Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
As a 16-year-old, Pretty Yende was sitting with her parents in their rural South African home watching TV when a British Airways ad came on. As the sweet music swelled and voices intertwined, Yende was mesmerized. The only problem: She had no idea what to call the beautiful music she'd just heard.
"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," Yende explained to NPR last year. The commercial had played the duet from Delibes' Lakmé. "If you have the talent, you can do it," her teacher told her.
Yende learned quickly. Now, her sparkling debut album, A Journey, unfolds like a musical diary chronicling the 31-year-old soprano's fairytale rise to fame. After her studies at the South African College of Music in Cape Town, the awards and debuts began piling up, many of which are reflected in the arias she sings in this recital.
The album opens with "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Barber of Seville, an opera that served as Yende's Paris Opéra debut earlier this year. It's a smart leadoff performance, introducing the voice's many assets: creamy warmth, a focused vibrato, shimmering and easily placed top notes. She tosses off the aria's pyrotechnical flourishes with élan while revealing the spunky character of Rosina.
The aforementioned Lakmé "Flower Duet," with a winsome-voiced Kate Aldrich, is an obvious choice, as is the Bellini aria that follows. "Ma la sola, ohimè," from Beatrice di Tenda, helped Yende earn three prizes at Plácido Domingo's Operalia Competition in 2011. Here, Yende spins a silky bel canto line, carefully adding tinges of sadness to music that sometimes sounds brighter than the solemn text.
The year before, in 2010, Yende was the first to sweep all top prizes at Vienna's Belvedere Singing Competition. Her secret weapon was an aria from Gounod's Romeo and Juliet. As the titular, panic-stricken heroine, Yende radiates charisma from the opening line, "Dieu, quell frisson court dans mes veines!" (God, what a shudder runs through my veins!) Moments of self-doubt, courage and fear flash by as the darker shades of Yende's voice push through Gounod's trills.
Almost every famous singer can look back on a big break. Yende's came in 2013 at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where she sang a lead role in Rossini's witty Le Comte Ory with only a month's notice. Although she literally tripped and fell entering the stage opening night, the audience rewarded her with a downpour of bravos two hours later. Some of that adulation probably stemmed from the effortless way she mounts (and descends) Rossini's high E in "Céleste providence."
Yende returned to her hometown of Piet Retief in 2013 to sing the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, represented here by the first-act aria "Regnava nel silenzio." While Yende's phrasing and coloring arguably don't encompass the breadth of Lucia's soul-rattling angst, the lustrous voice and sateen-smooth runs fall beautifully on the ear.
The album closes with the luxuriously appointed mad scene from Bellini's I puritani. With its dramatic freakouts and high-flying fioriture, it's something of a Mount Everest for any courageous coloratura. Although Yende hasn't lived in the lead role long (she debuted it this year in Zurich), she makes Elvira's mania believable, crowning the hysteria with a secure high E-flat.
South Africa has a rich history of great singers; think Miriam Makeba and Joseph Shabalala, for starters. Now, the country can add another name to its roster. It will be fascinating to follow Pretty Yende wherever her journey takes her next.