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This season, Isabel Leonard sings three star roles at the Met.
By Louise T. Guinther 

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Isabel Leonard in the title role of Marnie, 2018
© Beatriz Schiller

SITTING DOWN FOR AN INTERVIEW at the undiva-ish hour of 9 a.m., Isabel Leonard explains that this is a rare free moment, squeezed in between dropping her young son off at school and attending day-long rehearsals at the Met. Leonard looks cool, collected and fresh as a daisy as she remarks with a wry grin, “You don’t even ask yourself, ‘Do I want to get up?’ You just go, you just do, and that’s it. If you ask yourself the question, you’re late.”

Leonard grew up in Manhattan, studied at Juilliard and made her Met debut at twenty-five. (Her Instagram handle is @Isabelleonardnyc.) She is back in the Big Apple for the first chapter in an epic Met season—three starring roles (Muhly’s Marnie, Debussy’s Mélisande and Poulenc’s Blanche), each a dramatic enigma. “There’s something about each of these characters that makes me feel very empathetic. They’re clearly a product of their circumstance in some way—not that they’re devoid of any responsibility for their actions, but it becomes that much more interesting, because you delve into their psychology. Are they making conscious choices out of a moral place or because that’s all they know?”

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Leonard at the Met as Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites, 2013, with David Pittsinger (Marquis de la Force)
© Beth Bergman

Our interview falls in the midst of Marnie rehearsals, and the thoroughness of Leonard’s working method is clear in the focus and eagerness with which she talks about the role. “My job in Marnie is, how do we get the audience to sympathize with her? It’s the same for Don Giovanni—the audience has to fall in love with him, so that they are very uncomfortable by the end when he goes to hell. Because if you hate him from the start, what’s the point? Marnie’s not a bad person. She’s an adult—she’s choosing a certain kind of way—but the other way out has never been available for her. I would love for the audience to be really intrigued and not put off by her. In every version of herself that she presents, there should be something people want to get to know more of. In the scene with Marnie’s mother, she says, ‘Are you pleased, mother?’ and even in a couple of words, you can tell that all she’s trying to do is get approval and love from her mother, and everybody can understand how devastating it is that she doesn’t get it. She hasn’t gotten it ever

“Everybody’s really layered in the piece,” she adds, “and I think it’s a really great opportunity, with the HD, to see the different layers, because you’re seeing our faces up close. So much of it is in the small looks and the details and the psychology.”

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With Denyce Graves (Marnie’s Mother) in Marnie, 2018
© Beatriz Schiller

Debussy’s Mélisande, a role Leonard tackles for the first time this month, offers fewer overt clues. “There’s less information about her history,” says Leonard, “so it becomes a choice to either create a history for yourself or to go the route that perhaps was intended, which is to leave it a little bit anonymous, a little bit ethereal. A lot of the language comes across very passively. She doesn’t make any concrete statements about anything. I’ve never been a big fan of wishy-washy,” she adds, “so I think for me to play this character—she can still be undefined, but she needs to be rooted in something, which would make her even more frustrating to everybody else. Because everybody goes, ‘Who are you? What are you? Where are you from?’ And she answers none of the questions. But I think she is a catalyst, always, for everybody around her, which means that something about her presence has to be very strong.” 

Later in the season, Leonard reprises a role she first sang at the Met in 2013—Blanche de la Force in Dialogues of the Carmelites, a character she defines as “terrified, of the world and of life itself. And then she does this 180. It’s the strangest thing—it’s like in some ways she’s already died and become this angel. She’s all of a sudden strong. That’s a moment that chokes me up even thinking about it.”

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As Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, 2016, with Anita Hartig (Susanna)
© Beth Bergman

Leonard fits perfectly into the modern opera-singer mold: her singing is intelligently phrased and immaculately prepared, her figure is lithe and slender, and her performances are as well-tuned dramatically as vocally. Having trained early on as a dancer at the Joffrey Ballet School, she still takes classes for enjoyment when she finds time. Physical movement is a vital aspect of her characterizations. This season of fragile female characters is atypical; more often, she finds herself plunging directly from the flirtatious Rosina to the raffish, gawky Cherubino and back. 

Leonard’s career has been eclectic and somewhat unpredictable. “I love not being pegged into anything,” she says. “I have some new things that will come up in the next few years—Carmen and Octavian—and a lot more stretching out into different kinds of music.” Asked what she does for fun, she laughs and answers in a cartoon voice, “Fun? What’s that? What’s free time?” Then she points to her tote bag: “My friend gave me this bag, which I love—‘Fearless women make history’—and it actually helps me get through my day, mainly because it has food in it,” she says with a grin. “No, but seriously, it reminds me to just keep going, keep going, keep going.” spacer

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