Pretty Yende first encountered opera via the Flower Duet in B-major, the middle key of the G-major basic triad. Taken from the opera Lakmé, a tale set in pre-colonial India, it is one of the most popular arias in classical music. The duet has served as a musical backdrop to many films and adverts, and has been sampled widely across contemporary musical genres, including hip-hop.
But it was British Airways’ sampling of the duet that piqued the young Yende’s interest in opera to the point where she decided to take up music studies at the University of Cape Town. She was subsequently invited to further her studies at the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, Italy, becoming the first ever black student there.
Yende is among the few black singers in the contemporary opera world. But she isn’t the first: the likes of Leontyne Price, the first black opera singer, and Kathleen Battle stand as black women who have conquered the high Cs of composers such as Verdi and Rossini. But the classical music space has been left largely untouched in terms of how it is generally perceived as a white thing.
But the influences of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk were rooted in classical music. Then there was Michael Jackson, who cited Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky as one of his influences. The song This Time on Janet Jackson’s fifth studio album, janet. (1993), is an operatic pop arrangement featuring Kathleen Battle in which the listener is transported to a classical world.
We might be able to read Yende’s journey to opera as an almost rags-to-riches tale. But the truth is that her crisp soprano, coupled with hard work, are the main reasons for her star being on the constant rise.
Opera has its roots in 16th century Italy. Unlike the oratorio (religious texts set to music), opera is theatre. It is the voice, the orchestra, the costume and the props that work together to create the complete narrative, and thus communicate the composer’s vision. It takes excellent musicianship to assist the listener in aurally constructing a scene. A composer’s work can come to naught if the singer and the orchestra, or both, fail to bridge the gap created by the listener not being in an opera house.
Transporting listeners across the galaxy
This is perhaps one of the main reasons Yende can comfortably claim her space as one of opera’s foremost female stars. Take the Flower Duet, which features on her debut album A Journey. Here Leo Delibes, the composer of Lakmé, wants us to imagine a river flanked by the most spectacular and most fragrant flowers, from jasmine to tuberose, as Lakmé and her maidservant Malika walk down to the river bank to bathe. Singing the part of Lakmé, Yende succeeds in translating the music, giving the listener a clear sense of the majestic scene.
On Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which is based on Walter Scott’s historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor, Yende takes on the task of communicating romance, tragedy and mania. She offers an interesting take on the song Ancor Non Guise, which sees Lucia murder her husband following a forced marriage. It doesn’t quite evoke the tragedy it’s supposed to. Perhaps Yende seeks to invite us to imagine a Lucia who has not quite lost her mind but is in some ways reclaiming her power after the traumatic experience of being ripped away from one’s true love and forced to marry a virtual stranger. She achieves this through her slightly more jovial coloratura (vocal runs), probably to the disapproval of a listener who is used to something more tragic.
With a vocal range that rockets to the galaxy’s furthest constellations, Yende’s coloratura are as smooth as melting butter. This is evident in another of opera’s greatest compositions, Romeo et Juliet CG9: Je Veux Vivre, in which Yende’s roulades (a passage of runs, especially one sung to one syllable) are displayed in all their multicoloured splendor.
Much of the opera singer’s duty is to maintain the iconicity of the music and perhaps the immortality of the composers. Not only does Yende do this, she brings parts of herself into the music. We hear a soprano who introduces bright colours and textures to the music in ways that some of her predecessors and peers do not.
That is the beauty of music and of singing the classics in particular: the music and words can never be interpreted and conveyed in exactly the same way. And to see a black woman’s take on these lead roles allows us to imagine ourselves at the centre of nuanced, multilayered narratives that we do not often experience elsewhere.