Meet Pretty Yende: Wendy Williams' Favorite Soprano

Gregor Hohenberg/Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment
Pretty Yende

Even among the most talented of operatic sopranos, few make it to the most prestigious stages of the world; fewer still achieve that and then achieve viral fame after a performance on The Tonight Show With Stephen Colbert -- or bring Wendy Williams to tears when meeting the talk-show queen in her office.  But Pretty Yende has done all that. 

The 31-year-old soprano, who grew up in a small Zulu village in South Africa, was inspired to pursue a career in opera in 2001 after seeing a British Airways ad featuring the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lamke. Since then, she’s performed in Paris, Milan, and New York, put out the album Journey (which reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums chart), and, today, debuts as Juliet in Romeo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera (running through March 18).  

Yende, who’s at work on her Sony Classical follow-up to Journey, chatted with Billboard recently -- and it turns out she sounds just as melodic while she’s doing laundry as she does on stage.

What do you remember about seeing the British Airways ad for the first time?

I was 16 at the time. It was like somebody switched me on. Like, action! For me it was by chance -- by destiny -- that my father had that TV in the house, that I happened to be home that day, that I saw the ad. I could not believe it was humanly possible [to sing like that], so I asked my high school teacher the following day. And he said, "It’s called opera." I said, "You need to teach me that."

You first stint at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2013 was as Adele in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, and you tripped upon taking the stage on opening night. How did you not lose your cool?

It was humbling. I remember thinking: What are you doing on the floor? Oh my god. I fell. I just fell in front of 4,000 people. Why? I had to be reminded that no matter how high I can fly, no matter how many times I am praised, I’m just a human being after all. And I should always have my feet on the ground, because that’s the only way I can stand. It’s easy to go with the glitz and glam, which is probably the fake part of the whole opera thing. It’s lots of hard work. When you fall, you don’t stay down. You get up.

So before attending the South African College of Music in Cape Town, you planned to be an accountant. How did you go from one to the other?

It was a shock for my entire family that I wanted to do music. I had a scholarship to study accounting and here am I, the last day of school: "Mom, I want to be an opera singer." What? Are you kidding me? Isn’t that a hobby? It was quite a big shock, but I had loving parents who were very supportive, and allowed me to try. But I had to make a deal with them. I said to them, "If God doesn’t show me in the first two years that I belong there, then I will do accounting immediately.’ So they drove me to Cape Town, and the first week I was there, I knew I had to be there.

You speak many languages – is that fluency necessary to do your job well?

I spoke only South African before I went to Milan. We have 12 official languages, and I spoke four and I understood eight. Then I was in Milan [at the La Scala opera house], so I became fluent in Italian. Now I speak fluent French, and I understand German. My technique improved a lot when I stopped translating and spoke the language. If you know what you’re singing about, somehow it will cross a barrier, because the sound depends not only on the text, but also the coloring of the voice.

What would you say to someone who knows nothing about opera and is intimidated to check it out?

Relax! Don’t overthink it. If you look at my story, I was in my living room, and yet it touched me. Come to the opera house and you have a better chance than me. And most of the opera houses have subtitles.

What do you like to listen to outside of the opera world?

Bobby McFerrin. I yearn to meet him! I just think he’s a musical genius. But I chose not to have an idol, because it would have unintentionally made me want to be them, and in the process lose myself. And you don’t want a second version of Michael Jackson.

We’re just coming out of awards season, and race continues to be a big issue at the Grammys. Does the opera world have similar issues with diversity?

I was never not given an opportunity because of the color of skin. All they were concerned with was my talent. I don’t want to generalize -- this is my experience. But how many more centuries are we going to discriminate against each other because of the color of our skin or our shape or our beliefs? Can’t we just love one another and leave it at that?