“Are you sitting down, pretty?” Pretty Yende, a South African soprano, was singing in Vienna last December when she received a phone call from her management. She’d just been booked for the greatest event of her life: a performance at King Charles III’s coronation.
The crowning of Charles III will take place at Westminster Abbey in London on May 6. Royalty and world leaders will be among the 2,000 attendees, and 12 new pieces of music have been commissioned to honor the event.
It’s believed that Yende is the only African to have been invited to perform solo at a British coronation as one of the ceremony’s three soloists.
“I was overwhelmed, shocked, and overjoyed. “All the emotions were just rushing in,” she added, recalling the offer.
But, given the 38-year-old’s incredible journey, it’s surprising she was surprised at all.
“Like something out of a fairy tale”
It’s an inspiring tale of how Yende rose to the top of her profession. She was raised in a contented, traditional religious manner in a small, rural community in Mpumalanga, South Africa, originally known as Piet Retief and now known as eMkhondo. Church hymns were her closest musical connection.
As a bashful child, Yende claims she always sought to win over her family. She was aware of how uneasy it would be to perform in front of people when her grandma initially asked her to do so, but she complied. It turned out to be the first step toward performing in front of sizable crowds.
Yende never thought about pursuing a music career; instead, she wanted to attend college to study accounting. At age 16, she then watched opera for the first time on television. “This music’s strength and ability to move me seemed otherworldly. I didn’t think people were capable of doing that,” she recalled.
She recalled emulating it and recording it. “I would listen to the recording nonstop all day. My family was in danger because I wouldn’t stop rehearsing and yelling, my gosh. Her parents agreed to let her pursue a music degree at university on the proviso that, if singing didn’t work out, she would switch back to a degree in accounting.
While still a student at the University of Cape Town, Yende began building a reputation for herself in South Africa. In 2011, she earned her degree from the Young Artists program at the Accademia at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, and she started competing in opera competitions.
She recalled, “The very first opera competition I participated in was in Vienna, Austria, where I won everything conceivable. “They kept calling my name, and I kept thinking, ‘No, God, please let this one go to someone else.'” Hearing the level of finesse that my peers possessed made me feel unworthy.
Her international career took off in 2013 when she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Yende has since performed roles in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory” in major opera houses in Milan, Paris, and London.
In an interview with the Observer, Yende said that her career has been filled with firsts, like becoming the “first Black person to have a new production of ‘La Traviata’ in Opera Garnier in Paris,” in a production that was created particularly for her.
It has not always been easy sailing. Her goal is to use her celebrity and talent to challenge preconceptions as she continues to address the issue of opera’s Eurocentrism.
“Being the odd one out in the room has always been the most difficult challenge.” “It was a little awkward when I was the first Black student at the Accademia di La Scala,” she recalled.
“Occasionally, when I would walk into the rehearsal space, I would notice a glance that said, ‘Why are you here?’ I’d just smile back at them. However, once I started playing music, everyone in the room concurred that I wasn’t there by accident.
Since King Charles is a patron of more than a dozen musical organizations, opera has played a significant role in his life. A New Zealand opera soprano named Kiri Te Kanawa sang at the royal wedding of the then-prince and the late Princess Diana in 1981. Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel and baritone Roderick Williams will both play on the program on May 6.
The coronation will not be King Charles’ first time seeing Yende play; he saw her perform at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 75th anniversary gala, which will be place at Windsor Castle in April 2022.
Nonetheless, the invitation to the coronation is a rare honor. “It’s historic, and it’s generational,” Yende explained.
She will play “Sacred Fire,” a new composition by classical and film composer Sarah Class that, according to Buckingham Palace, “evokes a bridge between the angelic and human realms” with imagery from the Bible.
“It’s a vision of freedom and protection for all beings, as well as the abundance and beauty of our natural world,” Class said in a statement.
A historical event
According to the associated press, over 26 million Britons watched Queen Elizabeth II’s death, and more than 20 million saw her coronation in 1953.
This is a watershed moment for the new King: a historic spectacle, but also an opportunity to strengthen the Crown’s bond with the British people and the Commonwealth.
Some have argued that someone from one of Britain’s former colonies should not be singing at the coronation, but Yende is unconcerned.
“My gift is a place where… people from all walks of life can find healing and reconciliation to move forward into the future,” she added.
Many millions of people will be watching the coronation from all over the world, including Yende’s family in Mpumalanga. It will be a historic occasion for the continent, but more importantly, it will be a treasured memory for the singer who almost became an accountant.
“I have feelings of excitement and joy for this upcoming engagement, just like I do for any other,” she explains. “I’m preparing and am looking forward to it.”