Opera Star Isabel Leonard Is a Music Academy Success Story

Celebrated Music Academy of the West Alum Spotlighted

Opera Star Isabel Leonard is a Music Academy Success Story

Q & A With Celebrated Alum

By Josef Woodard | June 16, 2022

Isabel Leonard / Credit: Sergio Kurhajec

As the Music Academy of the West launches into the eight-week pageantry of its 75th anniversary season, the milestone naturally inspires reflections on the root system of this progressive operation. Among other forces at work, the power of voice — and world-renowned voices, at that — has been embedded in the organization’s DNA from the outset. 

Famed soprano Lotte Lehmann was a founding force at the Academy, and baritone Martial Singher was also among the early pioneers. Eminent mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne has robustly led the voice department in recent years, remaining the voice program’s honorary head. By rules of natural selection and mentorship, the stellar alumni list of academy-polished opera stars includes Thomas Hampson, Brenda Rae, Nadine Sierra, Sasha Cooke (on campus this summer), Juan Diego Flórez, and, not least, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.

Leonard, very much midstream in a stellar career, paid respects to her beloved early academic stomping grounds in a special “Mosher Guest Artist” recital in 2019, before COVID’s debilitating blow against live music. Unfortunately, Leonard’s planned appearance at Saturday’s festival-launching Gala was curtailed by illness.

Marilyn Horne (center) with Isabel Leonard and guests at the 2016 Music Academy of the West Gala. / Credit: Courtesy

Leonard, an Academy fellow in 2005, began her meteoric rise to acclaim and an established role in the opera world and beyond soon after leaving Santa Barbara. She made her propitious debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007, in Roméo et Juliette, and continues her prominent position in the Met circle, including an acclaimed lead role in Nico Muhly’s Marnie in 2018.

Leonard has a growing posse of Grammy Awards on her mantle, for recordings of the left-of-standard-repertoire work on Thomas Adès’s The Tempest (2014) and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges (2016), and a Grammy last year for her role in the Michael Tilson Thomas–conducted project From the Diary of Anne Frank and Meditations on Rilke. These days, Leonard juggles the itinerant life of a first-call mezzo, on the world’s opera stages and elsewhere, and life as the single mother of a 10-year-old son, Teo.

The deeply resonant vocal line at the Music Academy continues moving forward, from Lehmann to Horne to Leonard, and points beyond. I spoke to the affable and open Leonard on the phone recently, just as she was preparing to head to the Santa Fe Opera, for a summer session in Carmen.

You’ve become such an important part of the Music Academy’s history. Do you have specific memories of your summer there, in 2005? How has that impacted your life moving forward?

Isabel Leonard / Credit: Sergio Kurhajec

I remember having a wonderful summer. It was just a wonderful environment to be in. It was also a different time of life. I was younger, 22 or 23. I was single, and I didn’t have a child, and all I had to do was take care of myself. Of course, it’s very different than it’s been for the last 12 years, so the idea of that is a luxury at this point.

But at the time, that’s what you need when you’re trying to hone your skills. You have to focus on what you’re doing, kind of 24/7. Then as you get older, you have other responsibilities. It gets that much more complicated, and you become hopefully that much more efficient at doing all of the things, because you simply don’t have the luxury of time. [Laughs.]

When you return there, does it trigger nostalgic thoughts of that freer period?

It was long enough ago that I don’t really have those sort of Pavlovian feelings, so to speak. [Laughs.] For us, I think being an “in constant motion” traveler, it’s always wonderful to return to places one knows because there’s sense of familiarity, which aids with a sense of peace, and a sense of relaxation because you’re not trying to also learn about the place that you’re in, even if just logistically.

I’ve just been listening to your 2018 album with guitarist Sharon Isbin, Alma Espanola, a beautiful project.

Oh, thank you.

Was that project, in a sense, a personal tribute to your own Argentine roots, on your mother’s side?

Yes, absolutely. 

Isabel Leonard performed at the Music Academy’s 2019 Mosher
Guest Recital with pianist John Churchwell. / Credit: Phil Channing

You have established yourself with a very active opera career by this point. But is it important for you to also keep your hand in other areas of music, such as recitals and special projects?

For sure. It’s always important to make sure you’re building in concerts and recitals throughout your season. It’s like working different muscles. If you’re a track star … you can’t just train for a marathon, because then your sprinting would be terrible. However, it is really difficult sometimes. You can’t train for marathons and then expect to run a sprint in the middle of it. 

Doing recitals and concerts also takes a bit of skill in preparation. You can’t be in the middle of a run of an opera, where you’re singing one role every few days, and then expect to go somewhere and sing a recital just like that. You have to also get it into your muscles, into your voice. It’s all part of the preparation and how we organize that time.

Did you always know that opera was your be-all and end-all?

I would not have as a child. I never would’ve said, “Oh, I’m gonna be an opera singer.” I knew I was gonna be a performer, and theater was something I was interested in. I loved music, and I danced and everything. Theater was a natural place for me in my mind, although I was very, very shy. That was something I was thinking I would do — but not opera specifically. I went to Juilliard and I did my undergrad and my master’s there and, and everything sort of unfolded right before me, as time went by.

Was there a moment you can look at in retrospect as the point at which opera blossomed in you, as something to fully embrace?

When I went to Juilliard, it was a classical music education. So I think that just by being there, learning all of the classical repertoire and getting that specific type of training — that is the path that one is on just by being in the building.

At the time, I had chosen to go to Juilliard versus going to NYU’s musical theater program at 21, which I had been accepted to. I thought, “Well, I’ll go to Julliard and get a really good music education and vocal education.” And then I could still choose, because I thought maybe I’d do musical theater. I was doing a lot of that in high school.

Isabel Leonard / Credit: Michael Thomas

But I think you just get entrenched in what it is that you’re doing. I enjoyed it and was excelling in it in my undergrad, and then I was accepted into the master’s program. Those kinds of indications kept on unfolding in front of me. Shortly thereafter — really, when I went to the Music Academy, I was 22 or 23, and that was where I did the recital the following winter, the office of Marilyn Horne’s. I had already met [opera manager and administrator] Matthew Epstein that summer with Marilyn Horne. And it was at that recital where he had invited Peter Gelb [the head of the Met] to come and listen to me. He hired me to sing Stéphano [in Roméo et Juliette] the next season in Rome.

So for me, in a way, I had a very front door entry into opera. [Laughs.]

In that sense, I never did a young artist program. I went from essentially being a master’s student with about a year and a half in between doing some things and then singing at the Met. So my young artist program was like my first four or five, six years or so of my career. … It’s not a usual trajectory. Most often, people go to young artist programs, which is great, because you still have an environment to continue learning and honing it on your skills.

Whereas you hit the ground running, in a sense, in 2007. You have worked steadily with the Met since then, including the lead in Nico Muhly’s Marnie. Is your ongoing Met connection a dream come true?

It is. I would say that most singers feel like that is a pinnacle place for one’s career, for sure. For me, it has been a wonderful thing because, of course, New York has been my home. To be able to be home and work is always a fantastic thing. The Met has such historic importance and such history that it would be silly not to acknowledge how wonderful it feels to work there. And luckily, there are so many wonderful opera houses around not only this country, but globally.

And for me, ultimately, it’s [about] the longevity of the career. That is what is most enticing. You have to set yourself up in a way that you can have a long career and that means you have to take care of yourself, your voice, and make good choices. [Laughs.]

Isabel Leonard with Marilyn Horne and Simone Osborne | Credit: Courtesy

With the operas that you’ve done so far, you have mixed it up in terms of standard repertoire as well as contemporary fare such as The Tempest and Marnie and more contemporary projects. Is that wide spectrum satisfying for you?

It is really wonderful to do lots of different things and it’s also wonderful, of course, to sing roles that are well known. Those, of course, have the pros and cons to come along with it. Then it’s great to create new roles, because there aren’t any performances you are following in the footsteps of. Again, that has pros and cons, too, because there’s nothing to look at. You have to create it all from scratch.

But that’s also really fun. Marnie was a wonderful acting challenge for me, which I really enjoy because that’s something that I’m very interested in and consider a very, very important part of what I do and who I am on stage. That fed me in a lot of different ways.

Isabel Leonard and Yvette Keong | Credit: Courtesy

How do you view the opera scene at the moment — in terms of the audience and general culture — compared to when you first entered that orbit?

It is a hard question to answer. I honestly have a hard time seeing it from any other perspective than when I’m in it. For the most part, as for people who I meet that don’t know what opera is, there are just as many that don’t know now as there were when I first started. 

Access has changed greatly. Young singers, for example, have access to me and my colleagues in ways that I never had when I started working. That is mainly because of social media and the immediacy of being able to see people’s performances or talk to them through social media. And that has been especially true in the last two years of Zoom.

Flashing back to your Hahn Hall recital in 2019, you had such a nice and interactive rapport with the students there. Are you happy to engage with young up-and-coming singers?

Yes, always. 

Do you feel a particular kind of liberation in being able to perform live again? Knock on wood, COVID is more or less behind us. When I go to concerts now, there is a thrilling feeling being back in that live music domain. Do you get that feeling, as well, from the onstage perspective?

It is. It’s always wonderful to have your job back. 

A lot of times, people romanticize a lot about what we do — which is fine and wonderful. What we should romanticize is the privilege of having a job that also brings us joy, as well as the audience, versus many people who have an office job that doesn’t bring them joy. We should celebrate the fact that we do have a job that allows us to do things that we enjoy. 

Isabel Leonard performed at the Music Academy’s 2019 Mosher
Guest Recital with pianist John Churchwell. / Credit: Phil Channing

With that, though, comes a lot of personal sacrifice that is not always discussed amongst performers. There are huge personal sacrifices when it comes to family, your home, where you live, and any steady sort of community life. It takes a very strong sense of self and a strong support group to help you build that community when you are very transient. Perhaps you have a community where you live and you are in and out of that community over the course of the year, all the time.

Because it’s our life and we sacrificed so much of our lives to do our job, to not have a job for a year and a half over the pandemic was very challenging. So much of our identity becomes linked to our job and what we do. And so, yes, it was great to get your job back — the thing that also gives you a sense of purpose and livelihood and the community that we have within our job as well.

A Summer’s Musical Bounty

Isabel Leonard and Jay Hunter Morris | Credit: Courtesy

Officially, the dense Music Academy festival program opened last night (as of this story’s printing, on June 16) with a tradition in the making, a concert by the esteemed Takács Quartet. But other events also qualify as sequential festival-opening events, including Saturday’s benefit gala and, on Saturday, June 25, an affordably priced ($10!) “community concert” by the Academy Festival Orchestra in the vast al fresco splendor of the Santa Barbara Bowl, to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth and more.

Through early August, numerous concerts — both on the Miraflores campus and with orchestra and opera events at The Granada Theatre — mix with open-to-the-public masterclasses and other special goings-on, bringing the Music Academy fully back into its pre-COVID richness of options. A short list of highlights includes the annual fully produced opera Eugene Onegin (July 15 and 17) and the acclaimed contemporary group Sō Percussion (July 9) in the Mosher Guest Artists series, which also includes violinist Augustin Hadelich (July 12), Susanna Phillips (July 25), and Jessie Montgomery (August 4). 

Celebrated pianist and raconteur Jeremy Denk, now on the MAW faculty, performs on June 30, and Saturday-night special orchestra concerts showcase Mahler (July 2) and others, and composers in the spotlight include composer-in-residence Tom Cipullo (July 1). From the intriguing site-specific corner comes James Darrah’s neo-cabaret/musical theater premiere, Hahn Hall 1922-2022 (July 28). Suffice to say, classical music fans face a potentially overflowing summer calendar, just like in the old days.


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