Yende, 30, brought her majestic voice to Los Angeles this past weekend, where she opened at the Los Angeles Opera in a production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. She’s playing Susanna, the maid in love with Figaro.
It was a long road for her to get there. She became fascinated with opera from hearing a British Airways commercial.
“And so I hear these sounds, just those 10 seconds,” she said to NPR. “I knew that it’s something that I should know, but I didn’t know what it was. And so I went to my high school teacher the following day and I asked him what it was, and he told me it’s called opera. And I said to him, ‘Is it humanly possible?’ Because at 16, growing up in a very small town, in Piet Retief, I had no idea that human beings were capable of such a gift. And so he told me that of course it is humanly possible. If you have the talent, you can do it. I said to him, ‘Well, you need to teach me that.'”
He tried, but at first did not believe she had the gift, saying, “You shouldn’t be singing, you should just continue with your quest of being an accountant.”
She did not give up. She got better. And better. And better…
That was 14 years ago. Today, she’s starring in Los Angeles.
“I like Susanna so much,” she said. “I chose to look at Susanna for the strength she has vocally, but also physically, because it’s one of the longest roles in the whole entire operatic repertoire. And so what is fun about it is the fact that she allows you to be the best actress, and this is what I wanted to learn from her: How can I be quick, smart, charming, always ahead, never panicking? Because she’s always in control. They usually cast it for a person who is more an actress than an important voice, if I may. Not saying that my voice is important, but I mean that usually I would be cast as the countess.”
Like many Black singing artists in America, Yende grew up singing in the church. Her ascent as a Black South African in opera makes her unique. Her voice makes her even more unique.
Her big test came two years ago at the famed New York Metropolitan Opera House. She was called to play Adèle when a noted soprano could not play the role. Yenda stepped on stage. . . and fell. “I’m not supposed to be here. They wanted the other soprano. She’s more famous than me, and now they’re stuck with me. Maybe they really don’t need me here. Oh, my God, why am I here?” she said she was thinking.
“I could hear everybody breathing when I entered the stage — like, I could hear every heartbeat. And then I walked on, gracefully. I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m going to say goodbye to my brother and come back.’ But when I turned I took an extra look back, and that is what cost me, because then I was already on the edge of the steps going down. So when I took that final step, I was on my knees, and I was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing on your knees. Oh, my God, I have fallen!’
She got up, however. And when she was done, the sold-out crowd was on its feet, giving her a standing ovation.
“(After getting up), the entire evening,” she said, “I was just having the best time of my life. It was really special.”