The South African will be the first African national to sing an opera solo at a British coronation ceremony.
South African soprano Pretty Yende first met King Charles when she was invited by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to sing at Windsor Castle last year. She will perform solo at his coronation on Saturday.
“I’m too excited to be nervous,” she said. “It’s an incredible time in my life as a young girl, as a South African, as an artist, only joy fills my heart.”
Months after she sang at Windsor, a phone call interrupted rehearsals at the Vienna State Opera to ask the 38-year-old if she would perform at the coronation in London on May 6.
“This was my audition, I think,” Yende said, recalling the night in Windsor during a backstage interview at the opera house.
“That was the first time I met the king,” she said. “He was very nice, very warm.”
Yende is the first African national to sing an operatic solo at a British coronation. Nigerian-British Afrobeats superstar Tiwa Savage is also expected to perform at the event, along with Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and other artists.
Savage’s performance has sparked controversy in Nigeria, with Lagos-based writer Innocent Chizaram saying that “the Crown wants to use an African female artist who is not their first or second choice to somehow salvage their image noting that famous British singers Adele, Ed Sheeran and others refused to perform.
In Yende’s South Africa, there have been calls for the UK to return the world’s largest diamond, known as the Star of Africa, which is set in Charles’ royal scepter. The diamond was discovered in South Africa in 1905 and given to the British monarchy two years later by the colonial government in the country then under British rule.
“All proceeds from colonialism, slave trade and imperialism are illegitimate transactions,” Everisto Benyera, an associate professor of African politics at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, told Al Jazeera.
‘Dream come true’
Still, millions are expected to watch the televised event, likely the largest audience in Yende’s career to date and a “dream come true,” she said.
Yende grew up singing gospel music in church in her hometown of Piet Retief in eastern South Africa.
She remembered musical evenings with her family while washing up after dinner. But it was during long walks to church with her asthmatic grandmother that Yende, then five years old, perfected her pitch.
“When we took breaks, she would open our church hymnal and teach me these songs,” she said, recalling the fear of then being told to sing them in front of the congregation. “I was very shy…but I didn’t want to disappoint my grandma.”
In 2001, when she was 16, she discovered opera in a TV commercial and begged a school professor to teach her.
That passion took her to Latvia and then to Italy, her base for several years. She played in theaters around the world and released a debut album in 2016.
At the coronation, Yende will perform “Sacred Fire”, a piece written for the occasion by composer Sarah Class.
“For me, it’s a soul thing,” Yende said. “Whether you are a king, a princess or just a girl from the tip of Africa singing for the king’s coronation.”