Pretty amazing

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Luis Dias

We all know the power of advertising. But sometimes the advertisement can in‘ad’vertently sell you something unintended, but worth far more than the branded product. Priceless, in fact.

Many of you will remember the British Airways ad, featuring the beautiful ‘Flower Duet’ from Delibes’ opera ‘Lakmé’ which appeared on our movie and television screens in the 1980s. If there was any other airline ad also around at the time, this ravishing one beat all its rivals into oblivion. I was in my teens then and not travelling anywhere, but if I could, I would have flown British Airways just because the ad made it so alluring. Like Morgan Freeman’s character ‘Red’ in the ‘Shawshank Redemption’, I had no idea then what those ladies were singing about, but who cared? It was heady stuff.

That same ad had a much more profound, in fact life-changing impact on a sixteen-year-old girl in Piet Retief, a town in the timber-growing region of Mpunamalanga province, South Africa.

Pretty Yende was watching TV in 2001 with her family when the commercial was aired. In a 2017 interview to Oprah, she recalled: “The voices captivated me — but I had no idea what it was. The next day I asked my teacher what I’d heard, and he told me it was opera. I’d planned to become an accountant, but those 30 seconds were powerful.”

I find such stories of people’s entry points into music careers utterly fascinating, precisely because they are so diverse and so unpredictable. Pretty Yende is an operatic soprano today, and has performed leading roles at opera houses internationally, including La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. Powerful 30 seconds indeed!

It wasn’t an easy decision. Yende was in her last year of high school at the time and had received a scholarship to a university. Her parents thought opera should be “just a hobby”, but as Yende told Oprah: “I knew I belonged in that world.”

Since making her professional operatic debut at the Latvian National Theatre in Riga as Micaela in Carmen, she has been seen at nearly all of the major theaters of the world, including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, Metropolitan Opera, Teatroalla Scala in Milan, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Berlin, Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Opernhaus Zürich and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

I’m writing about Yende in the wake of this opera bonanza from all over the world, particularly the Metropolitan Opera that I’ve been lucky to watch daily, almost from the beginning of the lockdown. Some 80 opera live streams later I’ve seen very few black male or female leading role singers. I’ve been keeping a log, and on consulting it, among the leading role female black singers there were just four: the two big names from yesteryear, Jessye Norman (1945 – 2019) and Leontyne Price (born 1927); Kathleen Battle (born 1948) and then a long dry spell; until Pretty Yende showed up in the leading role of Adina in Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera ‘L’Elisird’ Amore’ (The Love Potion). That’s quite an under-representation. And none at all from India or the rest of South Asia, but that’s another story.

Classical music in general, and opera in particular suffers (perhaps justifiably so) from the perception that it is an overwhelmingly “white” art form.

But there is cause for optimism, and it may well come from South Africa, from singers like Yende. “We are a singing nation. We are born with a beat. We cry, we sing. We laugh, we sing. We’re sad, we sing. We lose, we sing. We win, we sing. So song has been part of us from a long long time,” said Yende in a 2011 interview. All that is happening is that this passion for singing is being extended into opera once elitist, but no longer.

“All I wanted to do was to sing. All I wanted to do was to know how to sing,” Yende told Agence France-Presse. “Even now, all I want to do is to sing well.”

In 1994, South Africa transitioned from a system of apartheid to one of majority rule. Along with the many sweeping changes that came along with it, it also leveled the playing field in the arts. Voices that were literally stifled under apartheid could now blossom to their fullest potential.

“Formerly people were not even allowed on the stage and that’s why it looks as if there is a huge upsurge. But what it is, is that suddenly things opened up and people started realising they could make careers. These singers have always been there but they have always been ignored. It’s a pity because a lot of wonderful talent has gone missing in the process because of the situation that we had in this country,” said head of vocal studies at the South African College of Music (SACM) based at the University of Cape Town, Virginia Davids, in an interview. Yende studied at the SACM too, graduating cum laude, with Davids as one of her teachers. “At the moment our best singers are black,” said Davids. Yende’s younger sister, Nombulelo is also an opera singer.

Racial prejudice is rife in the classical music world. I was re-reading a book I had bought a long time ago, ‘Who’s afraid of Opera?’ (1994) by Michael Walsh, then music critic for Time magazine. While written in light-hearted vein, one detects shades of bias in his writing and judgment. He gleefully recounts how he refused to do a cover story on New Zealand lyric soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. He raked up in passing what he called the “nonmusical aspects of her interesting life”, namely her half-Maori parentage, and her adoption by another mixed-race couple. His reasons for his refusal? He “wasn’t terribly fond” of her singing, and that in his opinion “her lack of a strong musical foundation was a crippling interpretative handicap”, so on and so forth. His bias effectively killed off what would have made a great cover story. Further, toward the end of the book, Walsh talks about the “distinctive colouring” of Leontyne Price’s voice and adds “some profess to hear a ‘black’ sound in it” (without elaborating what this means. Is there a ‘white’ sound too?) and that Price “is a sterling example of how to conduct, prolong and even milk a career.” Maybe I’m reading too much into his comments, weighing each word too carefully. But these passages did make me wince.

The other issue is the inherent racism in the libretti and synopses (and often ingrained in the music as well; listen to Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ or ‘Madama Butterfly’ for instance when Eastern characters are given caricaturised musical form) of so much of the classical operatic repertoire itself. This of course reflects the attitudes and thinking of the times in which they were written. But it is in the interest of the very survival of opera as an art form that it attract a wider audience base beyond its traditionally white (and ageing) demographic for there to be wider representation on its stage, and greater sensitivity in staging stereotype-ridden plotlines while not sacrificing the soaring beauty of its music.