Met mezzo Isabel Leonard: an interview

OperaMetro had the privilege two years ago of discoursing about opera and life with the delightful mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard in November when she starred as Rosina in the Metropolitan Opera’s November 22, 2014 HD telecast of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. She has appeared at home and abroad in operas by Mozart, Rossini, Handel, Gounod, Poulenc, and also Thomas Adès. This February, Leonard performs her first Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, opposite Vittorio Grigolo. Our conversation focused on the next steps in her career.

OM: Thank you for taking the time to talk with OperaMetro!

Isabel Leonard: My pleasure.

Isabel Leonard to star as Charlotte in Massenet's  Werther  in February, 2017

Isabel Leonard to star as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther in February, 2017

OM: We and, believe me, everyone around us in the audience marveled at your performance of Cherubino in the HD telecast of Figaro in October, 2014. Brava! In the backstage interview that day you came across as an exceptionally bright and articulate singer, extraverted, but also thoughtful. You talked about preparing Cherubino then, but, in general, what are some of the ways in which you make a new role your own?

IL: I try in whatever way I can to be true to myself and follow my instincts about a character. At this point I know when I’m not being true, when I’m using stock gestures. I know when something is not as centered with me as it should be and I work really hard to eliminate that kind of thing. I don’t like to fake’s just not right, it’s uncomfortable. I would rather stand there and sing with no movement at all if I felt like my physical actions are not real, like I’m not communicating. So making the character “my own,” is, for me, a big part of my process.

OM: Are there personality factors at work in your planning, like “this character simply does not suit me” versus “I know this character well. I feel close to this character”?

IL: Well, there are definitely characters whom I identify with more closely than others at first glance. When I am looking at a future role, I first get to know the story and how the character fits into the story. It becomes apparent pretty quickly by their situations, their ‘stations’ in their worlds, and their choices if they are a character who falls within the spectrum of roles that would work for me. Past that, the trick for me is to find some thread of connection between the character and some facet of who I am. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it takes a while to find that common thread. But once I find it, it helps me not only to understand the character but to portray her (or him) accurately in a genuine way.

OM: As your career continues to take off, I’m sure you’re getting offers to sing all over the place. And so far the roles I’ve seen you perform at the Met have been reasonably straightforward in terms of dramatic demands. Maybe Sir Richard Eyre asked you to stretch a bit for Cherubino in the new Figaro, but Dorabella, Miranda (Thomas Adès’s The Tempest) and, earlier this week, Rosina were well within the bounds of propriety. Today, however, singers are often asked to do some pretty crazy things in some pretty crazy productions. Do you have a set of first questions you ask a director/producer about the production he or she is considering you for? Or, put another way, at what point do you draw the line in the sand, as if to say “No way am I doing ______.”

IL: Good Question!! Also, hard to answer. It’s not easy to write down a hard and fast rule for how I should accept a production or not. For now I look at everything case by case. But, like I mentioned before, I want it to be real. I am happy to stretch the boundaries of all characters and to explore different mentalities and how to find those permutations in myself. This can be really interesting: Blanche in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites is a good example. But I’m certainly not interested in ‘grotesque’ for the sake of shock value or indecency in the place of good theater. I’ve been lucky so far. I haven’t been a part of a production where my character was being used in a way that I felt was detrimental to the piece or to the integrity of the character. If, however, I am in that situation in the future, I promise to let you know how I handle it!

OM: By all means keep in touch Isabel. Let’s talk about the more distant future: are there, in your mirror-mirror-on-the-wall, images of the next phases of your career? Like, what are the to-die-for-roles you see yourself gravitating towards, the roles you feel would be deeply rewarding to do, roles you’d like to be known for years later?  

IL: This is honestly a difficult question. I feel there are so many things I would love to do in my life that are related to my career at this present moment. The best answer I can give is this: No matter what I do, and what direction I choose to go in, I want to bring my integrity and dedication to music with me. It is and has always been my first priority to remind not only myself but others that good singing, soulful singing, is what hits us in our hearts, what moves us. That is what counts to me. So, no matter what the medium, whether opera, musical theater, movies, TV, commercials, what have you, I would love to bring my music with me.   

OM: You’ve obviously had good guidance along the way. Are there any special people, singers, conductors, directors, staff who have been particularly helpful in guiding your steps along the path?

IL: Ahh, sooo many people to mention! It’s like thanking the important people in your life when you win an Oscar! But the main person who helped me develop and taught me to sing is, of course, my teacher Edith Bers. She has been not only my voice teacher, but a mentor in life and a true protector of my emotional well-being. Does that sound corny? Well, I don’t care, it’s true. She has taught me so much! I had the incredible fortune to work with Matthew Epstein and Marilyn Horne one summer at Music Academy of the West and Matthew went on to be my manager. With his careful planning and his vast knowledge of music and the business, he paved out the first decade of my career. I have learned a lot from him. There are many coaches with whom I have worked now for years, like Brian Zeger, Denise Masse, Pierre Vallet, and Warren Jones…My fabulous friend and pianist Vlad Iftinca, he and I have worked together since our Masters at Juilliard.  SO many wonderful people.  

OM: Would you share please some of the good advice you’ve received along the way, so that a younger singer reading this will benefit?

IL: Sure. Some of the helpful advice I have received is “be the chairman of your own board” and “remember what it is that you are actually saying on stage” and “it’s just an opera.”

OM: I’ll bet most people don’t exactly dream of a career in opera in pre-school, yet here you are. What were the early abilities, talents, desires, whatever you had that suggested the career path on which you are currently traveling? You obviously explored and thought through a number of things to get where you are today.

IL: I have to say I knew from a young age that I wanted to be in the theater.  I did not know how exactly, but I knew I enjoyed the process and the result.  I was however, painfully shy, and I still am deep inside. It is something I had to work through a lot. I had to learn how to feel comfortable letting myself go, so to speak, trust my instincts, trust my gut…But I had many opportunities to test these things out: I danced ballet as a child, performed in the Joffery’s Nutcracker for two seasons, I sang in choirs, sang with a jazz band, did musical theater. I also painted and did visual arts. So, for me it was all in there somehow. These experiences are still a part of me: I hope, by the end of my life, I will have revisited all of those amazing mediums and more.  

OM: As to that, you have a children’s album that was new in 2014, oui?

IL: Yes! It is called Gertrude McFuzz, one of the fantastic Dr. Seuss stories, set to music by composer Rob Kapilow. Rob really did an incredible job: he created a wonderfully bubbly score. The story is both funny and tender and it has a great moral at the end that every child, I think, should hear. Not only that, it is paired with another great story: The Polar Express, also set to music by Kapilow and performed by Nathan Gunn. GREAT for the holidays; available on Amazon too.

OM: Can’t wait to hear this! Thank you, Isabel for your time and thoughts. Best wishes, happy holidays to you and family. Your audience will love your Rosina. And we can't wait for your!

IL: Thank you.

The above was transcribed from an interview by email, the medium best suited for Ms. Leonard’s hectic rehearsal schedule leading up to the November 18, 2014, opening of the production. In fact, email has been the most frequently used medium for OM interviews. The interview was removed from OperaMetro when the site was overhauled from Pages to Blogs. 

Please find OperaMetro’s review of the opening performance of that run of Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 2014 on the page Met Fourteen Fifteen; the review of Massenet's Werther to come in February 2017 on the page Met Sixteen Seventeen.

Don't miss Werther with Grigolo and Leonard. It'll be a wonderful night! Enjoy!