Conversation with Isabel Leonard

The New York City native Isabel Leonard is just 34 years old, but she's already an operatic icon. Known for her physical beauty, lovely mezzo voice, and animated characterizations, she has become a staple at the Met and grand opera houses around the world. On April 7th, I attended her conversation at Opera America to learn a little more about this talented artist, who I had the pleasure of seeing play Cheribuno in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro last year.

It was interesting to find out that this Juilliard graduate never participated in a young artist program, and instead went straight from her Master's to competitions to the professional stage. She studies with Edith Burs, who has been her voice teacher since the beginning of her undergraduate years. She met her manager, Matthew Epstein, in 2006 while singing at Santa Barbara's Music Academy of the West for Marilyn Horne. Apart from enacting classical operatic characters she also premiered Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain in Philadelphia earlier this year, playing the part of Ada. Isabel said creating a new character is exciting because there is no performance practice to adhere to. The exploration is fresh and less binding, and she enjoys working with the directors to bring the story to life.

How does she learn a new role? Pretty much how we all learn them. She just goes through the score, highlighting her part; then learns the text with IPA diction (usually using Nico Castel's books); finally, she learns the music with the text and says the text over and over with recit.

Her advice to young singers is:

  • Technique is number one
  • Technique doesn't get sorted out in your 20s, because your voice and body is constantly maturing. So don't sweat it so much! Allow it to be what it is right now.
  • Every role you do vocally affects you differently
  • Learn to cope with things that make you uncomfortable
  • Change is the name of the game

Isabel Leonard feels like a fresh face in opera, even though she's been doing this for some time now. She is distinctly of a younger generation than many of her colleagues, and certainly behaves much more like a child of the 90s, making references to pop songs that most of her audience is completely unaware of. But that's ok, because what brings everyone together in the opera world is great theater and beautiful singing, and in that regard, Isabel delivers.


If you're interested in watching the whole interview, click on the "source" link below.