Operatic soprano Pretty Yende is arguably one of South Africa’s greatest cultural exports today.

The Milan-based opera singer has performed alongside music heavyweights such as Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion and graced the stages of major opera houses such as the La Scala Opera House in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and Liceu Opera in Barcelona.

Yet, Yende’s musical beginnings were in a world far away, around a humble bonfire in the small timber growing town of Piet Retief, in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

“I remember every night after supper, we would gather around the fire and sing hymns, which was where, I believe my solo career started.”

Although she developed an interest in music as a child, it was not until much later, in 2001, that she heard about opera music.

Yende was at home watching TV, when she came across a British Airways commercial featuring Flower Duet, a famous duet for sopranos from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé, first performed in Paris in 1883.

“That was the moment that changed my entire course as far my career was concerned. I was touched by something so supernatural that I truly never believed was humanly possible,” says Yende.

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In high school at the time, as “one of the smartest, competitive students in class”,  Yende was well on her way to becoming an accountant. But she couldn’t shake the “supernatural sound” that continued to linger on, long after the life-changing commercial.

She made it her priority to find out more about that distinct sound. Her high school teacher advised her to join the choir. But she was told she didn’t have a singing voice.

Yende was convinced she did.

“I never give up on anything that feels right. I couldn’t say no to the deep desire in my soul for I knew that if I were to be taught, I could do it. I didn’t quit… and the rest is history.”

Determined, Yende enrolled at the South African College of Music in Cape Town where she received a scholarship. She was taught and mentored by Professor Virginia Davids, a trendsetter who was also the first black woman to appear on opera stages during the apartheid years in South Africa.

“It was very challenging at the beginning, like anything unknown to the mind,” says Yende.

She was guided by her instincts and intuition as well as support from her family and what she calls the entire ‘prettyarmy’, encompassing individuals who played a role in making her dreams come true.

Her successes also led to an offer to join the prestigious young artists’ program at La Scala. She performed at the opera house in 2010, but by then had already performed in Berlin and Latvia.

Yende has received accolades including at the International Hans Gabor Belvedere and Operalia Competitions. In South Africa, she was conferred the Order of Ikhamanga by President Jacob Zuma.

The 32-year-old is the only singer to have ever won all the main prizes at the renowned Belvedere Singing Competition in Vienna. She is also the first black singer to play the lead in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Paris Opera.

“I learned from the beginning that I was in competition with no one, and that has taken away a lot of pressure and expectations that come with this career,” says Yende.

Yende has traveled the world, and spends some of the year in New York and Paris, which are quickly becoming her “artistic homes”.

Ever since she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 2013, playing the lead role of Countess Adèle in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, she hasn’t looked back. The opera house has become one of Yende’s favorite places to perform in. She has had numerous performances on that very stage, one of the most recent being The Barber of Seville production.

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The work is never-ending for opera singers as it calls for utter dedication and versatility. Most operas are written and performed in foreign languages, so they have to act and perform in them.

Yende speaks four South African languages, is fluent in French and Italian, and is currently learning German. In September 2016, she released her debut classical album A Journey.

A journey that has taken her across the globe, she has now come full circle, as she was honored at the South African Music Awards in May with the International Achiever Award.

“I want to be remembered as a girl who never gave up on anything that felt right in her heart,” says Yende.

“Failure is a big fat lie; I don’t have it in my vocabulary. I triumph always, if it doesn’t look or feel like triumph is it a lesson well learned and I am never the same as I was before a challenge.”

When she performed Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Paris Opera, the 3,000-strong Parisian audience were on their feet in the middle of the production.

“It was overwhelmingly historic and thrilling,” says Yende.

She prides herself in championing opera music through the Pretty Yende Foundation launched in 2013, which has been able to donate music instruments to a few schools in her community. Yende hopes to help cultivate classical music in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

“The dream is to have a music school and an opera house in my home town as well as every village in Africa.”

Music has given her a deeper meaning in life, but it is universal and has to be accessible to all. Yende is encouraged by the opera music scene in South Africa.

“It’s growing immensely and I look forward to see the incredible wealth of my country being graced on the world stage.”

Otherwise, she sees herself as a normal girl who enjoys life, constantly enriching it with experiences.

“Rest is a very big part of that and I enjoy cooking very much and I always say that if I kept my quest to be an accountant, I would have been a very successful one but the wealth that music gives me is priceless,” she says.

Yende also adds that if she hadn’t been an opera singer, she would have been a chef. At the moment though, her diary is packed until the second half of 2018. She is also excited about the release of her second album, Dreams, in October this year.

“Pretty awesome for someone who never thought she could ever sing professionally,” she says. – Written by Zikhona Masala