The Butterfly – Pretty Yende’s Never-Ending Search For Artistic Freedom

By Francisco Salazar

A butterfly can never be caged or it dies.

The same can be said of an opera singer, who needs the freedom to explore and develop as an artist. When an artist is caged and not allowed to carve out an organic path, he or she may burn out very quickly.

During a recent interview with OperaWire, soprano Pretty Yende repeatedly used this very metaphor to describe how she views her own artistic career.

The soprano, whose well-documented metamorphosis into an operatic butterfly has featured light-speed growth and movement, has yet to show any signs of burning out, her ascent up the operatic ladder organic and refreshing. Instead of looking the part of a person that could use a break from jumping from one spot to another, Yende exudes energy, a smile always propped up on her visage.

She credits this exuberance and excitement not only to her unbridled passion for the art form and her audiences but to her sense of freedom to be the person and artist she wants.

Flying Onto National Television

Yende has held a rather high profile in the opera world over the last few years, ever since bursting on the scene in 2013 when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory.” Since then she has gotten a chance to perform at major theaters around the world and recently unveiled a new album.

But just a few weeks ago she managed to promote her art on a far larger scale and to a far more diverse audience when she performed on both the Wendy Williams show and the Stephen Colbert show. She even took the time to do a YouTube video with Wendy Williams.

Yende recognizes that most purists would see this as a ploy to promote albums or sell out, but the South African soprano sees these “risks” as extensions of her mission to extend the operatic audience.

“The programs that I got to do? It’s very rare to see opera singers on TV. We need to break boundaries and we need to bring back what it used to be because opera used to be normal on television. But for some reason, it got off. I always believe in the impossible because I always consider that it could be possible.”

Yende refers to the golden age when Beverly Sills and Roberta Peters among others appeared on such programs as the Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, David Frost, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore talk shows. They helped popularize the art form through these appearances and helped normalize opera to the general public.

“I hope it’s not a one-time thing and that it will become very normal to have many of us representing what we do. [Opera] doesn’t only belong in the opera house and only to the people who go to the opera house. I believe that this art is universal and that if it found me down there at the end of the earth then it is possible.”

Caterpillar & Cocoon

Yende’s story is well-known to the majority of the opera world as she discovered the art form for the first time when she heard the duet from Délibes’ “Lakme” on an airline commercial. When she heard the piece she couldn’t believe that something like it could ever exist and that was the moment she knew opera was what she wanted to do.

In her debut solo album for Sony Classical, Yende’s journey is documented through the selections she chose to record. Each piece has great significance to her and the varied pieces represent milestones including her Metropolitan Opera debut, her discovery of the art form and her Operalia competition victory among others.

The debut album was a long time in the making, starting after she won the Belvedere International Competition in 2009. At that point, the soprano was highly sought-after by all the record companies. But she wasn’t ready. She remained unready to transform into a star.

“Everybody wanted to offer me the world and wanted to make me a star and I knew that that was not what I wanted. I had just found opera and I didn’t even know what it was. I needed to educate myself. And so in choosing a way forward, I chose to go to La Scala, a place where I knew I was not going to be recognized.”

Her training at La Scala helped her immerse herself in the world of opera and it allowed her to educate herself in many ways. She traveled, learned languages and developed as an artist. She transformed.

All the while, there remained major suitors for her talent, the watchful executives at Sony Classical, who were still hoping that when ready, she would join them as an exclusive artist.

“They were able to visit me and follow me knowing that they were keeping an eye on me and I was also keeping an eye them. Because it is a two-way thing. So I acquired the time of seven years growing the instrument, the person and growing in the industry.”

Once she was ready she finally sat down with Sony and discussed the contract. But when she finally decided to sign, she made her own requests.

“I signed a contract that still allowed me to feel freedom because I’m an artist and I must have freedom of expression and never feel caged.  I feel like I’m a butterfly and I need it. Anything that is associated with Pretty and the Pretty Army has to have that sense of freedom with respect of course to the business. But for me it’s life and I was happy that in the negotiations we were able to find a way for me to have that access to freedom.”

But even with the ink dried on the contract, Yende did not head for the recording studios to put together her first album.

“I signed the contract knowing that I was not ready to record. So although I said yes it would only be when I was ready. I told them to give me some time because the voice is a complicated instrument. And so they were able to give me that time to wait,” she noted. “And finally when I was ready we recorded the album last year in August in Torino. When recording it there was always really a clear path of where it would go. From where the journey started to how the voice developed and the highlights and where the voice seems to go to.”

Vocal Fireworks in ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ 

TV and a new CD might be the talk of the town when it comes to Yende, but her performances at the Metropolitan Opera have proven that she is the real deal. She began 2017 returning to Rossini, the composer of her Met debut. This time she brought her acclaimed Rosina in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and drew tremendous raves.

Yende sounds like a natural in this repertoire, her coloratura brisk and flexible and her peak notes ripe for musical climaxes. And yet the soprano admits to being mystified by the repertoire, which she never expected to do as a young singer.

In fact, if not for the wise words of a legendary soprano, Yende would be a different singer altogether.

“I’m happy to have met Mirella Freni when I was in the young artist program at La Scala. She advised me to look at the Bel Canto repertoire and when I started it, I had no idea it would become what it has become for me. It has allowed my voice to obtain such elasticity while maintaining color.”

Some of Yende’s critics pointed out that her interpolation of high E’s and high ascensions in coloratura passages are “showing off,” but the soprano is adamant that her approach to singing this repertoire really comes down to having the music serve the drama.

“Every line I sing, I sing it always with care and respect and never showing off because I am not that type of person. Every choice is always an expressive point of view. And Rossini allows me that in many ways. I found myself not doing the same variation every day because I had that liberty and the experience of the Bel Canto repertoire.”

“And of course all my variations are always birthed from the words. And from the words, I find what I wish to express musically because he has given everything in the score and the inspiration is there. So when I work in variations with my mentors, it’s always about the instance itself. When we work we look at the best potential ways for the voice to express itself without forcing and without strain. A variation should never be more difficult than the music itself. It’s like ‘Why would you hang yourself?’ So you have to do something that is much easier to do and somehow I’ve been able to do things that my voice could.”

And part of exploring her coloratura is being spontaneous with the music. During the radio broadcast, Yende did the unexpected. She improvised the Queen of the Night’s aria.

“That was a surprise because I never intended to sing it in the actual key. I was playing with it before, sometimes doing it once, sometimes twice but not actually in pitch. But on that radio broadcast, I did it on key and I was surprised myself.”

The piece caused laughter from the audience but it also showed a star that was capable of taking risks and always keeping a performance fresh and engaging.

“That was absolutely spontaneous. In the lesson aria, there is a part where me and the tenor have to decide what we do. In a way it can never be like the last one,” she revealed. “Somehow it grows, something is different so I’m always attentive and will never do the same thing on the same show. It’s like life. Today it rains and tomorrow it’s sunny. That’s the fun part of it.”

However, Yende did admit that she always does the variations with care because she wants to sing for as long as she can.

Gounod As Bel Canto

Bel Canto has become so immersed in Yende’s way of singing that that is how she approaches every role she sings, even something as remote from that repertoire as Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette.”

The coloratura soprano is singing her first performances in Gounod’s iconic opera and the switch from “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” could not be more apparent. While Rossini’s music requires rapid-fire high notes and roulades, Gounod’s music is more lyrical and requires a fuller voice. Most singers need to adjust their voices to fit each role. But not Yende.

“I don’t adjust my voice. Everything has to adjust to my voice, the actual instrument that is already there. It has to be done with such care and great intelligence and discipline in allowing myself to know that I can never sing Juliette with the proper throated lyric soprano. I can do that but that’s not the kind of artist I’d like to be because I’m from the Bel Canto school.”

Yende backs up this premise by looking back at history and taking inspiration from traditional performance perspectives.

“If you look at the singer who sang ‘Lucia [di Lammermoor]’ when it premiered, that singer also sang ‘Trovatore’ and ‘Nabucco.’ That knowledge makes me understand that we may have exaggerated certain things because of expectations that the voice of Verdi should be that and the voice of Rossini should be that. In a sense when I am working on roles that are so apart I can never think of them as being far apart. I always have to sing Juliette as if I was singing Lucia. So I can never allow myself to go beyond because then the voice can get confused.”

For many Juliette’s role is divided into two parts; the first half is more in the soubrette tradition and the second half is for a full lyric singer. That is in part due to the two contrasting arias “Ah! Je veux vivre” and “Amour, ranime mon courage.” The former is a light waltz that requires high-flying roulades while the latter digs into the lower part of the voice while still requiring the soprano to pull off a number of high Cs. But Yende is quick to emphasize that Juliette is 16 years old when the opera starts and when it ends.

“She is a 16-year-old so she cannot sing like ‘Trovatore.’ I cannot sound like Violetta in [‘La Traviata’]. She can probably never have as much maturity as the other girls. All these girls have never truly required me to have mature sounds.”

Taking on Juliette is not only exhilarating for Yende because it is a new role but because it gives her a chance to explore Shakespeare’s play in a different way. While some critics are harsh to say Gounod’s music adds nothing to the original work, Yende feels Gounod understood the power of their love.

“This is the tragedy of two young people falling in love unexpectedly.  They just bumped into each other and probably even if they knew they were from opposite sides they could not stop that,” she emphasized. “That is the power of love and the melodic lines by Gounod in the duets. It’s insane the progression of the line from the first where they flirt to the third duet where there is really an intense determination that they want to be together. If you look at all the duets, I think he was aware of that love. He was able to create so much depth with the music.”

Pretty Army 

Yende’s rise has not only drawn attention to the soprano, but also to the legions of support that she has received over the years. These mentors, friends and dearly beloved are the ones she lovingly calls the “Pretty Army.”

“It has taken so many people to help me find myself. To help me realize what became curiosity of the power of music and the power of my voice and its legacy. Not only for me but for my country and everyone who helped,” she noted. “I am grateful to my parents and my family who are part of my army but also whoever comes into my circle of friends and who helps me become myself and who allows me to make a choice because it is my journey and I am responsible. You know the saying that ‘It takes a village to grow a child?’ With this one, it took an entire universe.”

She also includes audience members as part of her support team, noting that she always looks to them as a way of seeing whether or not she is actually doing something right because she feels that without them there would be no Pretty Yende.

“The audience has allowed me to keep going. The audience has been there throughout all the performances that I have had. They have been a big part of encouraging me and rooting for me because at the end of the day, the audience is there for the music and they love art. And all we do is in the service of the music.”

She also has no qualms with reading her critics even though she is aware that they won’t always be nice.

“It’s not always right because there are moments where you think you did well and somebody writes a critique that touches my soft spot. And you knew you were trying something new and that has to be the hardest part. There is never a place to try it and then show to the world. I know that whenever I open myself up to something, it’s going to be seen and I have to have to be at peace even if you judge me. And I have to be aware and you can always tell a constructive critique from something else. I need to be aware of everything.”

Freedom and Exploration 

At the age of 31 Yende is still in the youth of her career. While she considers herself a butterfly, her metamorphosis is still underway as she matures as an artist. This process has seen her continue to explore diverse repertoire to see where she wants to fly next. Her goal is to sing for as many years as possible and that can often mean making difficult decisions.

“I used to sing Micaëla and I stopped because it was opening up the voice to a place that I was not ready for.  I’ve had instances where I was trying a role and the voice says no. And I have had to cancel. It’s always listening to the voice. ”

And while Yende is widely considered a major star around the world, she is not letting any perception stop her from trying all kinds of roles, even smaller ones that may not carry the full opera. This season she will perform Zerlina in Auber’s “Fra Diavolo” and next season she performs Teresa in Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini.”

Yende also loves thinking about the future. Her biggest dream? Donizetti’s “Three Queens.”

“With the voice responding so well I am inspired to extend the goal of the three queens. That is the long-term goal.”

She asserts that “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda” will probably happen but “Roberto Devereux” is still a major unknown. Dramatic Rossini operas are also something that she has an interest in, particularly after “Ciro in Babilonia” at Pesaro.”

“I have always been excited and flexible. I’m like a butterfly and I don’t want to be in a box. Until I am forced to why not be free?”













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