Just across the street from the Metropolitan Opera, Pretty Yende recalls having an opening-night blooper when she made her acclaimed debut at the famed New York City opera house in January 2013. "I fell—boom!" says the South African soprano, 29, who was a last-minute replacement as Countess Adèle in Rossini's Le Comte Ory. "I just remember it was so silent. I could feel everybody breathing; I could feel everybody's heartbeat. But I snapped out of it—all of the tension that I was feeling just went away. Then they gave me a full standing ovation at the end."
That was a rare stumble as Yende has scaled to the top of the opera world, from her 2010 sweep of the first prizes at the prestigious Belvedere Singing Competition and her 2011 triumph at Plácido Domingo's Operalia, the World Opera Competition, to her performances on major stages like La Scala in Milan. After ending 2014 as Rosina in The Barber of Seville at Oslo's Den Norske Opera, in February she'll play Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor at Berlin's Deutsche Oper.
She's come a long way from the small South African town of Piet Retief, where—after first singing in church and at family sing-alongs—she discovered opera as a teenager in a British Airways commercial featuring "The Flower Duet" from Léo Delibes's Lakmé. "I heard the music, and somehow my soul knew what it was, but my mind didn't know," says Yende, sipping her caffe latte at Manhattan's Empire Hotel. "The following day I asked my high school teacher what it was, and he told me it's called opera. I said, "Is it humanly possible?" and he said, "Of course." I said, "Well, you need to teach me that.""
Soon her career goal had switched from accountant to opera star—something she couldn't have imagined before the fall of apartheid in South Africa. "Black people were not allowed to study opera in schools before," says Yende, who now embraces being a trailblazer in opera circles. "I had to learn to accept that it will be something I will carry with me all the time, because I can't change the color of my skin. Seeing that minority inspired me more, because I love a challenge. I hardly enjoy comfort zones because I must find out what's the best in me."
Yende—whose offstage style is much more comfortable than the corsets she sometimes wears in costume—will have to keep on hitting those high notes. "I'm booked until 2020," she says, "so no babies until then!" Nor is this down-to-earth diva looking for a man: "I'm happily single. It is hard to date because I'm always in a city for a month and then I'm gone. It's one of the sacrifices that I have learned to embrace. Just to play around, it's not healthy. So I'd rather just wait patiently, knowing that at the right time the right person will come."
This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of ESSENCE Magazine, on newsstands now!