Nicole Cabell
Nicole Cabell | Credit: Devon Cass

Fast becoming one of the world's leading lyric sopranos, Nicole Cabell talks about her upcoming concert at Hertz hall, her favorite music, and how she wears the mantle of "Singer of the World."

You came to the Bay Area to give a recital for Cal Performances at Hertz Hall in Berkeley on March 1. What did you sing?

My favorite music. Liszt. And two Spanish sets, actually, one by Obradors and one by Guastavino. And then the second half is all American music, which I hope to become a specialist in, because I love it so much. I'm doing Bernstein's I Hate Music set and then a set by Ricky Ian Gordon and ending with a set of spirituals.

You've had quite a busy schedule since winning the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2005. Have things been just crazy?

It's a challenge for any opera singer to make sure that they take care of their body and mind. It's easy for both of them to go, when you're traveling at this crazy pace. But I'm enjoying the ride.

What has been your greatest challenge as a singer?

I would say maintaining the truthful commitment to singing. To be sure that you don't get wrapped up in the business or negativity that is part of any business.

You play a lot of ingenues who are somewhat vulnerable and naive. Like Pamina [in Mozart's The Magic Flute]. You debuted Pamina at the Met this year. How does she compare with your own personality, the true Nicole? I love Pamina. It's easy to get in her shoes. She's of noble blood, but you don't have to be too flighty. She's very poised. But I do like the more complicated characters.

Is there a singer who has been an inspiration or a mentor to you, especially in terms of acting?

I love Natalie Dessay. I've actually just had a session with her at Lyric Opera of Chicago. We call them "Buddy Coachings." And, of course, my teacher, Gianna Rolandi. What an amazing stage animal she was. And Anna Netrebko is just wonderful to watch on stage.

Can you share one thing from that coaching with Dessay that you found valuable?

She basically tried to get me to strip away what I like to think of as egotistically approached musical decisions — like, for example, holding out a note a little bit too long, that doesn't have a purpose except to try and elicit a response from the audience about your voice. It was all about character with her. It was never about how beautiful you sing a note. It was about: What does this note say? Why did the composer write this word this way on this note? She really goes beneath the surface.

Even the biggest companies these days are cutting back due to the poor economy. How has that affected you, or have you seen it affect your colleagues?

It's already affected me. I've been asked to take pay cuts and I don't hesitate at all to agree. I'm just happy to be able to make money and continue. I know some people who have months of no work, or they'll work with an organization and be invited back the next year at half their fee. It's very scary. But we all have to weather this.

What's on your iPod these days? I listen to everything. My favorite thing now is alternative rock. Cold Play and lesser-known bands. Black Tie Dynasty. The new, new wave. I have a lot of '80s music. But I listen to everything from R&B to bluegrass. Rihanna, Alison Kraus. I have a "whatever mood I'm in" soundtrack.

What can you tell me that might surprise our readers? What's the other side of the lovely, refined lyric soprano?

I love quirky humor. I love the TV show Flight of the Conchords. I love The Family Guy. I've become a big 3rd Rock From the Sun fan. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm a TV addict. Not that I'm not proud of it. Actually, I am proud to admit I'm a Flight of the Conchords fan! I'm definitely a friend of the HBO comedy lineup.

I would love to sing Mimi [in Puccini's La Bohème]. That will probably be when I'm a little older and maybe not in a big house because, again, my voice is not huge. But it's a role I've always dreamt of singing. And if my voice grows, maybe I'll sing it in a bigger house. Manon [in Puccini's Manon Lescaut] is very tough. But I've been told that this is something I should look into, so who knows?