An image of Pretty Yende smiling at the camera.

Caption: Pretty Yende is slated to perform as part of the crowning ceremony of King Charles III next month at London’s Westminster Abbey.

Photo courtesy of Pretty Yende.

Pretty Yende On Performing at the Coronation of King Charles III

Pretty Yende has performed in some of the most esteemed operas around the world, and on May 6th, the South African soprano will sing for her biggest audience yet as part of the royal family’s crowning of the king.

Ten years ago, Pretty Yende made her debut in Rossini’s Le comte Ory on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It was a memorable entrance, considering she fell down during it , but since then, the South African soprano has endeared herself to fans around the world. She’s performed many of opera’s leading roles, including Rosina in The Barber of Seville at the Paris Opera, and sung in the hallowed halls of La Scala and the Royal Opera House. In March this year, she took on Gilda in Guiseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Vienna Opera House.

For Yende, who was born in Mpumalanga in South Africa and wanted to become an opera singer after hearing Lakme’s ‘The Flower Duet’ in a British Airways advert as a child, her journey – the “Pretty Journey,” as she calls it – has been going for more than a decade. It’s been 22 years since she first began investing in her voice and her career. “It’s from the moment I said, ‘Teach me,’” she tells OkayAfrica , in an interview over Zoom. “That was the first step because after that I could not look back.” Studying at the South African College of Music, Yende still remembers teachers like Virgina Davids, who first guided her.

Now, she is set to take on her next big part in May, when she performs for King Charles III as part of the Coronation. There is much fanfare planned for the occasion that includes a concert the next day. It hasn’t yet been revealed who’ll be playing at that, but according to reports, the likes of Adele and Elton John turned down requests to perform due to scheduling conflicts.

Yende spoke to OkayAfrica about preparing for the high-profile event, why she wanted to be involved, and the Hollywood dreams she still wants to tackle.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

From your social media, it really is evident how much you’re on the go, especially now, with your new role as Gilda in Rigoletto – what do you do on a day off?

Relax. One of the things that I've made sure that I don't do, is I don't listen to opera [chuckles]. If I listen to opera I will immediately be back on, and I cannot do that. And then I don't listen to classical music either. I listen to jazz, I listen to any kind of other types of music, like gospel. And I like watching movies on Netflix quite a bit. Especially because I'm very, very interested in being in Hollywood and actually I will be, so when I look at especially the period pieces, they are very inspirational for me. Because with the roles that I wish to do in the future on the operatic stage, like Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena , when I watch Hollywood portraying those stories, I've learned a lot from those actresses and so that's what I do.

You mentioned Netflix and wanting to be in Hollywood. It was a terrific surprise to hear you on The Harder They Fall soundtrack.

It was an extraordinary experience and I look forward to being on screen, and not just the sound.

Pretty Yende - Three And Thirty Years (Visualizer)

Is that something you want to pursue?

That's actually something that is happening. I cannot talk about it until it's time but yes, there's a window that's open and I'm peeping in, like, ‘Yes, yes, please!’

Is it something that will happen this year?

With the pandemic, everything sort of just got very sidetracked, so time-wise, it's not easy for me to really say it. But I promise when it's time, you will know, and it will be something that I cannot wait to talk about.

Well, in the meantime you have the Coronation coming up. How did you find out you’d be performing there?

I was in London at the beginning of the year last year during La Traviata , the Royal Opera House, and I was there for quite a few months. I got a message from my manager telling me there was an invitation from the palace, if I would like to be part of the 75th Royal Philharmonic Orchestra celebration at Windsor Castle and, Prince Charles, as he was then, who is one of the patrons of the orchestra, would be there. I said, ‘Go to the castle? Yes, please, let’s go!’

That was the first time I actually met the king and performed there. He was very gracious and charming and seemed very impressed with the performance. And then fast forward a few months later, I was in Vienna, early December and my manager said, ‘I might have a very early Christmas present for you.’ He said, ‘There's a huge possibility of you performing at the Coronation; the king himself has asked for you to come and perform.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God, yes please!’

Of course I accepted, and then afterwards it was a whirlwind of emotion. When it got confirmed I was very, very, very grateful that he had me in his heart for that, and it's a very huge opportunity for my gift to be part of such a monumental historical event with the British monarchy. But also, generations from now, when we are all long gone and forgotten, when they read about this day there will be that little name of this girl from South Africa, from the tip of Africa, that performed at this incredible occasion.

You've been performing in and breaking through spaces that have traditionally been very white – was this part of why you said yes?

I felt like every time I have the opportunity to exercise my gift it is a place of love. It is a place of reconciliation. It is a place that brings any one of us, so diverse from different backgrounds, from all walks of life, together. When we are there, enveloped together in that space, we get the chance to be in a place of a common ground of love and hope and all good things; all that I wish I can be – more than just an opera singer.

So when this opportunity came, and the invitation came, I accepted it with my whole heart. Because I said it is a privilege that I get to be entrusted with a platform such as that, and my gift somehow will be able to be that reconciliation, be that hope, be that love – as it has always been, been that joy. And from each generation, we can always, in our own ways, try to make the tomorrow better than the yesterday.

What do you say to people who think that maybe the invitation should have been declined because of the legacy of colonialism? What do you feel about that?

Then I should have declined saying yes to the “Pretty journey” completely. Because even that negates me to even have a sound in the journey that I've had with a gift that I have. I should have said no. Because all the roles that I've played, none of those stories have anything to do with the color of who I am. It's a human story. It's a human story . I've had the possibility of playing stories about human beings that touch people, from the greatest of the great royal tragedies to comedies to normal human beings. So why would I say no now? When I said yes 22 years ago.

I feel very grateful with opera, what's happening in our industry – in a small way, maybe – but there are changes happening. Hopefully for generations to come, there can be even bigger changes.

And how do you prepare for something like the Coronation – is it going to be different to what you normally do?

Yes, I’ve had to be really strict with my mind. Normally, in my belly, I am trained to host four thousand souls at the Met or three thousand souls at the Bastille [Paris Opera]. Now, my belly has to grow for a billion souls [the audience expected to watch the event]. I can only pull from what I have inside me, right? You don't give from what you don't have. So I've been talking to myself, letting myself realize that I need to grow a little bit more so that when I stand there, I stand there ready to serve my virtue with my gift, the way I always do. Ultimately, it's all about the music. The platform is just a gift, and I'm very grateful for that. My duty is to the music.