Mezzo-Soprano Isabel Leonard is at home in the classical repertoire but is enticed by “different styles”
BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Having studied at LaGuardia High School and Juilliard, Isabel Leonard was exposed to the city’s rich artistic culture at an early age. At just 25, she graced the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House for the first time in “Roméo et Juliette.” And now, at 33, she already has a Grammy for her work in “The Tempest.”
That is why she now feels it important to pass an appreciation for the craft to young people. After performances, they sometimes meet her backstage, occasions that she counts as some of her most memorable moments as an artist. “It reminds you that it’s a great responsibility to hopefully inspire them to continue to love, not only opera, but all the culture they can absorb in different places,” she said.
We caught up with Leonard after her rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony. Although she travels the world, Leonard, who lives on the Upper West Side, always returns back to where her career started. This Met season, you can find her in “The Barber of Seville” and “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Tonight, she will take the SummerStage at Central Park for the Met’s Summer Recital Series, which she tells us will mix opera with classical musical theater.
You went to LaGuardia for high school. What was that experience like?It was high school. I don’t have anything to compare it to. I came from a very small private school where I went from kindergarten through eighth. When I went into high school, it was a much different atmosphere. We had an incoming freshman class of 600. For me, the biggest difference was the size. But, after that, it was a nice place for me to be because I was able to continue pursuing art and music.
When did you decide to pursue opera as a career?You know, I don’t think I ever made the decision to become an opera singer in such clear words. I always knew, since I was little, that I wanted to be involved in the theater, whether that was through dance, which was what I started doing, or theater or music. I just did little steps along the way in my education, going from dance more into music and eventually to Juilliard, which led me to have a classically based training. That, by nature, put me into the career path that I’m on right now. And I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to work and the repertoire that I can do is something that has been available to me from an early age. But it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do other forms of theater, whether it’s a play or musical theater or something else.
Do you ever go back to Juilliard?Oh yeah. Whenever I’m in New York, I’m there whether it’s for a lesson or I’ll do a master class once a year. You never quite leave the building.
What did it feel like the first time you sang at the Met?Definitely shocking. It happened very soon for me and it was a huge unknown. Extremely exciting. It was sort of like, ‘Well, here’s your trial by fire. We’re not going to put you in the shallow end, we’re going to throw you in the deep end and see if you sink or swim.’ It was great, actually, and it couldn’t have been under a better circumstance, I think.
What are some of your favorite pieces to sing?I tend to like whatever it is I’m working on at any given moment. That’s sort of all the brain capacity I have considering most of us are really busy, so you have to just focus on one thing at a time. I love the work that I’m doing here right now with Ravel’s “L’Heure espagnole” with the symphony because I love the French repertoire. And I love this piece because it’s a hoot and a half. And I love singing Rossini. Everything I have done this far, there has been something in there that keeps me coming back to it.
Can you give us a glimpse into your SummerStage performance?I think it will be fun because you will have three singers on stage that enjoy what they do, and sing and act well. It’s a good repertoire. We’re going to do not only opera, but I know Nathan and I will do a little bit of Sondheim and some other things. He and I do a concert together separately where we mix a lot of opera and what I would say is classical musical theater.
As far as mentors, who has inspired you through the years?There have been lots of people through different stages in my life that have made an impact whether it’s small or large. I could name a lot of people, so it’s hard to just pick one or two, because I feel that I’m not naming everyone that I should. When it comes to something more technical, like technique in singing and development as an opera singer specifically, of course, my teacher Edith Bers is the one I’ve been working with in this regard since I was 17 years old. She has been, of course, at that fundamental level in my training and is of upmost importance.
What are the most memorable fan moments for you?It’s always wonderful when audience members, friends, family or fans come backstage and show their appreciation for what we’re doing. I think the loveliest moments are when family or friends can bring their kids or young adults and the look on their faces if they’ve really enjoyed it. And they’re always a little shy, but the fact that they were there and were awake and wanted to come backstage and meet some of the singers. Or if it’s “Cenerentola,” of course they want to meet Cinderella. Those are really lovely moments because that’s the beginning for them.
Who would you still like to perform with on stage?Uh, everybody. [Laughs] Talk about a long list. Aside from more fantastic colleagues in the opera world, I would love to. ... It’s so funny a friend of mine was actually just doing a job with Queen Latifah and I was like, “I want to do a duet with her.” I would love to cross over into different realms of the music business and meet different artists and really mix and match different styles.
You released your first CD, “Preludios,” in May, which pays homage to your Argentinian ancestry. Yes, it finally came out. It’s Spanish repertoire close to my heart being half Argentine. It’s just the beginning of more CDs of music that I enjoy. At this stage, I really want to put music down that is important to me and that I really love. It’s a physical manifestation of all this Spanish repertoire that I have enjoyed and learned.
To learn more about Leonard, visit www.isabelleonard.com