Isabel Leonard: Prime Time Mezzo

Lisa Houston on September 15, 2017
Isabel Leonard | Credit: Dario Acosta

Local audiences have heard Isabel Leonard at San Francisco Opera in one of her most acclaimed roles, Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and at the Symphony showing off her musical-theater chops in On the Town. Soon they will have a chance to enjoy the celebrated mezzo-soprano’s talent and charm at the Symphony’s celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday on Sept. 22–24, and again on Oct.1 at the Herbst Theatre, when the singer will offer a diverse program showcasing composer Leonard Bernstein’s works for voice.

A product of Juilliard’s undergraduate and graduate programs and an arts education in New York City, Leonard, now in her mid-thirties, is a recipient of the illustrious Richard Tucker Award, and a frequent artist at the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses the world over. In the 10 years since her Met debut as Stéphano in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette she has become a house favorite, singing a number of roles for lyric mezzo, such as Mozart’s Cherubino, Dorabella, and Zerlina, But she has also been praised for more dramatic roles such as Charlotte in Werther, and when she sang Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called her “an ideal Blanche.”

The mother of a young son, Leonard’s speedy recapture of her physique after pregnancy was also a subject of coverage in The New York Times, and for those who saw her in On the Town, her self-assurance as a dancer is no secret.

In addition to the Richard Tucker Award, Leonard won several other prestigious awards that supported her career early on, including the Met’s Beverly Sills Artist Award for young singers and the Marilyn Horne Foundation Award.

Isabel Leonard in Il Barbiere d Siviglia at the Vienna State Opera 2012 | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH/Michael Pöhn

Let’s start with Bernstein. I know you’re a fan of Irving Berlin and other composers of the American songbook. But Bernstein is his own category. How would you describe the program you’re singing in the recital on October 1st?

When I was in high school we had done West Side Story and I covered Maria. That was the first foray into Bernstein’s music. So many people are introduced to him through West Side Story and musicals, but from what I understand he didn’t want to be known for just those pieces. Of course, I fell in love with West Side Story.

For over 12 years I’ve been singing composers traditionally thought of as within the classical repertoire and I do consider Bernstein to be one of them. However, a lot times he’s just not performed in that realm. So, this is a great opportunity for me to go back to the reason I fell in love with singing in the first place.

Some of the selections are quite operatic, while some of the songs are so simple, and intimate. I imagine choosing the song order is quite important in a program this diverse.

It is. This has actually been one of the more challenging programs to put together. I still feel I’m at the very beginning of the process to feel right. I have so many preexisting notions of how the music is supposed to go, based on the fact that I was exposed to it when I was younger.

Most singers can attest to the feeling that all of the music you heard when you were younger, you have to kind of relearn it. So, the music from West Side Story, for example, when I look at it, I have to slow down, because I want to look at it with the eyes I have now. I feel this pressure to serve the music as best as possible, and there’s a funny juxtaposition when you’re singing and learning music that can be considered melodically very simple, or that you sang a long time ago, because your brain can say, “oh, this is easy,” which means I really have to pay attention.

You’ve included “So Pretty” which is an anti-war song. Are there other songs where Bernstein’s passion for political issues comes through? What does he have to say that you find particularly relevant today?

Isabel Leonard | Dario Acosta

I think it’s a really great example, even to keep [the discussion] to that one song. The song is simple and I love that it comes through the eyes of a child. Despite the difficulties today, we can all get behind children, hopefully we can all support children.

Of course, it’s a huge driving force in my life. I have a son who’s seven. I would do anything to keep him feeling safe and loved, and I would do that for all these children. So, there’s something about it coming through children’s voice that makes it more touching than a simple song saying, “why can’t we all get along, or get past differences, or work on communication that might get us to a better place.” Through the eyes of a child, you can hear the innocence, and just how simple it is. It can, in a good way, shame you as an adult, and remind you to think about what’s going on and make an effort, so that this child’s life will be better than yours. To make things better for the next generation.

Speaking of children, I Hate Music is such a fun set for kids and you’ve included that as well for October 1st. I know some singers whose kids go through a phase when they don’t like it when they sing. Is your son a fan?

So far so good, I say with my fingers crossed behind my back right now. We sing bedtime songs every night. It’s like a concert. He gets four songs. The traditional stuff. ABCD is still a favorite, and we sing a couple of Spanish lullabies that my mother sang to me when I was a kid. He has yet to tell me not to do it. The bedtime ritual is one of those sacred things.

I don’t tend to practice very much at home, and I certainly don’t practice much when he’s around, because he needs my attention. I try to do my work when it’s my workday. I say, “I do my work, you go to school, and when we’re both there at night, we’re all there for each other.” From time to time he’ll be there when I’m practicing, or sometimes I’ll have my pianist come over but it’ll be later in the day, and he’ll listen or play. The other day I was practicing the Arias and Barcarolles, and I heard him in his room, humming along. He has a great ear. He always has. He picks up tunes faster than I do. I don’t force him to sing. I don’t force him to love music. It’s just part of our life. And I don’t force him to come to work with me. If he wants to come, or see something, he knows the offer is there.

Well, it sounds like you have that covered.

Well, he will still say to me, every time I leave to travel, “Momma, when are you going to come home and stay here forever?” So…

I saw you here in On the Town.

That was so fun!

You were so at ease onstage in a way that not all opera singers are. And with that cast — I happened also to see the Broadway production as well — and you fit right in. Would you attribute that to being onstage from an early age? I imagine growing up in NYC in the arts you’re an extremely theater-savvy person.

I attribute a lot of that to the fact that I’ve had a lot of dance training. I did ballet for a million years as a child, as I was growing up and I still danced in college. And musicals were how it started, how I fell in love with theater. I watched all the old Technicolor musicals. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Everything that had singing and dancing in it. Before I went to Juilliard I wasn’t sure what I was going to do and I was really fortunate that I had the decision to make between Juilliard and CAP21, which is the musical theater program at NYU. However, that was the decision. It was my first crossroads.

I presume you’re thrilled with the choice you made.

I am thrilled, but I stand by what I said when I made the decision, which is that I wanted to get a really solid technique by getting classical training, and then I can make the decision. My 18-year-old brain, what did she know? I didn’t have a trajectory in my mind. It was about getting the best training I could and seeing what went from there. And I still feel that way.

I obviously adore and love opera. I would never change anything that’s happened in the last 12 years. At this point, being able to do something like On the Town and doing all the Bernstein repertoire and the Arias and Barcarolles in San Francisco, and then I head to Philadelphia to sing West Side Story and I’m thrilled about it. Since we did it in high school, I’ve been dying to get my teeth into Maria, before I’m too old. [Laughs.] And doing On the Town with the Broadway cast was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, so I love those opportunities. I was glad to take them, and I would gladly continue singing and dancing because it’s something that makes me very happy.

I always love watching the Richard Tucker awards, and I imagine that must be the closest a singer can come to being Cinderella in real life. What were you feeling on that night?

I think the best thing [about] the Richard Tucker Award is just the group. That you become a part of that family. I think everybody understands the amount of work you’ve done to get to that point. And it’s just a wonderful recognition, especially for young singers, of the other work, up until that moment. People always think singers hear all the time, “oh how fabulous you were,” so they’ll say, “I know you know it was fabulous,” and every singer is saying “No, I don’t! If you liked it you can tell me!” So, the award is a very public way to show that, and recognizing you as a wonderful force in the industry.

What’s your favorite piece of shtick or comedy business that you do as Cherubino?

Isabel Leonard | Dario Acosta

I’ve never had that question asked before. Huh. I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of fun things with him. In the production I’ve done several times at the Met, Richard Eyre’s production, because I was the first Cherubino in that production, I was able to really play and have a lot of fun. Richard and I got on swimmingly and he sort of let me play in the playground of Cherubino.

So, I created all these things. Of course, they come from tradition, getting under the chair, or being very active. But there were also a few things in Act IV, in the finale, when he’s a little, or a lot, drunk, and he starts chasing Barbarina and then he sees Susanna, he really loses all inhibition, which is surprising because he has none to begin with, but he loses what he had, and he goes out and is pursuing Susanna. At this point I decided that I was going to be this baby James Dean, or Elvis-Cherubino and I was really oblivious to everything that is happening, except that I see a girl.

There are all those little things in that production I have fun with. I’ve had so many fabulous Counts and fabulous Susannas, and with each and every one of them I’ve been able to continue playing and finding new things, and that’s been the biggest joy of playing Cherubino.

Walk me through what happens when you get an offer for a role or concert. Who’s the first person you discuss it with, and what is the process of deciding if it’s the right job to take.

Pretty simply, the offer will come through my management at CAMI and Damon [Bristo] will either call or send me an email and say such-and-such offer just came in and he will present his opinion. He’ll say, “I think this is really good,” if it’s an opera I need to learn or am doing someplace else later in the year, he’ll say “maybe you should do it here because it’ll be a good run through before you do it there.” Or he’ll say, “This offer came in and I wanted to let you know. You’re actually not available for it, but I wanted you to know,” because it’s important to be aware of these things.

Sometimes there are things I’d like to do but I can’t because of timing. It always comes down to scheduling. That’s the real, nitty-gritty stuff. Scheduling, scheduling, scheduling.

Charlotte in Werther, just as an example, is much more serious subject matter than some of your bread-and-butter roles of Cherubino, Rosina, Cenerentola. How do you like doing a tragedy versus a comedy?

I love it. I absolutely love it. Singing Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmélites, I adore it. The thing for me, whether it is a comedy or a drama, is the story, and how does the story stand up? And does the story take me on a journey every time? Something like Werther, the minute I start that show, I’m on this ride and I can’t get off. That show, I’m in tears every time at the end of the night. I think sometimes you find yourself in tears because the emotion of the piece is getting to you, and sometimes it’s because your character has nowhere else to go but to tears. That particular piece was an incredibly cathartic piece. I just loved it. I would do that every year if I could.

In what way was it cathartic for you?

In the face of loss and grief, there’s something wildly healthy about just letting that waterfall come from me. Sometimes you’re able to tap into it, and you realize that maybe you were holding onto something from a different experience in your life. To be able to go there, is human.

Speaking of tragedy, you’re a big star. I think you should get somebody to stage a Rossini Otello just for you. What do you think? Does that ever happen anymore, that a big star says “I want this production to happen for me?”

I think there’s a little bit of that. I think everybody is in a situation now where they’re trying to check all the boxes, in the best way possible, so in some cases it can definitely work. I think also opera companies need to say, “We’re putting on a production that will thrive in the theater.” So, I’m saying that as a general comment, not in a direct response to the Rossini piece. In the world we’re in, it’s tricky.

Is there a piece that is a “someday dream” for you?

At this point, there are so many things coming up, my brain is just about at capacity.