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O Brave New World

Isabel Leonard has moved from success to success in a professional career that began just over six years ago. This season, she has a trio of choice assignments at the Metropolitan Opera — Rosina in a new English-language translation of The Barber of Seville, Blanche de la Force in Dialogues des Carmélites and Miranda in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. F. PAUL DRISCOLL reports.

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Portrait photographed in New York by James Salzano
Jacket by Guess / GAP jeans / Clothes styling by Catherine Glazer / Makeup and hair by Affan Malik
© James Salzano 2012
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As Rossini’s Rosina at the Met in 2011
© Beatrice Schiller 2012
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Costanza in Vivaldi’s Griselda at Santa Fe, 2011
© Ken Howard 2012

Ten years ago this month, OPERA NEWS published an article titled “Kids in a Candy Store.” In late July 2002, four voice students from Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School — chosen at random by their respective schools — were given a budget of $100 each by OPERA NEWS to spend on CDs in the Metropolitan Opera Shop. The quartet was then asked to adjourn to the offices of OPERA NEWS, where they discussed their purchases. One of the four students I interviewed that day was a strikingly pretty twenty-year-old, a junior at Juilliard who took her time making her choices, eventually opting for recital discs by Eleanor Steber, Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas and If Ever I Would Leave You, a program of Alan Jay Lerner songs by Bryn Terfel. 

Her name was Isabel Leonard.

I remember that Leonard was friendly and cheerful — I can still hear her chuckle as she listened to a recording of Karita Mattila singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” — but she was considerably less voluble than her colleagues. When Leonard spoke, her answers were thoughtful and original; she compared Terfel favorably to Frank Sinatra and revealed that she liked to listen to Tebaldi or Callas recordings before one of her own performances. She said that she was studying as a mezzo but admitted, “My tessitura lies a lot higher than that.… My teacher and I are trying to figure out just where [my voice] lies at this point. And in the process, I’m singing all sorts of great music.” When the interview was over, we all shook hands. As we parted company, I told Leonard and her fellow students that I looked forward to hearing them perform one day and wished them all well.

In the intervening years, I’ve heard Leonard sing extensively. After she completed her Bachelor and Master of Music at Juilliard, Leonard embarked on a career that has been shrewdly planned, smoothly executed and marked by an extraordinary level of success. It is now July 2012, and we are having a conversation via Skype, as Leonard is spending most of her summer in Glyndebourne, where she made her company debut in late June as Cherubino in Michael Grandage’s new staging of Le Nozze di Figaro. When the Glyndebourne run ends, Leonard will return to her home base in New York to begin a particularly full season, which starts in October with Miranda in the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, staged by Robert Lepage. Leonard stays on at the Met for Rosina in a new English-language adaptation of one of her favorite operas, The Barber of Seville, during the December and January holiday season, then sings her first performances of Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito at Canadian Opera Company in February. She does a brief recital tour — including an April 9 date at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall — before returning to the Met in May for her role debut as Blanche de la Force in a revival of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It’s a demanding schedule that confirms Leonard’s status as a rising star. Is that how she thinks of herself? She shakes her head in disbelief before answering.

“Part of me is kind of looking around and going, ‘Really? Really? This is happening to me?’ I was just talking to a friend of mine last night who has come to visit me in Glyndebourne. We went to see La Bohème here, and we were chatting about life and career and all this kind of stuff. And I said, ‘You know, I still ask myself, “Why?” There are so many good singers and so many talented people, and I think, “Well, okay — why me?”’ We had that sort of conversation — it wasn’t me asking, ‘Oh, tell me why I am so fantastic.’ It wasn’t that at all. It was really just, ‘Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever wonder why one thing happens one way or why it happens another way?’ I’ve always tried to go one step at a time and hope for the best, really.”

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Dorabella to Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi at the Met, 2010
© Beth Bergman 2012

Although she’s listed as a mezzo on the Met roster, Leonard’s voice is difficult to classify. To some ears, it sounds soprano-ish, with a clean upper extension that some lyric mezzos lack. To others, the warmth of her timbre types Leonard as a mezzo. Her repertory includes roles that are traditionally soprano — Costanza in Vivaldi’s Griselda, for example — as well as roles that have been sung by both mezzos and sopranos, such as Cherubino, Dorabella, all three of her assignments at the Met this season and many of the roles on her career wish-list (Rossini’s Zelmira, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos among them). “I prefer not to call myself either soprano or mezzo,” Leonard says. “There’s no reason to pigeonhole yourself. You do what’s appropriate for you. Sticking a label on yourself is just unfortunate, because it doesn’t allow you to explore the possibilities. God, if I could sing everything and just transpose some of them down a little bit, I would. But I think the opera world would kill me!” Leonard’s friend and advisor Matthew Epstein, her first manager and the architect of her early-career success, says, “To call her a mezzo is simplistic and silly — it isn’t a dark or particularly low-sitting voice. And yet it isn’t a soprano in the usual sense we mean today, although Rossini and any composer before his time would have called her a soprano. I see no reason why she shouldn’t sing Carmen someday. She’s got a strong middle and low register. She looks magnificent. But it’s a little soon for that now. She’s interested in [singing] Marguerite [in Faust], she’s interested in Tatiana in Onegin and Donna Elvira. Down the track, there will be forays into both ends of the scale — and I think that’s healthy, as long as she feels that she’s not putting herself in vocal peril.”

Asked to name her own vocal comfort zone, Leonard says, “At this moment, I really love Rossini. I do love singing Barber of Seville, and I’m looking forward to doing that in English. And I really love singing La Cenerentola — the music is so fun. We went to see it here at Glyndebourne, because they’re doing it this summer, and I really enjoyed it. I forgot how much I liked it.”

Leonard’s career began with Mozart, when she made her European and professional stage debut as Zerlina in Don Giovanni at Bordeaux in 2006. (She sang her first professional opera performance in North America as Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette at Atlanta Opera in January 2007.) On some levels, one could attribute Leonard’s success to her enviable combination of natural gifts — a lovely face, an expressive body and a voice of exceptional clarity and beauty. But what sets Leonard apart is her intellectual curiosity and her rigorous sense of craft. Conversations with her colleagues about Leonard inevitably highlight her extraordinary capacity for hard work and scrupulous attention to musical and textual detail. Edith Bers, who has been Leonard’s voice teacher since she entered Juilliard, says that Leonard has “striking mental strength and determination. She knows what she wants, and she’s able to do it whether she’s facing things in her life that are difficult or not.” 

Leonard’s discipline is reflected in her elegant performing style, which is cool-headed but never cold-hearted. Leonard doesn’t “sell” herself to an audience — no Dorabella or Zerlina ever mugged less than she — but chooses to draw her listeners into her characters’ lives by making their music sound organic and inevitable. Pianist Vlad Iftinca, who will collaborate with Leonard on her 2013 recital tour, says, “There’s something very humble about Isabel that makes her a very vulnerable performer.” Leonard’s rich inner stillness pays enormous dividends in virtuoso roles such as Costanza in Vivaldi’s Griselda, which was a great success for her at Santa Fe Opera in 2011. Director Peter Sellars, who worked with Leonard for the first time on Griselda, says, “The first Griselda rehearsal was just staggering, because [Isabel] walked in beyond note-perfect with this insane coloratura. It was just breathtaking — you just couldn’t believe her acuity and precision and total focus. She has the highest possible standards for herself, musically and intellectually — she’s hyper-focused on delivering perfection. And that, to me, is never that sympathetic — it’s like the person in your math class who got 100 on everything, but you didn’t really want to hang out with him. But what is unexpected with Isabel is the incredible well of emotional depth that comes up through that technical perfection. She dug so deep emotionally and responded from such a beautiful place. That Vivaldi music needs to be illuminated by a great performer — anything less than that and you kind of say, ‘That’s a lot of notes for not that much content.’ But Isabel took every note of that over-the-top coloratura and assigned it to something. Her initiative and her insight and her determination lifted that material way beyond the page.… She’s able to just sail through these things, but only after massively killing herself to get there. But that’s not how she presents it to the audience. She presents herself as barely breaking a sweat.”

Leonard was already hard at work on Adès’s Miranda when we spoke during her Glyndebourne run as Cherubino. “I’m just full-on in Tempest at the moment. It’s really difficult — really, really, really difficult. Not just musically but rhythmically. It’s definitely the most difficult technical piece I’ve had to do at this point in my life so far. But that is just so exciting to me. There’s something about doing a new piece — well, a more contemporary piece — at the Met and being able to show another side of me that I’ve been dying to explore. The last five or six years I’ve been doing what I should be doing in terms of rep — singing a lot of Mozart and a lot of Rossini and a lot of composers that are good for young singers — and developing my technique and my stagecraft. But you always have these desires to do other things. The Tempest is one of those things that presented itself and now I’m sort of — oh, I have my nails in the table out of mild fear and excitement, all at the same time.  

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Portrait by James Salzano
Dress by Nicole Miller; jewelry by Bulgari
© James Salzano 2012

“Between The Tempest and then going into The Barber of Seville in English, and then doing Tito in Toronto, and then doing Blanche in the spring in Carmelites, it’s the spectrum — I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting year. I love it. Each character is so different, and the stories are so vivid. I don’t know if my tune has changed very much since we first met, but my approach has always been the same. The process is so text-driven for me, and so story-based, and so about the drama of it all — not drama as we say drama nowadays, but the true theater of the piece. The more theater there is in whatever it is that I’m working on, the more text, the more relationship-based drama and communication there is in a piece, the more exciting it is to me. I keep on saying, ‘God, I hope I can pull it off!’ 

“I’ve been finding all of these new roles so interesting that I’m toying with more theater things — not only musical theater, because I’d love to sing musical theater as well, but just regular theater, plain theater. Definitely not moving out of opera, but moving into more theater, just more. It’s a way of starting to tie certain mediums together, which I think would be really important, particularly if we really intend to continue to bring opera into the mainstream — or bring it back into the mainstream. Everybody can know who you are in the opera world, and that’s fine and dandy, but if you don’t ever walk into another medium, you haven’t actually stretched the boundaries of your world. You’ve just gotten to know your world really, really, really well.

“After working with Michael Grandage here on Figaro and having worked with him a little bit at the Met during Don Giovanni, I found in him something very — I mean, talk about somebody that you grow to admire and respect for their craft and for what they do so well. We even worked a little bit, he and I, even on a Shakespeare monologue. That was just so exciting to me. And I always know that when I have a slight fear of something, it’s usually because I have to head in that direction. I have to try it out. I have to explore what is it that I’m — what have I not opened up yet? You need to keep on pushing your boundaries and your limits.” The monologue in question was Rosalind’s epilogue from As You Like It. In an email interview, Grandage notes, “Some singers require a different approach than actors, but Isabel is like a great actor who is interested in discussing motivation and intent as she develops her performance.… I would happily cast her as Rosalind if I were directing the play again. She is a natural actress who has been blessed with an amazing voice.”

Leonard says that her six-week rehearsal period with Grandage on Cherubino — a role she has done many times before, including at the Met and Santa Fe — presented its own set of challenges. “I stepped in at the Wiener Staatsoper [in February 2011] for Cherubino — I had two hours of rehearsal. And I’ve done Cherubino on three days of rehearsal, in Munich a couple of years ago. But something I repeated in my head a lot when I walked into rehearsal here at Glyndebourne was, ‘Don’t forget that everybody else here is also rehearsing. Some people are doing it for the first time, some people have only done it a couple of times — so it doesn’t matter if you’ve done it forty or thirty times or whatever it has been. You have to come in here and explore and find new things and see what happens with the rest of your colleagues, because you owe them that. You owe yourself that. Otherwise why are we here?’”

Leonard’s taste in music extends well beyond the categories of opera and classical music. When she talked to OPERA NEWS in 2002, she cited Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan as some of her favorite singers. Her pre-Juilliard training included dance at the Joffrey Ballet School and four years at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan. How did she decide to become an opera singer? As Leonard tells it, when she was a senior at LaGuardia, she had narrowed her choice of colleges down to two. “I spent a day at NYU with the students in CAP21, their musical-theater program, and I spent a day at Juilliard. And the honest truth is that the kids at Juilliard, for whatever reason, be it the day, be it the truth — they were a lot nicer. I just felt more comfortable at Juilliard. Now, I did musical theater in high school — like everyone does — but I think I knew that I wanted to be onstage. I still didn’t know where I stood ultimately. It was my kind of secret me. I said to myself, ‘If this is something I want to do, I need to learn how to sing. Learn how to sing properly, and then see what happens.’

“So I set up as a classical singer. I’ve spent these last twelve years very much entrenched in the classical world, but I’ve never dropped the love for all of the other music that I grew up listening to — classic musical-theater pieces, jazz standards, music from Argentina, which is where my mother’s family lives. There was and is a lot of music floating in my head — a lot of beautiful music and beautiful text. I’d love to be able to do that — to really explore all of it. I know the classical world has sort of a hard time when opera singers do those things, and I’m not yet quite sure why. But I’d love to dispel those notions. I’d really love to be able to perform those pieces in a way where everyone leaves the theater saying, ‘That was just good music, good acting, good dancing, good relationships onstage.’ Theater can be so fulfilling, no matter what the medium is — singing or straight acting or dancing.

“I was painfully shy as a kid — painfully shy. I’d hide behind my mom. I didn’t want to talk to other kids in the playground. And yet to be onstage was just the most comfortable place for me. At the time there was that fourth wall — there was a sense that there was a distance between me and the people I was singing for or performing for. The thought that it’s not real life — that it is a performance — has a level of security to it. But now that I’m not as painfully shy, I hope, I’ve come to find such real life onstage. To me it’s no longer a caricature of life, or a substitute. It is life. It is life in its most filled-out form.” spacer 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6