(Credit: Elena Cherkashyna)
On June 21, Pretty Yende was detained at the French airport on her way to the Théâtre des Champs Elysées for the fourth performance of a new critically acclaimed production of “La Sonnambula.”
She was returning from Milan where she been processing documents and when she arrived back in France, police officers took her to a cell where she was searched. The shocked soprano took to social media to share her story about the trauma it caused her. The police have since denied doing anything illegal or untoward.
OperaWire spoke to Pretty Yende in an exclusive interview about the experience she underwent.
OperaWire: Where were you coming from and when you arrived at the airport, at what point did you feel there was something unusual going on?
Pretty Yende: I went to Milan on a 7:20 a.m. flight in order to make it for my appointment at the Italian immigration for the process of a new permesso di soggiorno issuance. At that meeting, that’s where I was given the permesso di soggiorno improvvisorio whilst waiting for the new one. I normally never travel in between shows, the Milan questura, made this provision for me because they understood that I had performances in and around Europe and that is the very document that the French customs Police officers said they don’t accept.
The officer that helped me at passport control didn’t speak or understand English at all. She asked me to write what I was saying on Google translate so she can get what I was saying. Still, she didn’t understand. She then said she had to speak to a supervisor. At that point, she asked me if I had money with me? Like cash… I said, why? I have my bank cards and I don’t carry cash. I showed them my contract from the theatre and explained to them that I had had a performance just yesterday and went to Italy to get that official document and that I have a performance today. She then walked away from her station and escorted me to the detention area.
OW: When you were detained did the officers say why? Were you ever given explanations of the incident?
PY: I landed on a delayed flight which arrived at 3:11 in Charles de Gaule airport and I got to customs border control around 3:20/30 and I only got out from the retention cell after 6 p.m. in the evening. On the phone, my lawyer was telling them that they were wrong. I had the right documents but they said “No, she has to be deported back to Italy.” They looked into flights and the only available flight was on the 23rd and they said I was going to be taken to a “prison hotel” and that I’m definitely not allowed to cross the border.
They then took my fingerprints and did the paperwork and when I asked for a charger for my phone because my battery was dying, they then said: “I’m not allowed to have my phone, they are going to take away everything including my handbag.” They gave me a piece of paper and told me to write down phone numbers of close friends and family or lawyers that I could call from the landline phone at the retention cell.
They said I was not allowed to use my phone. They were walking in and around the room I was kept in. When I asked to use the bathroom, an officer had to wait outside the toilet door and escort me back to the retention cell afterward.
OW: What did you feel as you were sitting in the room especially in a country that you have visited and sung in throughout the years?
PY: I was in shock and still am because they didn’t believe me and I was scared of what was going to happen to me because no one knew what I was being subjected to. Then they started searching me and told me to take off my shoes. They didn’t even explain to me why I was now being searched. I felt really stripped of my human dignity and respect and couldn’t believe that it was really happening to me with a legal official document.
OW: When you were finally let go, what did the officers say?
PY: They had now already done the paperwork and there was an interpreter in the room, and they said I had to sign those forms which I showed to my lawyer. They were “refusal entry forms.” They had now prepared a one-entry visa stamp on my passport valid for 15 days, and they said I had to pay €80 and then I asked why I had to sign this refusal entry form.
I asked, “So I now have to always declare that I was once refused entry whenever that question comes up when I fill in visa forms?” They know I have not been blacklisted and there won’t be any record of it anywhere. It is just a formality that they have to do and that will be the only way they would let me go after signing them. They still insisted that the document I had was not accepted by France, and they said it’s good that I had someone to call because Michele Franck from the theatre helped me get out of there. I am very grateful to him and my manager Gianluca Macheda for really saving me from that ordeal.
OW: Was this the first time you ever experienced something like this at the airport? Were there ever other circumstances where you felt you were racially profiled?
PY: I honestly think it was an unfortunate situation with those police officers and truly I hope that wasn’t the case because really even now thinking about it, I’m still in shock that it happened to me even when I showed them the valid legal document.
OW: Why did you think it was important to share this story?
PY: I normally never share anything in my platform that would cause harm or bring something hurtful but in this case, the psychological trauma of what happened, was so intense, I couldn’t even speak about it. Hence for the first time on my platform, I shared my story. I was very scared of what would happen to me and all the terrible stories that we read every day, made me really fear for my life.