Pretty Yende, 27, a South African soprano, visited kids from Robert van Wyck Junior High School 217 after the students saw her rehearse in January.
The youngsters had come to the final dress rehearsal of Rossini’s comic opera Le Comte Ory at the Metropolitan Opera, where Yende sang the part of Countess Adèle, performing with tenor Juan Diego Flores for whom the production was created in 2011.
They were so taken with Yende that they later sent her personal letters. Their messages moved her so much that she insisted on visiting the school to thank them in person.
“I read your letters and was so inspired by your kindness,” she said during a meeting with a few dozen 8th graders.
“You taught me so much about America. You reminded me that it is joy to be able to share your gift with so many people.”
For more than an hour the kids showered Yende with questions about her life, hobbies and opera experiences.
“It’s like a celebrity walking into your life,” said Crystal Pires, 13, while waiting in line to get Yende's autograph. “We didn’t know that she was so grateful.”
Another student, Stephanie Sosa, said meeting Yende, had boosted her appreciation of art and opera. “I love singing," she said. "And I’m definitely interested in music.”
Before making her acclaimed Met debut in January, Yende had been singing and studying at Milan’s La Scala for three years. She told the Queens students she speaks seven languages, including her native Zulu and Italian, and now wants to learn French.
She told them she sings in the shower sometimes, loves soccer and cooking, and dreams of one day singing in La Nozze di Figaro with Anna Netrebko.
She also said that, before starting her singing career, she thought she was going to be an accountant and had never dreamed she would perform at the Met.
“I’m from a small town,” said Yente. "But anything is possible, if you believe in yourself."
About her opening night in the role of the countess, which she had only a week to prepare for, she said that before she even started singing, she had tripped and fallen on stage.
But she said it was an important lesson.
“When you fall, you get up and you move forward,” she told the students.
Kids at the school are learning about opera as part of the school's French and Italian class curriculum.
The school's trips to Met rehearsals were paid for by a Bank of America sponsorship. The bank also sponsors The Met: HD Live in Schools program, which allows approximately 15,000 students in 29 school districts across the country to watch opera performances for free.
“It’s important to us because the children might not ever get a chance to have something like this,” said the teacher, Frank McLarney, about taking kids to opera rehearsals.
He said seeing opera live ends stereotypes.
“This is not a fat lady singing,” he said referring to Yende. “She is like a rock star.”