Had it not been for a random encounter with a British Airways television commercial when she was 16, soprano Pretty Yende might be crunching numbers in an office today rather than performing at some of the world’s most famous opera houses.
The South African singer recalled in a recent interview that she was home watching TV when she came across the commercial, which featured music she had never heard before — something strange but also weirdly beautiful.
“It didn’t sound human at all,” she said. Later, she learned that the score was the popular Flower Duet from Delibes’ “Lakmé.”
And so a love of classical opera was born. Starting Saturday, Yende will star as Susanna in Los Angeles Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” which runs through April 12 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The 30-year-old last appeared with the company in a 2013 staging of “Carmen.”
Yende said that becoming an opera singer first meant convincing her parents, who wanted her to pursue accounting. (Her mother is a teacher, and her father drives a taxi.)
The singer grew up in a Zulu-speaking family in the town of Piet Retief, in the northeastern part of South Africa on the border with Swaziland. For her, “opera was completely foreign and never existed until that ad,” she said.
Her parents didn’t accept her new passion. “They asked, isn’t it just a hobby?” she recalled. “They asked why I didn’t just do my accounting, because I wanted to be an accountant at that time.”
She added, “But I knew I needed to know that I could do it now rather than later. It was a blessing when they let me.”
Yende said her Christian upbringing helped her to develop her vocal poise. “I learned to stand in front of people in church, so that gave me confidence,” she said.
She studied music for several years at the University of Cape Town. “When I got there, I had just found my voice, but it wasn’t good enough,” the singer recalled. “That was difficult, but I knew when I got there that I needed to be there.”
Yende drew international attention when she won a series of first prizes at the 2009 Belvedere Competition for young opera singers. She later took home the women’s first prize at the 2011 Operalia competition, which is organized by Plácido Domingo.
Domingo, who is also the general director of L.A. Opera, said in an email that after Operalia, “it was instantly clear to everyone there that she was ready for the world’s greatest stages. She has an extraordinarily beautiful voice with a phenomenal technique, and she lights up the stage with charisma.”
In 2013, Yende made her Metropolitan Opera debut as a last-minute substitute in a production of “Le Comte Ory,” and she recently performed the title role of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at a concert in Cape Town.
"['Lucia’] is one opera that I didn’t think I could do” she said. “That was the one role that I was most scared of, and it has taught me so much about my voice.”
South Africa has produced a handful of major opera stars, including such currently popular performers as tenor Johan Botha and soprano Pumeza Matshikiza.
Yende said she intended to focus on the bel canto repertoire. “Mozart and bel canto are helping me find my voice and finding what I can and cannot do,” she said.
The performer said the opera singers she most admired were the legends — Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland — though she added that the “danger would be to copy that person.”
Yende lives in Milan, Italy, where she has studied and performed at La Scala. But she calls the city her second home.
She said she still travels back to South Africa, “even if it’s for just 14 hours. I need to always remember to be grounded. Going home makes me remember my family and to not forget where you come from.”