Early this fall the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard stood beside the grand piano in the Central Park West apartment of Edith Bers, her voice teacher since her Juilliard days, inhaled deeply and revealed her latest accomplishment: taut, well-defined abs. Admirable by any standard, they were all the more impressive because on May 17 Ms. Leonard gave birth to Teo, her son with her husband, the New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes (famous for his own steely six-pack).
“I’m feeling almost like myself again,” Ms. Leonard said after an hour of vocalises and arias, throwing a sweater over her clingy camisole, “the voice, the body.”
Maybe even an improved version.
“Isabel’s voice is the same warm, velvety, flexible instrument and perhaps is a bit fuller postpregnancy,” Ms. Bers said. “And because Isabel is so physically fit, it was much easier getting her back into shape. She did a lot of very, very disciplined work.”
This month the 28-year-old Ms. Leonard, whose sloe-eyed allure hints at a young Gina Lollobrigida, will be onstage at the Metropolitan Opera as the hoodwinked sister Dorabella in Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte”: part of “a youthful and sexy cast,” as marketing materials put it, filled out by Miah Persson, Danielle de Niese, Pavol Breslik, Nathan Gunn and William Shimmell (replacing an indisposed Wolfgang Holzmair).
“I see it in the opera world, how things are shifting,” Ms. Leonard said of the trend for divas to resemble movie stars. “I don’t feel an outward pressure. But I’ve set a physical standard for myself that I’ve adhered to my whole life.”
The reality in this age of high-definition video is that directors “want singers visually believable as well as vocally ravishing,” Ms. Bers said. “It’s a win-win to have a healthy, attractive body.”
As long as there has been opera, there have been singers giving birth and suffering the consequences. Though managers and teachers may delicately broach the subject (or pray for abstinence), Ms. Bers, the chairwoman of the Juilliard voice department, has tended to withhold advice until it is requested.
“I might say that the best time to start having babies is once you have at least one foot in the career,” she said. “But one can’t always be completely in control of Mother Nature.”
Ms. Leonard was barely out of Juilliard, where she had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and won the William Schuman Prize for outstanding achievement in music, when she made her Met debut in 2007 as Stéphano in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juiliette.”
She “sang with the assurance of one who feels completely at home on the stage,” Anne Midgette wrote in The New York Times, “wielding an easy mezzo that went up from an amber-colored lower register to an impressive, sopranolike top.”
“It is hard to make a splash in a pants role in a long opera on a night when Anna Netrebko is singing,” Ms. Midgette added, “but Ms. Leonard did.”
It was not beginner’s luck. The next year at the Met she portrayed the beautiful peasant Zerlina opposite Erwin Schrott’s lothario Don in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
“The chemistry between them was sizzling,” James R. Oestreich wrote in The Times. “Her singing was fresh, effervescent and lovely.”
While it typically takes 10 years to “cook a singer,” Ms. Bers said, “Isabel entered with a big-time career right out of school, and that’s unusual.
“Some people are very smart and intuitive with their bodies and instruments,” she added. “It’s a motor skill as well as an art. Isabel is very clear. There’s a simple line from what I have told her to how she takes it in and processes it. Also she is very quick with language, and because she had danced, she has a body awareness onstage. All of it was there to be honed.”
Ms. Leonard maintained the intensity of an elite athlete as she prepared her postpartum voice and physique for a marathon year. Over the next 10 months she will travel, Teo and his nanny in tow, to Paris twice, at the Opéra National; to Tokyo and other Japanese cities, part of the Seiji Ozawa Opera Project; and back to the United States for engagements at Carnegie Hall and with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Santa Fe Opera, spending just three weeks (not consecutive) at her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It’s an exercise in endurance for a singer who between April and August hardly sang at all.
“Once I was four months’ pregnant, singing was a difficult thing for me,” said Ms. Leonard, who at five months ran up and down stairs on a rotating set, at an altitude of 5,280 feet, as Rosina in the Opera Colorado production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.”
“I was pressing against something when I sang,” she added. “I didn’t have the air I wanted. I didn’t feel like the support was there. I carried Teo very low. I couldn’t get under him, and I couldn’t get around him.”
In frustration she sought advice from the great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, with whom she had studied at the Music Academy of the West, winning a Marilyn Horne Foundation Award.
“Opera singers have to have the constitution of horses,” Ms. Horne said, noting that she had sung until three weeks before her daughter was born.
“I remember feeling a leg underneath my rib,” she said. “I had problems after the birth with breath support. My voice just kept cracking. I never did feel totally normal until about a year later.
“In my day we did not nurse our babies,” Ms. Horne added, “and that’s a mistake. Because of what I know now, when you nurse, those stomach muscles start to contract, and they get much stronger.”
Five weeks after Teo’s birth Ms. Leonard took the equivalent of vocal baby steps under Ms. Bers’s watchful eye.
“Those first three lessons were like, ‘Let’s reintroduce your body to your voice,’ ” Ms. Leonard said. “It felt like lifting weights that were too heavy, because my muscles weren’t working. There was a quiver.”
After taking off the rest of June and July with her teacher’s blessing, she accepted an invitation to perform Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Españolas” with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 5.
“I asked Isabel what I always do,” Ms. Bers said. “ ‘Do you want to do it?’ She was definitely ready to go.”
The engagement also served as a trial run for balancing the demands of on-the-road motherhood with those of performing. Ms. Leonard, who had studied at the Joffrey Ballet School as a child, viewed her quest for renewed abdominal strength as an opportunity to reshape her dancer’s physique into a singer’s.
“Most people don’t get a second chance to put their bodies back together,” she said, “to relearn how to breathe, how to hold the body. I have always perceived my breathing as very shallow, because the dancer has to hold their core at all times.”
In July she began working out with Jeremy Levinn, a personal trainer at an Equinox branch.
“She obviously had a little bit of weight to lose, which is very normal postpregnancy,” Mr. Levinn said. “And she needed to be able to have the level of endurance and fitness to be able to be onstage for hours.”
Their focus was on reinforcing Ms. Leonard’s core with a routine involving kettlebell lifts, jumps and squats that incorporated muscles throughout the body.
“She needs to be able to draw strength from her diaphragm, from her midsection,” he said. “That’s where her singing voice comes from.”
The initial sessions seemed almost to defeat their purpose.
“After a couple of workouts, when she took a deep breath, her muscles were sore, which didn’t help her to sing well,” he said. “The more we worked, the more consistent she became, and the less the soreness was an issue.”
Rehearsals for “Così Fan Tutte” at the Met began in early October, forcing Ms. Leonard to care for a 5-month-old while singing and acting six days a week on limited energy.
“I feel like I’m doing a little bit of catch-up,” she said recently. “I’m still breast-feeding, and I haven’t slept through the night since Teo was born. I think getting back into shape has been the biggest help for me, just getting my body strong so that the rest of the demands don’t fall so hard and exhaust me as much as they would if I were any weaker physically and mentally.”
Nearly six months after Teo’s birth Ms. Leonard’s body and voice are as fit and supple as ever, if not quite at the exacting and perhaps unachievable standard to which she holds herself.
“I’m forever a work in progress,” she said with a determined laugh. “If I ever think that I’ve arrived, then I’m doing something wrong.”
By KATHRYN SHATTUCK
The New York Times
Published: November 12, 2010