The soprano's path has taken her from singing church hymns in Piet Retief, South Africa, to performing on the world stage. We asked 32-year-old Pretty Yende, who performs this month and next at London's Royal Opera House, about her career crescendos.

O: For most 16-year-olds, hearing opera is more "Ugh" than "Aha!" Not you, though.

Pretty Yende: In 2001, I was watching TV with my family when a British Airways commercial came on with the "Flower Duet" from Léo Delibes's Lakmé. 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.

O: That's a major career change. How did your family react?

PY: Well, there was a big meeting at the Yende residence. I was in my last year of high school, and I'd received a scholarship to a university. My parents thought opera should be just a hobby, but I knew I belonged in that world.

O: You've slipped into the corsets of Juliette in Roméo et Juliette and Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Is there a role you're most proud of?

PY: Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. I didn't think I could sing that part—mostly because there hadn't been many people who look like me perform it internationally. But I've done it in South Africa, Berlin, and Paris. That was all after the Met thing...

O: The Met thing?

PY: In 2013, I was asked to step in to play the lead role of Countess Adèle in Rossini's Le Comte Ory at the Metropolitan Opera. I had one week to learn the entire score—in French. On opening night, I tripped on a stair and fell down to my knees, onstage! But after that, my fear went away. Performing isn't all glitz and glamour; it's a service you provide to 4,000 people sharing a moment.

O: Do you dream of being the next Renée Fleming or Anna Netrebko?

PY: For me, it's more about appreciating different talents: Maria Callas's ability to tell a story in just one phrase, or Montserrat Caballé's hypnotizing tone.

O: So is it all opera all the time?

PY: Not at all! I'd love to work with Bobby McFerrin—I just have to meet him first!

Pretty Yende's debut album, A Journey, is available on iTunes.

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