Isabel Leonard is one of, if not the, most in-demand opera singer in the world today. For the last decade her star has been on the rise all around the world both on the opera and concert stages. This season at The Met alone she’s performing in three different production, singing three roles that could not be more starkly dissimilar: the title role of Nico Muhly’s “Marnie,” Claude Debussy’s “Melisande” and the upcoming Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”.
Given the rigor of her schedule, we are thrilled that she found a few minutes to chat with us about her upcoming performances in Dialogues… as well as answering some burning questions that the entire opera world is dying to find out. For example:
Ghirardelli or Lindt chocolate?
Oh, Ghirardelli! No question. Not even close. For some reason I’m like the only person in the world who doesn’t like Lindt – but it really does nothing for me. I especially like Ghirardelli for baking. I love the small semi sweet chips; they are just perfect for baking because they aren’t overly sweet.
Dark or Milk chocolate?
Oh, Dark, no question! The darker the better – actually no – I don’t love the really really super dark chocolate, when it gets bitter. Around 70% cocoa is perfect.
Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald?
Ha! Tough questions because I love them both so much but I’m going to have to give the edge to Ella -simply because she was the first, she was always my go-to. And because when I was growing up and my voice was just forming, I learned so much from listening to her. She was kind of my first voice teacher. And then thru her, she introduced me to Sarah.
Tony Bennet or Frank Sinatra?
Definitely Frank. Once again – he was the first. He was always on in our house and I really learned to sing by listening to him. His whole approach. How to shape words, how to shape phrases… just everything. I love Tony as well, and Bing Crosby and a lot of other singers of that period, but they definitely came later. Sinatra was the first.
What did you listen to in High School?
I was a huge fan of old black and white musicals – you know – Fred Astaire and ginger rogers and so many others. When I say a fan, I mean I literally watched them over and over and learned the music by heart. And then naturally the big musical spectaculars, all the Rogers and Hammerstein stuff. I remember I had a childhood crush on a guy who was a huge Beatles fan and he turned me on to all of their stuff, and to a lot of other bands of that era. Around that time I saw a movie called “Dazed and Confused” that had this really awesome soundtrack that I used to listen to over and over. I knew I was never going to seriously sing Lynyrd Skynyrd or Kiss tunes, but I sure loved to listen to them!
Concert work vs. Opera?
Ooooh that’s really hard because I love both so much. But I have to say that in general I approach singing and performing in general from the perspective of an actor, from the theater world. I tend to view the music through the eyes of the character. And I get that a lot more from the opera than from a concert. And truth is, my love for opera sort of comes from that love of storytelling and theater.
Why do you keep choosing such thankless roles?
(bursts out laughing) They’re not thankless! What do you mean?
No big arias no big showcases numbers.
Well, I think there’s a lot more to singing than just big arias and these roles are all unique and wonderful in their own way, and well Marnie for example, the entire opera was pretty much built around the one character, so she was on display literally the entire time.
Let’s talk Dialogues. You did it at the Met in 2013. What’s different this time around?
Good question. First of all, I’m different. I’m six years older and I’m using and instrument that’s six years older. It works differently than it did then. But the music is still there, still resonating with me.
Did you retain the muscle memory from the last time?
Not so much the muscle memory but certainly the emotional memory and the elements of her character. That came back almost immediately. But I’ll tell you something funny. I was at rehearsal the other day and Erin (Morley) who did it with me last time, said to me, “I swear to God, I know I’ve sung this before, but there are passages in the score that I would swear I never saw before in my life!” And I feel the same way! There so much there, so much that’s still fresh and so much to discover. And I do feel like I’m discovering things in the score and in the character every day. In fact, if you listen closely, you’ll see that the five major characters really approach the situation they are facing from vastly differing places and points of view. I told the director that this was something we should really look at and explore. I mean they all wind up making the same decision in the end, but they arrive at the decision from completely different directions and places. And the finale which – I don’t know how to describe it – it exalts them.
How does this tessitura sit with you?
It’s great. It did last time as well. I mean, there’s only a few spots that I just need to pay careful attention to. Like when the As arrive and how I approach them – cause it’s all so emotional and powerful and in the moment. Because the production, it’s amazing, stunning. But, it’s also, from a purely directorial standpoint, it’s a pretty static piece. So once again, you have to try to be as in the moment as possible; as honest as possible. The story itself is fairly simple, but, it’s such an emotional story that its especially important that you be honest in your portrayal. I absolutely love singing Blanche because it gives me such a chance to really stretch my range.
So, you would not say that it’s either harder or easier this time per se?
No, I think the actual performance isn’t significantly harder or easier. Off stage is where it’s always just a bit of a balancing act. If you want to write that story, say the word!
The working singer?
Exactly, I think sometimes people think its all so glamourous – all parties and galas all the time. You want to know what my average day is like right now? I’m up at the crack of dawn to make breakfast and get my son to school by 8:15, which is like an hour round trip. I’m at the Met by 9:30 a.m. for a coaching till 10:30 a.m. Then there’s staging and rehearsal until late afternoon like 5-5:30pm. With about an hour for lunch – which is often taken up by something else – a costume fitting or something. Then I rush home to have dinner with my son and have him ready for bed at 8 o’clock. Then I throw in a load of laundry if there’s time.
So, it’s not all champagne and mani/pedi’s?
And that’s if you’re lucky enough to be in New York?
Yes! It’s whole different routine when I’m out of town.
When will we hear you in Spanish?
You already have! I did two CDs of Spanish music, including one with Sharon Isbin which we toured all over the place.
What about in opera or Zarzuela? They’re doing that in DC and LA and NYCO is doing a Spanish work every season.
I’d be very interested, that is of course if there’s something that’s right for me, vocally. I love singing in Spanish!
Ah, I don’t know! I just want to keep working. And keep performing at a high level.
One thing that interests me is more TV and film. I think there’s an opportunity there that’s really being missed. The HD broadcasts are great but I’m really up for doing more Film and TV. I think the art form needs it, there’s so much more we can and should be doing, and I’m totally up for it.
I remember growing up and seeing Beverly Sills guest hosting the Tonight Show and seeing Marilyn Horne and Martina Arroyo on the Odd Couple and they were considered big guest stars. To say nothing of the Ed Sullivan Show from a slightly earlier era.
Exactly! And even if people weren’t fans of the opera, they knew who they were. I’m hoping we can see something like that again.
What’s on your iPod?
I’m preparing for “Sheherazade” which I’ll be doing with Yannick in a few weeks -So, I’m pretty much listening to recordings of it round the clock! I hope you’re coming!