University of Cape Town (UCT) Opera School postgraduate student Nombulelo Yende turned the international spotlight on UCT when she took top honours at the 2018 International Competition of Belcanto Vincenzo Bellini in France – following in the footsteps of her older sister.
The annual international voice competition, which attracts opera students from the world’s most prestigious schools, was won in 2010 by Pretty Yende, who has since risen to international stardom, performing in some of the most renowned opera houses in the world.
This time it was the younger Yende’s chance to shine; she enchanted the judges and the audience at the glitzy evening ceremony in Vendôme in central France in November. She scooped the main and the audience prizes following her outstanding renditions of Com’e bello (Lucrezia Borgia – Gaetano Donizetti) and Qui la voce sua soave (I Puritani – Vincenzo Bellini), and Casta Diva (Norma – Bellini) and Al dolce guidami (Anna Bolena – Donizetti) in the competition’s semi-final and final rounds respectively.
Hard to believe then that this 27-year-old opera performance student at the South African College of Music in the Faculty of Humanities once didn’t enjoy opera at all. Gospel and R&B were more up her musical alley, and singing was reserved for the church and school choirs.
In fact, after matric she applied to pursue a medical degree at UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences. But that didn’t go according to plan and she found herself at the Opera School instead.
“I know, I know. The two careers are worlds apart. I really wanted to be a doctor. But what I know now is that this [opera] was the path that was chosen for me long before I was even born. It was fate that brought me here, nothing else. I’ve found my purpose,” she said.
“What I know now is that this [opera] was the path that was chosen for me long before I was even born. It was fate that brought me here, nothing else. I’ve found my purpose.”
It’s in the blood
In more ways than one, by opting for a form of singing as her career choice, Yende was following her roots. She said her mother and grandmother both enjoyed singing in church and her mother in particular would often encourage her to do the same.
Of her older sister, Yende said: “[Pretty] is my role model, on a personal and professional level. She really helped me train for this competition, even while she was halfway across the world. I am truly honoured that I’ve managed to win the same competition she did. I hope to make her as proud of me as I am of her.”
A tough nut to crack: That’s how she describes the competition. She was under “immense pressure” in the lead-up to the event after her performance in another production prior to the French competition significantly limited her training time.
She also took part in the Tbilisi International Voice competition in Tbilisi, Georgia, earlier in the year. There she reached the final round.
“I think that’s why I placed so much pressure on myself. After reaching the finals in Tbilisi, I really just wanted to do well in France, but when I got there I was so nervous,” she recalled.
The fact that her counterparts were talented and experienced opera singers didn’t help either.
But because the competition focuses on a repertoire that builds a young voice, and has always been on her bucket list of competitions to compete in, she persevered. Yende said she was determined to do her best.
Her win, however, came as a huge surprise.
“I didn’t even hear my name, someone else had to tell me ‘it’s you’. It was all so unexpected, I was completely overwhelmed, but it was such an amazing feeling,” she said.
Plans in the pipeline
Right now, Yende is focused on completing her studies, but in the long-term her dream is to emulate her sister and work in opera houses in Milan, Paris and New York.
She’s under no illusion that it all takes hard work and dedication, which she said she is “more than happy to continue doing”. She also credits her vocal teacher Professor Virginia Davids and vocal coach John Davids for making it easier with their guidance and mentorship.
“They’ve taught me so much, they are like my UCT parents and I am eternally grateful to both of them for their ongoing support.”
“They’ve taught me so much, they are like my UCT parents and I am eternally grateful to both of them for their support.”
Yende’s message to first-year students is simple – be patient and committed, and allocate enough time to each task. She said she understands that it’s easy to feel despondent when things go wrong, but advises students to “keep going”.
Jeremy Silver, the director of UCT’s Opera School, said the school is extremely proud of Yende’s achievement – which reflects her natural talent and the hard work and dedication she consistently applies during her studies.
“It is wonderful to see her honing her craft and artistry by her dedication and attention to detail. We fully expect to see her acquiring further success in the near future,” he said.
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