Isabel Leonard is a glamorous young opera star, svelte and vivacious, whose career has rocketed into the stratosphere. But sometimes an opera star is just a mom.
“I’m trying to get the nanny and my son out of the house,” she said with a rueful laugh, apologizing for starting an interview a few minutes late. Based in Manhattan, Leonard and husband Teddy Tahu Rhodes well know the formidable challenge of corralling a toddler, namely their 3-year-old son, Teo.
But in terms of her career trajectory, running late is not Leonard’s style. In September 2007, barely one year after earning her master’s degree from the Juilliard School, the mezzo-soprano made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Stephano, Romeo’s page in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.
“It’s hard to make a splash in a pants role in a long opera on a night when Anna Netrebko is singing,” wrote Washington Post critic Anne Midgette, “but Ms. Leonard did.”
Born in 1982, Leonard already has a jam-packed resume. In 2013 she won the Richard Tucker Award, a prestigious honor for promising young singers that carries a $30,000 prize and a concert appearance. In 2012, she starred as Miranda in the Met’s highly praised premiere of Thomas Ades’ 2004 opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest directed by Robert Lepage. She has appeared in opera houses stretching from Vienna to Santa Fe. Her mezzo is a powerful instrument with an astonishing range, dusky and worldly wise in its lowest register yet silvery and agile in high-flying coloratura passages.
South Florida audiences will get to see what all the excitement is about when Leonard makes her local debut Sunday as part of the Sunday Afternoons of Music series in Coral Gables. Her recital with pianist Vlad Iftinca will be the final concert in Doreen Marx’s series, which is closing down after a 33-year run.
Leonard may be best known as an opera singer, but recitals are an important element of her career. Surprisingly, it’s the text rather than the melody that initially draws her attention to a song.
“If the text doesn’t speak to me, or it isn’t something I can connect to, then I really don’t want to sing it,” she said. “This is storytelling. The singing part is just the medium for storytelling. For me, the story telling is great in all different forms, which is why I love the visual arts, the performing arts, theater. It’s that oral tradition of telling stories — the wisdom, the emotion, the experience or whatever it may be — through singing or acting or mime. As humans, as animals, we connect to the sharing of feelings that we may or may not have experienced ourselves.
“Recitals are so important to me,” Leonard said. “That’s the place where we get to tell those stories we really want to tell without anybody dictating the [shape] of things. We get to create the whole thing from top to bottom.”
As a child growing up in New York, Leonard took lessons at the Joffrey Ballet School but also sang in school and church choirs. Her first systematic vocal study began when she joined the Manhattan School of Music’s Children’s Festival Chorus at around age 11.
“Christine Jordanoff was the chorus director,” Leonard said. “She taught the Kodaly technique. For children, that’s a wonderful thing. It’s very easy and natural and organic. I was there for about five years, until the middle of high school. And by that point I was already at LaGuardia [High School for Music and Art and the Performing Arts] singing. Everything sort of dovetailed, from one to the next. And I kept on dancing even though I stopped ballet before I went to high school. I took tap and jazz, I kept up my proficiency in different styles.”
That proficiency in movement as well as singing served Leonard well earlier this year when she made her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut, singing Rosina in a new production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The production was also a debut for director Rob Ashford, best known for his work in musical theater; Lyric’s Barber was his first attempt at directing opera. His staging was lively and inventive, full of deft comedy but also emphasizing the love story between the savvy Rosina and the handsome Almaviva (Alex Shrader).
Rosina is one of Leonard’s signature roles, but Ashford said she was open to his ideas about the piece.
“I was so blessed to have her as Rosina,” said Ashford. “She’s played the role, but she came into it with a completely open mind, to reinvent it. You’d never know she’d played the role before. There was never once where she said, ‘Normally, I like to …’ That was pretty extraordinary, I have to say. Often, if performers have done a role before, they want to bring at least one bag of tricks with them.
“And she’s such a fine actress. That was really helpful to me particularly. Certainly Barber is a comedy, but it also is a romance, and I really wanted that to come through. I was hoping that a lot of the humor could come out of the extreme feelings they had for each other — love and lust, both.
Baritone Nathan Gunn, a major star in his own right, was the wily but good-hearted Figaro in Lyric’s Barber. He has worked periodically with Leonard since 2007 when he sang Mercutio in the production of Romeo et Juliette that marked her Met debut.
“When it comes to actually working hard,” Gunn said, “she likes to work, which is great. Some people kind of like to waste time, but she likes to work. She’s very organized, which is helpful. She’s a very quick study. It’s always about telling a story rather than looking good as an individual. She’s not thinking about her dress, or how her own character is coming across. She’s very collegial.”
After Lyric’s Barber closed in late February, Gunn and Leonard appeared in a different production of the opera in Dallas. She joined Gunn and his wife, pianist Julie Gunn, for a recital May 1 at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. In August 2015 the two singers are scheduled to create roles in the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel Cold Mountain at the Santa Fe Opera.
Until then, for Leonard there will be opera performances, concerts and recitals in New York, Vienna, Munich, Washington and points beyond. Maybe the future years will hold some musical theater as well.
“I would love to do that,” she said emphatically. “The music is fun and the music is beautiful. And the lyrics are often very poignant and very appropriate, as appropriate as lyrics in opera. I think there’s a huge misconception that some of that music is less intellectual or not as sophisticated as opera. I think we’re doing a huge disservice to the audience if we continue to allow there to be such a divide between that type of music and opera. Because originally that music was sung by classically trained singer. That music is part of our history in this country. Sometimes in the opera world the most exotic thing is foreign, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best.”
“She’d be great at it,” said Ashford, whose lengthy musical theater credits range from a Tony Award to choreography for the Academy Awards shows. “She’s a great actress, she’s a great singer and she can dance as well. The sky should be the limit for her.”