Isabel Leonard, Bringing Young Eyes And Ears To Opera
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2007 singing the role of Stéphano in Charles Gounod’s“Roméo et Juliette.” Since then, her Met appearances have included Blanche in Francis Poulenc’s haunting “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” and Rosina in Rossini's “The Barber of Seville,” which she reprises this season. The Met’s Live in HD series beams her performance live to theaters nationwide this Saturday, November 22 at 1 p.m. Eastern/Noon Central. In San Antonio, three theaters will carry the broadcast: Regal Cinemas Huebner Oaks and Cielo Vista, as well as the Santikos Rialto.
Isabel Leonard took a few moments away from rehearsal to talk to us about Rossini and introducing opera to young ears, whether through English translations, text by Dr. Seuss, or what for Leonard was a career highlight: singing on “Sesame Street.”
Nathan Cone: What do you think accounts for the enduring popularity of "The Barber of Seville?”
Isabel Leonard: It’s a great piece, musically and theatrically. It’s very family-friendly, which is of course very helpful to keeping a piece alive from generation to generation! Because we need to bring the kids to it, so that they can bring their children to it. It’s a very accessible piece. The story is easy to follow… the music is really pleasing, and everybody loves a good love story with a lot of comedic elements, and I think those are the strengths that will last.
That reminds me about how the Met produced an English-language version of the opera a couple of years ago that you sang in. Did you meet some new fans as a result of the English-language version?
Absolutely. There were lots of schools of thought on it [laughs]. There are opera purists who aren’t exactly in love with the idea of translating certain operas, but then there are other people who really appreciate it, because it gives them a different perspective on a piece. [They enjoy hearing] it in their own native language, which takes us one step closer into the story.
Everybody has their own thoughts about pieces being translated, but I think that particularly with “The Barber of Seville,” it’s a great opera, and at this time, for the arts in general, it’s really important for us to do what we can to bring in new audiences and to really educate the younger audiences like Teens, and Tweens, and even young children, because the theater is a magical place, no matter what. And whether it’s opera or musical theater, ballet, or just acting, [theater is] a really wonderful place, and everybody really enjoys it. So no matter what, I think that if we can bring the audience in [through translation], let’s do it in English, let’s do it in Chinese, I don’t care! Let’s just do it.
Rossini’s score for “The Barber of the Seville” calls for a contralto voice for Rosina, and mezzo-sopranos like yourself have been singing the role for many years. How do you prepare yourself and your voice for the role and its particularities?
Somebody asked this of me recently, and they asked if there is any specific training that you do to sing coloratura. I don’t specifically do anything out of the norm in order to sing this repertoire. It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed singing, and no matter what repertoire we sing, we all have to undergo pretty much the same training. You have to get your technique right, you know, produce sound in a healthy way, be able to project your voice, obviously, in different halls of different sizes, and yes—Rossini is particular because there are a heck of a lot of notes to sing! But it all comes down to your technique and the fluidity of your individual voice, and whether it works or not for Rossini. I know lots of colleagues who say “oh I find this really hard to do” or “I’m not really a fan of singing Rossini because my coloratura isn’t that great.” And it’s neither a good or a bad thing, it is what it is. For those of us who like to sing Rossini, just in the actual doing of it, that in itself is a training, and you become more familiar with the tricks and turns of Rossini and his writing, and also the ways in which you can make it easier for you to sing. So we all have different cadenzas, and different patterns that our voices sing more rapidly or more cleanly. It’s still all very individual. So even though there may be a large group of people who can sing Rossini, everybody does it quite differently.
What are you looking for in roles? Is it the musicality, or do you consider character and story as part of your process?
I would say that I actually consider the story and the character first. Text, story, and the theater of it is what is most interesting to me. I really enjoy telling a story. I really enjoy the theater, the interpersonal relationships between characters, and it’s not to say that the music is secondary, or in a sub position, but it does come slightly after. I won’t sing a role where I feel the character is not something that will work for me. And generally speaking, so far, I’ve been lucky that the characters and the music have come hand in hand, and everything has been really fun and wonderful.
Well, you have a new album coming up with a great story behind it! It’s an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s “Gertrude McFuzz,” by composer Rob Kapilow. You have a young son… did he play any role in inspiring this collaboration?
Luckily I don’t have to consult my son yet for any jobs that I take [laughs]! I do, however, have to explain to him that I have to go to work if he wants toys in the house [more laughter]. But no, I had received an email from Glen Roven who said, “Hey, we’re doing this recording,” and I said, “Dr. Seuss, that sounds perfect!” Because, of course, I’ve read probably every Dr. Seuss story to my son already, and it was a great project to work on. Both Glen Roven and his recording company, and Rob Kapilow were so fun, and we had a great time in the recording studio.
And the music is a lot of fun because it’s very Broadway-like, it’s very jazzy, and it’s very funny too. I love the way you kind of draw out some of the words comically, like “birrrrrd.” That made me laugh out loud!
I had a lot of fun with that! I was able to manipulate in the best of ways my voice, and in a healthy way. I have to say that in case my teacher is listening! Yes, like you said there are some elements of musical theater, there are elements of classical singing, but to bring it down to its most base, it’s just singing. Singing in all versions of what the voice can do, and that’s really what I’m into.
I think it’s so important to remember not only individually, but as a culture, that we’ve been singing for centuries, and it is an animalistic, raw, beautiful thing. And whether you are a classical opera singer, a pop star, a jazz singer, country singer, whatever, good singing is good singing, and we as a society recognize it at the drop of a hat. [When] somebody comes out and sings something that is connected and soulful, whatever the genre, everybody goes quiet. And I hope that the fun medium of “Gertrude McFuzz” is able to bring a little bit of that to kids, particularly.
What made you want to decide to pursue music as a vocation?
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a part of the theater. I wasn’t sure at the time what that meant exactly, or whether that would be dance, or theater, or singing, what have you. But I did know that I had an attraction to being in a show, in the theater, in a play. And it evolved somewhat naturally on its own, step by step, going to dance class, and music school, and conservatory, and I decided to go to Juilliard, because I wanted to make sure that I had nailed my technique by the time that I finished my school. In my mind that meant that I could still choose what I wanted to do with my voice. I’m very much entrenched in the opera world, and it’s my first love, so to speak. And that’s where I have been able to get my wings. But I’d love to do all sorts of different things.
Last question, and a little bit of a goofy one... I was reading some of your reviews online, and I love reading the adjectives that people use to describe voice and technique. The New York Times described you as “plush” and “animated.” And that review on your website is placed right above a YouTube video of you on Sesame Street. I thought that was quite appropriate! Did they write that before or after your appearance there?
I have no idea [laughs]! I try really hard not to read reviews in general, and if I do it’s well after it was probably published, so I’m the last person to know when something came out. But Sesame Street was a lot of fun. That was a real highlight.
I understand it is for pretty much every musician that appears on the show.
Oh, it’s a staple of our culture, and it’s incredible! [laughs]