Vogue: Opera Star Isabel Leonard on Singing for Sesame Street, Dancing to Pitbull, And Performing for Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court
It’s a busy season for Isabel Leonard: The Grammy-winning opera singer just finished a string of five performances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Metropolitan Opera; her upcoming dates with Andrea Bocelli at the Met (February 10 and 17) are already sold out; and she appears tonight on PBS (9:00 p.m. EST) singing the title role in Marnie—the Nico Muhly opera based on Winston Groom’s 1961 novel and the 1964 Hitchcock film, both of the same name—as part of the acclaimed Great Performances at the Met series of HD-filmed operas. Muhly composed Marnie with Leonard in mind. The same adaptability and shape-shifting qualities that have contributed to her wide-ranging vita (who else has performed with Plácido Domingo and Murray Monster from Sesame Street?) made her perfect for the role of Marnie, a glamorous, inscrutable, and troubled woman moving from job to job and scam to scam in 1950s England. (Next up: The role of Blanche de la Force, a nun ready to follow her fervent religious beliefs all the way to the guillotine in revolutionary France, in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met in May.)
Vogue sat down with Leonard on a recent afternoon in a backstage lounge at the Met to talk about opera, her childhood in New York, dancing to Pitbull, singing for Ruth Bader Ginsburg backstage at the Supreme Court—and why she doesn’t go onstage without her Louboutins.
You’re from right here in New York, yes?
Yep. Born and raised in Chelsea, kind of before Chelsea became Chelsea, or at least Chelsea as we know it now. I went to LaGuardia High School and then Juilliard, and then was lucky enough to begin working right out of school.
Did you always know you were destined to become at opera singer?
No. I always sang, but I also started dancing at the Joffrey Ballet School when I was 5. And my mother and I used to listen to a lot of opera and sing together—she studied voice later in life as well—but we never really discussed singing. Music and art was just a part of my upbringing—listening to classical music, going to museums. By the time I was 9 or 10, I knew that I was going to be in the performing arts somehow, though I’m pretty sure I never wanted to be an opera singer when I was a kid, because it simply seemed ridiculous. I listened to The Beatles and watched movies with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
Around fifth grade, when I started singing in choir, it became apparent pretty soon that I had some sort of ability, and after that it was just a series of choices as to what type of singing—jazz, classical, musical theater—and then I auditioned for schools and got into Juilliard, which set me on more of a classical path. But I never lost those other things that I like to do, and now I’m at the point in my career where I’m trying desperately to bring some of those other genres back into the fold.
My own opera career lasted about 15 seconds: I was singing in some sort of competition in high school and had been practicing an English translation of the “Non piu andrai” aria from Le nozze di Figaro…
Yeah, the one that Figaro sings to Cherubino!
Yes, but unbeknownst to my teacher and accompanist, I had been practicing the Italian text in secret. But only the text—I’d never actually heard it sung in Italian. And then I tried unleashing this surprise out of nowhere, for the first time, during this competition.
Yeah. Let’s not speak of the results—but did you ever have moments, certainly not this half-baked, but moments when you just failed at something on a public stage?
Knock on wood or something, but I guess I have to confess: I’m a perfectionist. I don’t like to fail—nobody does. And singing is just something that I excelled at from the beginning. But I’ve also never really concerned myself too much with the outcome of my auditions. I’ve always kind of understood that sometimes they just need someone else: another kind of person, another kind of singer. So perhaps I’ve had many failures along the way—I just didn’t see them as such.
You danced a lot early in your life. Why did you move away from that?
I think I always knew I wasn’t going to become a professional dancer, even when I was young—and yeah, I probably verbalized that at the top of my lungs and in tears when I was 10 or 11: “I’m never going to be a prima ballerina!!!” My mother pushed me for a few years to keep going, but eventually I decided on my own to take different classes in tap, jazz, modern—everything but ballet. Only this year did I really go back to ballet; I take classes with some of the dancers from the Met. But I don’t know that I was ever cut out for something that structured as the world of dance.
What’s it like to grow up as a kind of lifer in the performing arts? Was your childhood super dramatic and filled with onstage triumphs, heart-wrenching rejections, and that sort of thing—or filled with the tedium and boredom of rehearsals and practice and all that? Or perhaps some combination of all of the above?
My childhood wasn’t really a performing arts childhood; I wasn’t a theater baby in that sense. It wasn’t Mama Rose screaming from the side of the stage demanding higher kicks. My childhood was really focused more heavily on academics, and the performing arts stuff was more a way of being free. Also, I’m not sure you can ever really have a “normal childhood” growing up in New York, particularly with parents who were in the arts—my dad was a visual artist, and my mom worked with him in their business, which was fine art transportation. We also went back to Argentina, where my mother was born, once a year and stayed very connected to my mother’s family there, so my childhood was really more about a sense of community than anything else.
How did you end up on Sesame Street?
It just came out of the blue one summer. I was working at Glyndebourne, in England, when I got a call from a publicist I worked with saying that Sesame Street wanted someone for a segment called “These Are the People in Your Neighborhood.” “But it sounds like you’re just too far away to make it happen,” he said. And I said, “Absolutely not—I’ll be there right away!” I got a release from the production I was working on for a couple days, flew back to New York, did the filming the next day, and hopped back on a plane to Glyndebourne. There was no way I was going to miss that opportunity.
Do you do deep dives into researching your roles—I’m talking here more the Thomas Adès or the Debussy than the Sesame Street—or does the singing just kind of take care of itself?
My process isn’t the same for every piece. Certain roles, like Marnie, come from books, so of course I read the books, and as I read, I’m sort of forced to empathize with the character I’d be playing. After that, though, I put the book away, tell myself that I’m going to be working in a different medium now, and that the work will be seen through some different lenses, and start to go through the process. My approach was a bit different for Pelléas: I’d been given some perspective about the character of Mélisande by a few people whose opinion I trust in the world of classical music, and what I found was that their perceptions were truly quite different from how I found the character—I found her to be so much more interesting and deep and otherworldly than these people generally did. And of course there’s a ton of research and interpretation out there on the symbolism and references in Pelléas, but sometimes—sometimes—the text is all you need, along with your own interpretation.
Is it a different experience performing something like, say, Marnie, for the HD cameras instead of solely for a live audience?
It’s tricky—we joke about “opera acting.” There are these sort of over-the-top stock gestures that we all make fun of, because very subtle gestures aren’t often seen at the opera unless you’re sitting in the front part of the orchestra. But I’ve always tried to be as honest as I can be with the acting, and if it’s subtle, it’s subtle. You can’t please everybody. And the HDs pick up these gestures, which is wonderful. Of course, they can create a problem for other people, who think that these performances should somehow look like a film. It’s not a film—it’s a live opera performed on a stage. That’s the nature of the beast.
You have an 8-year-old son. Is being a renowned singer on the international stage while also being a mom as immensely complicated as it sounds?
Yeah, it’s crazy complicated! And it gets more complicated every day. I’ve been a single mom since Teo was born, but wherever I am, I sing him a lullaby every night. There’s nothing easy about it, but of course you don’t even ask yourself whether or not you can do it. You just do it. And he’s great—super-opinionated, funny—and I don’t know where he gets any of that from.
Does he get any of his taste in music from you?
Ha, no. Let’s just say this: He went to a sports camp last summer and came home and immediately said, “Mom—we have to listen to ‘Fireball’!” And I’m like, “Sure—what’s ‘Fireball’?” So he tells our Alexa, “Play ‘Fireball.’ And it’s by Pitbull.
Uh-huh. Yeah. Here’s the thing, it’s got a great beat. So pretty soon we’re both dancing and jamming around the house, and then I heard this lyric: “Now baby—take off all your clothes and light the roof on fire.” And Teo said, “What does that mean, mom—do they really light the roof on fire?” And there I am, trying to give my son the most PG-possible interpretation of this song. So I said, “No, no, it’s just an expression. It kind of means ‘have a big party.’” So he goes, ‘Okay, cool.’ The next weekend, we spent some time with some friends of ours and their two young boys at their place, and when we got home, one of the moms gave me a call. Apparently at some point while the kids were playing, Teo shouted out “Hey, guys—we should take off all our clothes and light the roof on fire!” The mom felt she should just let me know.
What do you listen to at home?
I guess when music is your business, silence is a luxury?
Yes, well, that’s not entirely true: I still listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole. It depends what I’m doing, though—if I’m cleaning the house, I’m listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd or T. Rex. When I’m working out, I’m probably listening to Madonna or Britney Spears.
And how did you become a favorite of Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
I hope that’s true! I know that she’s a huge opera fan—she has just a huge passion for it. Whenever I’m around her, it’s all she wants to talk about.
And may I ask: When are you around her?
She comes to the Met pretty frequently, and I usually get to see her backstage, or when we’ve performed at the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, we’ve generally found time to chat afterward. A couple years ago we had a tour of the Supreme Court, and afterwards we were talking in her chambers—she even made that old joke about “Have you seen the highest court in the land?” (There’s a private basketball court located above the Supreme Court, complete with a sign on the door that says “Please don’t play basketball when the Court is in session.”) And I just saw her a couple times recently in D.C. when I went to sing for the Supreme Court. In any case: She’s an opera fan and truly a force to be reckoned with.
Is the fashion—or perhaps more accurately the costume—part of being an opera diva as fantasy-like as it seems from the outside, or just another part of the job? And does it extend to your off-hours?
It’s funny, for someone who loves fashion as much as I do, I have to dress like a frump most of the time. I love to wear beautiful gowns during performances and offstage at benefits and such, but most of my days are spent in rehearsals, and so you wear things that you’re willing to get on the floor with. I do love my shoes, though: When it comes to concerts, I don’t care what color my dress is, I’m wearing my Louboutins.