BWWOperaWorld.com | Richard Sasanow
“Cherubino is crazy in some ways, in good ways,” says Isabel Leonard, who is singing the role of the young male page in the Almaviva household in the Metropolitan Opera’s new Richard Eyre production of LE NOZZE DI FIGARO. “He sees everything in Technicolor, eyes wide open, taking everything in, not missing a second that he could possibly enjoy in his life.”
Some of the same things could be said about Leonard, who’s been tagged “Opera’s IT Girl.” Winner of numerous prestigious awards, including the Richard Tucker Award (2013) and the Beverly Sills Award (2011), mother of four-year-old Teo, she acts like someone who is determined ‘not to miss a second.’ Don’t call her a mezzo, though her current role is usually considered in that fach. Indeed, she has received acclaim for singing both mezzo and soprano roles and loves Mozart–though she firmly doesn’t want to be pegged as simply a “Mozart” singer because there are lots of other great roles out there that she’d like to sing.
Don’t Call Her “Mezzo”
“I don’t consider myself a mezzo or a soprano–primarily because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself in any particular group of repertoire,” the dusky-voiced Leonard told me backstage at the Met. “It’s not that I could sing every soprano role–or every mezzo role either. My voice sits a little higher in the mezzo range, so I probably wouldn’t sing the heavy, heavy mezzo repertoire, unless it were under the right circumstances…at least right now.” Still, the role has two wonderful arias that are considered bastions of the mezzo repertoire today: “Voi che sapete” and “Non so piu,” even though in the early 20th century great sopranos like Amelita Galli-Curci and Geraldine Farrar took them on. (Hear Galli-Curci sing it on the Library of Congress website.) And in Mozart’s time, the division between soprano and mezzo didn’t exist.
This Mozart character calls on Leonard’s skills as a mezzo and it’s one of her most popular roles, along with Rosina in IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, which has become something of a calling card for her as she makes her rounds of debuts at the world’s opera houses. (She’ll also be singing Rosina at the Met a bit later in the season.)
Emotions and Hormones
After singing Cherubino so many times, she has lots to say about this teenager, who keeps the ladies in the Almaviva household on their toes–and is constantly getting himself in trouble. “Like any young teenager, he has a lot of highs and lows,” she says. “He’s emotional and has these hormonal fluctuations that he’s trying to sort out and deal with–but there’s nobody to sit him down and say ‘this is normal, you’re going to be okay.’ So, instead, he writes songs about it, complains about it and sings about it. He’s THAT kid–an ardent young man who loves women.”
As a woman–and a beautiful one at that–how does she find her footing playing a teenage boy? “As you do a role over and over, whether you’re doing a pants role or simply a female, you evolve in your interpretation. I think it’s particularly true for the male character,” she explains. “The initial challenge for the young singer, possibly, is the physicality of being male, that there are some physical things we can do to harden up our edges so to speak that would allow the audience to suspend disbelief even more than we are already asking them to do. And as you go along you find different aspects of the characters that give you a wider color palette to choose from when you are expressing yourself as this male.”
More Leeway with Cherubino
“The thing with Cherubino,” she continues, “is that you have much more leeway in the portrayal because he’s young. If he were a 30-year-old man, he would be expected to behave in a certain way in the household or else he would be considered aggressive or disgusting or any of the other characteristics that you find in every male except Figaro in the piece. So then you start finding your own way of being as masculine–as much as you can possibly be if you’re a woman,” she laughs.
What does she think of this convention in opera, the “pants” role, where a male is played by a woman? Is it something that works from her standpoint? “I think it does,” she avers. “I mean there was a time in history when men played women’s parts in Shakespeare and it’s equivalent to what we do in Mozart or Handel or one of the other operas where it is used. I think probably the composers were looking for a slightly androgynous character who could be loved by men and women. For example, there is certainly a sexual component to it in Rossini’s LE COMTE ORY–the scene where there are two women and a man in bed together, though, technically, there are two men and a woman in bed (one man is sung by a woman). There is something sexually scintillating for the audience. Also, seeing women in pants was a big deal when many of these operas were written because you were seeing the shape of a woman’s legs.
Sam, You Made the Pants Just Right
According to Leonard, in all of the operas where women are doing pants roles there is the definite understanding that there’s a woman playing the part and not a man. “It may be a very young man like Cherubino (who may be 13), or a young adult like Sesto in LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, or Ruggiero in Handel’s ALCINA. They are younger men still very inexperienced in some ways, in luck and love and life. Inherently , the youth and non-aggressiveness of the character comes out better when it’s a woman playing the man.”
Because of the way she views the character of her voice, is Mozart good for her–where there are roles many roles for mezzos but also characters usually sung by sopranos that may be sung by mezzos today, such as Susanna or Zerlina, Donna Elvira and even the Countess in FIGARO? She gets a little bristly about this. “Mozart has so many great operas because of the nature of Mozart and popularity of Mozart it’s something we do–most young singers sing Mozart at one time or another. I find this funny because Mozart is incredibly difficult, even though it sounds very simple to the ear and very pleasing, it’s very demanding, because all the soprano roles and what I call the second sopranos (like Cherubino and Dorabella in COSI FAN TUTTE) are high. Dorabella’s arias actually sit higher than Fiordiligi’s [usually considered the high soprano part].
More than Mozart
“I really do love Mozart because I’ve been able to sing in so many of his pieces and the music is fun and the casts are great…,” she says, hesitating. “Yet, well, it’s not that I’m unenthusiastic but that there are lots of other composers as well. I love singing the French repertoire. I love singing Rossini, though some people think he’s a bit trivial, but I love it and when it’s done really really well and the text is adhered to and the timing is right, it can be very funny and charming. So there’s a lot of other things–for instance, Handel’s written a plethora of gorgeous pieces that don’t get done nearly enough.”
On the more modern side, Leonard sang the role of Miranda in the premiere of Thomas Ades’s THE TEMPEST at the Met, a mezzo role (but one that sopranos have sung as well). She had a triumph as Sister Blanche in Francis Poulenc’s LES DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES at the Met, which is written for a soprano, but sits in a place that works for her. “There are some extensions upward for Blanche that any singer would have to work on but they are notes I can sing. Stretching myself and doing roles that are interesting and exciting to me–that’s what important to me.”
Lust and Love
Is there any role she lusts after? To this, she gave a definite “no.” “Usually it’s the ones I am doing or are coming up. I always fall in love with the piece I’m doing at the time, and am very much in that character for the durations of the rehearsals and performances process. I’m very much there–I don’t ever wish to be elsewhere at that time. I’m not one of those people who drools over something that might or might not happen–who looks into the future and says ‘oh my God, if I die without doing this I’ll be miserable.'”
But then she backtracks a little. “The Countess in FIGARO is a very interesting to me, perhaps most because I sing Rosina in BARBIERE. (NB: The Countess is the slightly older incarnation of Rosina from BARBIERE .) “Most of the time the Countesses have never sung Rosina in BARBIERE–Richard (Eyre, the director) always addresses the Countess by calling out ‘Rosina’ and even when they call us from the dressing rooms they call ‘Rosina’ over the loud speaker. And every time my ears perk up because I’m used to Rosina being a call for me. It’s made this particular production very interesting for me because I feel like I’m on either side of the looking glass.”
A Cathartic Experience
In addition, FIGARO is an opera that, in general, she finds is very meaningful to audiences. “The thing with the classic pieces we really love, like FIGARO, is that there’s a reason we watch them over and over. It’s this desire to have a cathartic experience, to hear these people singing their hearts out. FIGARO is a fun story and it’s such beautiful piece–but there’s this really cathartic chorale near the end. I would happily sit through the opera–even if I do find it a little long–just for that ensemble at the end. It’s a glorious moment of music.”
Leonard concludes, “For me the stories that are the most convincing are ones that unfold as we’re watching them happen–it’s not a Greek chorus telling us about something that happened offstage, like Handel often is. You’re seeing lives evolve and change in front of you. That’s what gets people involved… because we need those moments.”