The South African soprano Pretty Yende expected her visit this week to France, where she is starring in a production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” to be relatively uneventful.
But when she arrived at Paris’s main airport on Monday, Yende was taken aback. The French authorities told her she did not have the proper documents to enter the country. They took her for questioning and forced her to submit to a body search that she described as invasive.
“I felt stripped of my human dignity,” Yende said in an email. “It was absolutely uncomfortable.”
Yende took to social media to share her experience, saying she was “stripped and searched like a criminal offender” during the ordeal, which lasted more than two hours. While she was not asked to remove her clothes, she says, the police told her, without explanation, to take off her shoes and kept her in a cold, dark room. She suggested that she had been singled out because she is Black.
“Police brutality is real for someone who looks like me,” Yende wrote on Facebook, adding that she feared for her life.
Yende’s account was shared widely online, with fans and artists expressing outrage and calling the incident an example of racism and discrimination in French society.
The French authorities disputed Yende’s portrayal of the incident, saying they acted in accordance with standard procedures. The police say Yende was forced to submit to a pat-down but say it was carried out in a professional manner by a female officer. They acknowledge her cellphone was taken away; she was given access to a landline phone while she was being held at the airport.
“We made the usual checks,” the National Police said in a statement. “We did what we do with any passenger facing the same problems.”
The police said Yende, who landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris around 3 p.m. Monday on a flight from Milan, did not have a valid visa to enter France. Yende presented a provisional residence permit from Italy, where she lives, but the French authorities said she needed a separate one-time visa. Yende and her lawyer say she had all the documents required by law to gain entry.
The authorities eventually issued Yende a visa and allowed her to go around 6 p.m., after speaking with managers at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, where she was to perform on Tuesday.
The South African embassy in France said it was aware of the incident and had raised it with the French authorities.
“Notwithstanding these unfortunate events, we are pleased that Ms. Yende is continuing with her scheduled performances in Paris,” said Lihle Mancoba, a spokeswoman for the embassy.
Yende, 36, is a renowned figure in opera, a charismatic coloratura soprano who has performed on many of the world’s leading stages, including the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Born in a small town in South Africa, she has won wide acclaim in an industry historically dominated by white performers. Since last week, she has been singing the role of Amina in “La Sonnambula” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Yende received an enthusiastic ovation for her performance on Tuesday night, her fourth time in the role this month. But she said her experience at the airport was never far from her mind.
“It was very, very hard for me,” she said in an email after the performance. “I was shaking and couldn’t focus.”