NEW YORK (AP) — When Pretty Yende walked on stage for her Metropolitan Opera debut 21 months ago, she immediately fell for the audience.
But not nearly as hard as the audience fell for her.
The South African soprano tripped on steps leading down from a wooden platform during a pantomime in the opening minutes of Rossini's "Le Comte Ory." She did more than quickly recover — she went on to score a dazzling success in the difficult role of the Countess Adele, earning a standing ovation from a cheering crowd.
Now Yende, 29, is returning for a second engagement at the Met, singing four performances as Pamina in Mozart's "The Magic Flute" beginning Monday, Oct. 6.
Looking back on that fateful night in January 2013, Yende laughs and says the spill turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
"When I first came out, I was in the wrong place psychologically," she said in an interview in her dressing room a few days before the "Flute" opening. "I was too aware of the tension in the house. I needed to be reminded that 'Hey, you're here, think only about the music and nothing else.'"
Yende's road to the Met was an unusual one. Born in Piet Retief, a town in a timber-growing region near the border with Swaziland, she knew nothing about opera until at 14 she heard a British Airways commercial that used a duet from Delibes' "Lakme." After studying in Cape Town, she moved to Europe where she quickly made a name for herself at Milan's La Scala.
She had already auditioned in New York and been engaged for some future appearances when soprano Nino Machaidze fell ill and had to cancel "Le Comte Ory." The Met offered the part to Yende — who had never studied it — with little more than a month's notice.
Knowing she was a late substitute added to her initial sense of unease when she stepped out on stage, she said.
"I guess I was almost feeling out place, because it was a short-notice deal and I felt not invited, not entirely," she said, "because people paid a long time ago for that particular singer and then suddenly they're disappointed."
Things couldn't be more different this time around. The Met was so impressed by her performance as the Countess that she was offered additional roles to bring her back as soon as possible.
"It will be my first Pamina, but singing Mozart has always been a dream of mine," she said. "It's really good for the voice, to clean out some bad habits. Back to basics, actually."
This season she is also singing Countess Adele at La Scala; Rossini's "Barber of Seville" in Oslo, Norway; Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in Berlin, and Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in Los Angeles.
And before she leaves New York, she'll make her Carnegie Hall debut in a solo recital.
Yende has a bright, warm, flexible sound and would generally be classed as a lyric soprano, but her vocal teachers and coaches — an illustrious lineup that includes Mariella Devia, Mirella Freni and Montserrat Caballe — have urged her not to think in terms of rigid categories when selecting roles.
"All these ladies gave me the same advice, told me to listen to my voice," she said. "If it feels right, then it's perfect. What I should put in my head is to sing as healthily as possible, so I can keep singing as long as possible."
The Met apparently is confident that Yende will be singing for quite a while. In upcoming seasons she is booked to star in an array of operas, including "Lucia," ''Barber of Seville," Donizetti's "Elixir of Love" and Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette."