Pretty Yende: An Opera Star Whose Rise Began With A Fall : Deceptive Cadence A mishap in the South African soprano's Metropolitan Opera debut still makes her laugh, but that night ended with a standing ovation. Now she's in Los Angeles for The Marriage of Figaro.
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Pretty Yende: An Opera Star Whose Rise Began With A Fall

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Pretty Yende: An Opera Star Whose Rise Began With A Fall

Pretty Yende: An Opera Star Whose Rise Began With A Fall

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's listen now to the sweet sound of a musical dream coming true.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LE COMTE OMRY")

PRETTY YENDE: (Singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: That's soprano Pretty Yende making her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera. When she took the stage as Adele in Rossini's "Le Comte Omry," her performance did not quite go as planned. She tripped and fell to the great astonishment of the audience. Still it was a night that she could never have imagined as a teenager in rural South Africa. Pretty Yende didn't even know what opera was until the day she was home watching TV and heard this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAKME FLOWER DUET")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: That music, the Lakme Flower Duet, was playing as part of an ad for British Airways. And when she joined us to talk about an upcoming role at LA Opera, Pretty Yende began by taking us back to that moment.

YENDE: I hear these sounds. Just those 10 seconds - I knew that it's something that I should know but I didn't know what it was. And so I went to my high school teacher the following day and I asked him what it was, and he told me it's called opera. And I said to him is it humanly possible because at 16 I had no idea that human beings were capable of such a gift. And so he told me that of course it is humanly possible. And so he advised me to join the choir and I joined the school choir. And he told me that, Pretty, I don't think you're an opera singer. I don't think you're a singer at all. You should just continue with your quest to be an accountant because that's what I wanted to do before I heard the music. I wanted to be an accountant. But something had changed - something that I could not touch, could not see.

MONTAGNE: You've described yourself as a church girl.

YENDE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: So did you sing in a church choir?

YENDE: I grew up in the church. I grew up singing in the church. Actually, I remember walking with my grandmother to church and she would teach me songs. And she would tell me that when we get to church you will go up and stand in front of the congregation and start singing.

MONTAGNE: Could you give us a hint of the sort of song you would have been in church singing?

YENDE: In church singing - I remember this one song, which we still sing in our church, actually. It's in Zulu. It is about - we have the savior and we are very blessed to have Jesus as our savior. It goes like this - (singing in foreign language). So it's something like that. So that was the first solo song I learned from my grandmother.

MONTAGNE: I want to go to your church.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: If they're still singing it. I do know there is one role that has become famous, and it was your debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

YENDE: Right.

MONTAGNE: It was just about two years ago, a little over two years ago.

YENDE: Yes. I got a call from my manager. You know, he asked me, Pretty, what would you say if I were to tell you that you'd be making your debut at the Met way more earlier than you had expected? I said what do you mean? And he tells me that they are - you know, the opera house, they're looking for an Adele because, you know, the one they had planned to have is not able to come anymore. I said, oh, my goodness. I have to look at the music. I don't even know how long the opera is, but in that instant I knew that I was ready.

MONTAGNE: But you didn't have much time to prepare.

YENDE: No, that explains the fall, doesn't it (laughter)?

MONTAGNE: That explains the fall. Well, what we're talking about here is - there you were. You hadn't sung a note, but you were on stage...

YENDE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And what happened?

YENDE: So the night has come. Pretty Yende is making her debut at the Met. It is full house. I could hear everybody breathing when I entered the stage. Like, I could hear every heartbeat and then I walked on, gracefully walked on. But when I turned, I took an extra look back and that is what cost me because then I was already in the edge of, you know, the steps going down. And so when I took that final step I was on my knees. And I was like, hey, what are you doing on your knees? I have fallen. Oh, my God, I have fallen.

MONTAGNE: Well, in the end - many - a standing, shouting, screaming ovation, right?

YENDE: Yeah, it was almost like a showstopper. I was like, OK, they want me here (laughter) you know? It was like, relax, you know? And from then on was the entire evening. I was just having the best time of my life. It was really special.

MONTAGNE: The role that has brought you back here to Los Angeles is in "The Marriage Of Figaro.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO")

YENDE: (Singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: You play Susanna.

YENDE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: The Countess's maid, who's going to marry Figaro.

YENDE: I like Susanna so much. What is fun about it is the fact that she allows you to be the best actress. And this is what I wanted to learn from her - how can I be quick, smart, charming, always ahead and never panicking because she's always in control. They usually cast it for a person who's really more an actress than an important voice, if I may. Not saying that my voice is important, but it's fun, you know? It's so much fun and she's a happy person. She's - you know, she gives me joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO")

YENDE: (Singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: One last thing, which brings us back to South Africa. Considering the history of South Africa, is there something that brings out the voice in people?

YENDE: Well, South Africa is - they have a huge culture of choral music because before Mandela was released they were not allowed to study music. And so that cultural base played a huge part in them in terms of keeping singing. And my voice teacher, actually, in South Africa used to say that South Africans were born singing, you know? They would sing when they were - if they were crying they would sing. If they were happy they would sing. They were working in the mines, they would still be singing. And so this culture of song has always been there.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

YENDE: Thank you so much, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO")

YENDE: (Singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: Soprano Pretty Yende. She will be performing here at LA Opera beginning tomorrow night in "The Marriage Of Figaro." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was written by BJ Leiderman and arranged by Jim Pugh. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO")

YENDE: (Singing in foreign language).

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