing you can compare them with for me is the gospel you that you are hearing in the US. So tell me a little bit about the the voice tradition in South Africa.

PY: We have a big choral tradition in South Africa, I think this is one of the things that make us unique in a way. But the continent in general, we sing, we've been singing for centuries, whether we are happy, whether we are sad, whether we’re angry, there's always been song in our, you know, in our bones, for as long as we can remember. So music is a big part of our culture. And South Africa is truly truly unique in the sense that when the European you know, they ask, is it in the water Is it the soil? And we say, it’s everything, it is the continent itself.

MD: But it's beautiful. People don't know a lot about the social work that you're doing. You have a foundation in your hometown. Your foundation is really helping people back home, particularly women to achieve their potential. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about it?

PY: Absolutely. The biggest reason why I wanted to have a foundation was for another Pretty somewhere who has a gift in a small town in a village somewhere. And they don't have a TV, like I had the privilege that my father had a TV so that I could see this music. My hope was to go to those villages and introduce them and tell them about my story and let them know that I was born in those same villages. I wasn't born in Johannesburg or Cape Town and big cities. And yet my dream has brought me to the global stage. So my hope is to at least have one person or one child in a family that could at least play an instrument or something or anything that has to do with music because music is our gift. It's truly a gift to humanity and it belongs to all of us.

MD: Let me turn now to your influence on the rest of the world. When I went to see you in Vienna, there are not a lot of people of my colour skin in the room, unfortunately. But what I can see is that the fact that it's you playing that role… inspires the choreographers, directors, to change the ways they will be put La Traviata, if it was someone different. So what I felt watching it is that some people in the room, having never been exposed to some way of approaching that role that you bring. And in a sense, it opened a little bit also their horizon to some things that they were not used, through culture through something that they are used to which is opera. So this is something that I was watching in the room. And it was an interesting interaction, seeing you playing this role.

PY: It has been my absolute quest, because of how competitive I knew this career will be as a soprano, they can always have a soprano. You know, there's never a shortage of a soprano in the world of opera. And so I asked myself, What can I do to be unique, so that I can have a career and a unique (^)career. And I knew, of course, hard work has to be there, persistence, and all the other, you know, characteristics that attribute success. But more than that, I've always never wanted to do what everybody else was doing and the way they were doing it. I felt that there is a reason why opera is still alive after so many centuries. Why? Because each calling and gift when it comes, it renews. So Pretty, what can you do different? I know, I actually love acting, most of my colleagues are not so into it, because we're expected to be singers. And I said to myself, I want to combine the two, because I love acting very, very much. And so combining these two, in each and every production that I've done, everybody said, We never thought it like that. And it’s just me following my instinct as well. I'm an intuitive being. I Listen, I have to trust that my goal is truly inside. And, if I just concentrate on that, if I win from within, it will bloom from the outside. And that is my quest, I never want to do everything the way everybody does, because it's impossible. Each person is here for a reason, find yours, and it will truly shine.

MD: It's so true that people realize this, they could integrate isiZulu into La fille du Regiment. Which nobody would have thought that La Fille du Regiment would be played and performed with isiZulu because it was not meant to be like this for some people. And that means that this is what when people are talking about being the first black, the first somethings, or something. This is what people can bring, it is to open the mind of people to maybe horizons that they didn't have or perspective that they didn't have. And I think that you're a great example. Because I'm sure that for someone who is writing opera, in terms of writing the music, looking at Zulu or other languages of Africa forces you to think differently in a way you are writing the music of your opera, am I wrong? Or I'm talking about something doesn't make sense?

PY: You are absolutely correct. You're absolutely correct. The whole trust, I think I got is from my mentors at the University of Cape Town - Angelo Gobbato, Angela Davis. They made me understand that there are different ways of live performing, of being an opera singer. There are singers who would sing every note perfect and they will not touch the soul, there would not be rememberable. But then they asked singers who might not be so perfect, but basically they sing one line, and that room is transformed forever. People will never forget that. And so I wanted to be in that space because that's the true core of what makes an artist unique. And so that meant to trust that if I try something. Because that that scene, I was just improvising at the Met. We were just rehearsing. Je parle un peux francais, mais pas bon. just a little bit, you know. I speak fluent Italian. So there was this possibility to improvise. There was no written dialogue. And instinctively, I just spoke in Zulu, and they were like, Yeah, keep it, keep it I was like, Okay, I was just mumbling in Zulu. And that's the thing because if you cross that border line of not being so square, there's so much more we can do.

MD: Now, you know, people asked me often why Makhtar you are, managing director of IFC, a finance institution, having a podcast on creative development. If we want to change people live, I think that we need to make sure that the social contract in a society, the social norm, are going in a certain direction, and there is nothing more powerful than music, and art in general to be able to change it. Secondly, I think there is an untapped potential of economic development linked to creative art in the continent. So this is a journey that we are starting at IFC. And part of this journey is to have the privilege to talk to people like you Pretty, having influenced so many people, but also having brought so much joy to people who are really listening to your music. So if I was asking you for advice, for ideas, what will you tell me?

PY: I would ask you to please, please, the unity of anything successful as human beings is all of these sectors working hand in hand. Imagine the possibilities of finance world meeting art, and creating something extraordinary. If there's a possibility of having this amalgamation happen more often than not, I really think that we could achieve something extraordinary as human beings in our own sectors together.

MD: I think there's no better conclusion that that to our conversation, Pretty. It's has been a huge, huge, huge pleasure to meet you, to talk to you. And I hope that soon I will have another opportunity to go and watch you because its been fantastic. Can you tell us what you're working on right now?

PY: So right now I'm in San Francisco. It's the first time I'm in San Francisco, and on another new production that they're doing for me, of La Traviata. And then I have a few concerts in Philadelphia and in Carnegie Hall in New York before I head back to Europe in Vienna, to do La Fille du Regiment.
MD: Ah, so I hope that I will find a way to go and watch your La Fille du Regiment. Now, I will keep in my mind more that version of La Traviata that I saw in Vienna, because I love the way you acted in it. And I love the way you brought up the uniqueness of what you're bringing in this which is coming from your roots. But Pretty thank you so very much. It's been a huge pleasure having you on this podcast.

PY: It's been a pleasure for me too. And thank you very much for the invitation.

MD: Thank you for listening. creative development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.