Opera singer Pretty Yende

The South African soprano discusses her role as Susanna in the upcoming run of The Marriage of Figaro at L.A. Opera.

South African soprano Pretty Yende received international attention in 2010 when she became the first artist in the history of the Belvedere Competition to win First Prize in every category. Pretty made her professional operatic debut at the Latvian National Theatre in Riga as Micaela in Carmen, and in 2013, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as the Countess Adele in Le Comte Ory opposite Juan Diego Florez. That same year, she made her L.A. Opera debut, reprising her role in Carmen, and is set to return to that very stage in her upcoming role as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, which begins its L.A. Opera run on March 21, 2015.


Tavis: The celebrated soprano, Pretty Yende, is in Los Angeles appearing as part of L.A. Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”. She made her La Scale debut in 2010, but discovered and started studying opera as a teenager. Before we start our conversation tonight, we first take a look at her Metropolitan Opera debut from 2013.


Tavis: I cannot wait to see you in person [laugh]. I am so excited about you being in L.A. Welcome to our city.

Pretty Yende: Thank you so much.

Tavis: And we’re delighted to have you here as part of L.A. Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro”. How did this happen for you, your being here in this production?

Yende: I have always wanted to sing Susanna and it has been such a long dream coming wanting to sing Susanna because it’s one character that I knew that I needed to do because she is an actress, but she’s so smart and she has so many layers that I needed her to teach me so many other things as an actress for, you know, being an opera singer.

I did the Countess when I was still in South Africa, but I knew that I wanted to be a Susanna. So to be back at the L.A. Opera house is such an honor. And I’m excited to be back and to be invited by Placido Domingo.

Tavis: What do you hope or intend for Susanna to teach you?

Yende: Well, more about life actually, the journey and the courage of a woman, you know, to be able to know how to actually manage what means the most to you. Because she is, you know, asked to do something that she doesn’t want because she has chosen to with Figaro and yet the politics of the time asking her so much.

But I’m so excited about her courage to stand for what she believes in because she loves Figaro and she will do whatever she can to keep Figaro. She chose Figaro and it’s her smart also, the way she’s so smart in terms of making the men feel that they’re making the decisions and yet not. She’s behind every trick in the book.

Tavis: Yeah, I see you like that part [laugh].

Yende: Of course [laugh].

Tavis: Is it often the case or always the case that you learn from the characters you play onstage?

Yende: Well, basically because opera is so new for me. You know, I had no idea about it until, you know, I saw the ad on TV in 2001. So the journey of learning about opera is actually teaching me more about myself as a human being.

I was so surprised that, as much as I thought it was something foreign, it’s yet not so foreign because it’s all human beings, you know, and learning different time zones. And yet we are all just human beings and going through the same things in life.

Tavis: You said two things now I want to come back to and ask two questions about. One, what are you learning about yourself from doing opera, performing opera?

Yende: That I’m courageous. I didn’t know that I could have such courage and that I can dream so much and that I’m not afraid to try. I will try and try and try again until I know that I can or cannot do it. I was amazed to know that–I come from a very loving family and from people who always showed me love…

Tavis: In South Africa.

Yende: In South Africa, you know. But I’m so surprised and so excited to see that not only do I wish to have that to myself, but I wish to share it with every person that I meet, and opera is allowing me to be able to do that.

Tavis: You mentioned your family. We’ll come back to your family in just a second here. But how did you get turned on by the thought, the possibility, of doing opera?

Yende: I think it’s the feeling I felt when I heard the music.

Tavis: You heard it when for the first time?

Yende: I heard it first in 2001. I was at home with my family and we were watching TV. And there was this ad on TV which was the British Airways ad. And those 10 seconds of the Lakmé duet just opened a world that I never knew existed.

Tavis: So you were watching a British Airways TV commercial [laugh].

Yende: Yes. I’m home watching, you know, one of our normal soaps at home and here comes this ad on TV and I hear this music. Somehow my soul knew what it was, but my body and mind couldn’t make sense of it. So I went to my high school the following day and I asked him about it. He told me it’s called opera and I said to him, “Is it humanly possible?”

Because for me, it sounded so supernatural. It was a feeling that I could not explain. I could not touch it, but I could feel it and I wanted you to feel it. So the whole quest of opera was how can I make somebody feel this?

Tavis: You were singing at that time already, though.

Yende: Of course. I was singing at the time, but not opera. I was not even in the school choir. I was singing in the church. I grew up in a very, you know, church family, so I learned to stand in front of people in the church. But opera just came in 2001 and I was so happy that the quest to do it, you know, happened, but also the talent was there because I was going to be imprisoned for life.

Tavis: You are not the first opera singer. I’ve had a chance to meet many over the years, talking specifically now about Black or African. I’m talking Leontyne Price, I’m talking Kathleen Battle, I’m talking Jessye Norman. You’re not the first to come to the operatic stage with this melanin in your skin, with this church background.

And every one of these great divas has a different story, a different answer to the question as to what the church did for them that aids and abets what they do on the operatic stage. What’s your story?

Yende: I think my story is personal. It goes beyond the fame and fortune. It goes to the essence of human being, you know, because it’s a gift. Music is a gift. I mean, I come from a country which is huge with choral music and music. I mean, we sing when we cry. We sing when we’re happy. So the whole essence of music as a gift to humanity, you know, it blows me away.

And to be able to be part of that and not only be the audience, but be the person who’s like an ambassador in a way of song is one thing that makes me feel very important and to be able to know that it’s not only resting on me, but it’s passed on and hopefully it will live for generations to come.

Tavis: Is there something specific about the Black church, the Black gospel tradition, that you call upon when you’re onstage doing opera? Or is there no link or no connection?

Yende: There’s all of the link. There’s all of the link. Who I am often offstage is one person. It’s just that it’s the vessel. The vessel is one. Of course, women go through different emotions because, you know, how Susanne, even how I am, can be different, you know. There can be places where we can share common grounds, but it’s the same person. For me, the music is important because the composer has put everything there.

But beyond that, I need to talk to you. I need to reach out to you. I don’t know what you’re going through. I don’t know why you came to the opera house because that’s the beauty of the gift of music. It doesn’t require you to know Italian, but your soul knows what it needs and that soulful music is what I wish I can be able to give to you.

Tavis: I wish I knew your family because I can tell your mom and dad has put something rich and deep inside of you. Tell me about your mom and them.

Yende: My mama [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, your mom and your dad. Tell me about your family, yeah.

Yende: Well, I still have my mom and my dad and they’re still in Piet Retrief in South Africa. And I have siblings. I’m the first born at home and I have two brothers and a sister. It’s a loving family.

I mean, we are all in this roller coaster of this journey, you know, and we’re pinching ourselves that it’s not happening anywhere else. It’s actually happening in our house and it’s such a blessing.

Tavis: Are there other musicians in your family or are you the only…

Yende: Absolutely. The boys…

Tavis: The boys, okay?

Yende: The boys are into sound engineering and deejaying. The sister is studying in university classic music as well. She wants to be an opera singer as well.

Tavis: Wow, so the whole family.

Yende: And she’s actually more gifted in gospel music. So she’s more versatile than I am, but she has the mind and the brains for this and I wish her very well.

Tavis: Well, she has a great example in her big sister, though.

Yende: Yes.

Tavis: A great example. What do your parents–what do they make of how all this has turned out, this journey that you’re on?

Yende: We’re all just amazed that just this instinct of curiosity from me wanting to know what this is has opened up a whole new chapter into, you know, to our entire family. It took me away from home, took me away from anything I knew. I moved to Italy. I had to learn Italian.

I had to see differently. I had to think differently. I come from a very small town and yet now I’m all over the world and I didn’t know that the word was so huge [laugh]. But it’s such a pleasure to see it happening that, you know, you can have a dream and you can see it happening.

And I’m excited to have my family see it too. So whenever I have shows, I try to have them over. When I was in New York, my mom and my sister came. In Italy, I had my dad and my mom come for the first time. And the last time when I was here with my sister, she came to see it.

Because I think more than this being my dream, it became a dream of the whole family, the entire nation looking up and seeing that I don’t have to be the girl who grew up in a big town to be able to sit here and talk to you. I can be just anyone with a dream and passion and actually possibilities happening.

Tavis: As I mentioned, I love L.A. Opera. This is the final part of a trilogy that they have done. “The Ghosts of Versailles”, “The Barber of Seville” and now “The Marriage of Figaro”. So you close the show in this trilogy, as it were.

So before I let you go, this name–I told you when you came on, I’ve loved your art and your name for years. Pretty Yende. Who gave you this name?

Yende: It’s my mom [laugh].

Tavis: Your mama gave you this [laugh].

Yende: It’s my mom. I asked her, “Why didn’t you say Beauty”? She said, “No, it was Pretty.”

Tavis: Yeah, it goes together. You have one of those names that you have to say together. Pretty Yende. It goes together, and we are honored to have you back in L.A.

Yende: Thank you so much.

Tavis: It’s the L.A. Opera’s presentation of “The Marriage of Figaro” starring Pretty Yende. I cannot wait to see this and I hope that you will join me, if you can get a ticket. I hope you can. Hopefully, somebody got the hookup for me. Can I get in? Can I get a ticket? Can a brother get a ticket? I will be there. Pretty, nice to meet you.

Yende: Thank you very much. Very pleased to meet you.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: March 19, 2015 at 1:47 pm