Who is the Opera Singer in Your Neighborhood? Isabel Leonard Meets "Sesame Street"
The mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard makes her role debut as Blanche de la Force in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dialogues of the Carmelites, May 4-11. Francis Poulenc’s opera, the gripping story of a convent of nuns caught up in the tumult of the French Revolution, returns to the MET for three performances in John Dexter’s landmark staging, led by conductor Louis Langrée.
Ms. Leonard, recently won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, has also just made her debut on Sesame Street. She takes time from rehearsals at the MET to speak with T+L.
Tell us about your appearances in Sesame Street. Since it is filmed in New York, I suppose it didn’t involve travel.
It actually involved a bit of travel. Last summer, I was in Glyndebourne, the opera festival in England, when the MET called to say that Sesame Street was planning a segment called People in Your Neighborhood, with Murray the Monster and Ovejita, the bilingual lamb character who speaks Spanish, and asked if I would interested in appearing on the program. I said I would be there in a heartbeat, even if I were on the moon! On a Thursday morning, I went to rehearsal at Glyndebourne, got on a plane that night from London, flew to New York and made it home around one in the morning. The next day, I got up and ran errands like any New Yorker, then went to the MET, put on my costume as Rosina from Barber of Seville, and to the shoot with the Muppets. We finished around 7 pm. I rushed to the airport, made my plane, and was back in rehearsal in Englandby the following afternoon.
That was a long day! What was it like to work with the Murray and Ovejita?
Even though those characters weren't around when I watched Sesame Street, I found working with those wonderfully talented puppeteers and staff to be inspiring. The purpose of the segment was to introduce children to individuals with varied careers. There are others with dancers from New York City Ballet and New York Philharmonic’s conductor Alan Gilbert. It was all pretty much done ad lib, all improvised. We had so much fun. And you know, the puppeteers stayed in their Muppet characters at all times, even when we had to break for Murray to clear his throat. I had tears in my eyes by the end of the day. I was so moved by it all. It was the highlight of my year.
You have had a busy season at the MET. You appeared as Miranda in the American premiere of Thomas Adès The Tempest, then in The Barber of Seville, and you are ending with Dialogues, a beloved, if searing work. Tell us about it.
Although the three characters are very different, Miranda in the Tempest, Rosina in Barber, much of the role of Blanche in Dialogues lies in the middle of my voice. Odd as it may sound, I never know quite where the voice lies day to day; someday, it sits very high, sometimes, it is in the middle. Ultimately, you want to sing what is appropriate for you, what will keep you healthy as a singer, and allow you to grow, and parts that you can portray convincingly. The MET production marks my role debut of this complex character, but coincidentally, the very first opera I was ever in was Dialogues of the Carmelites. I was a freshman at Juilliard and I was in the chorus. Thirteen years later to be able to play Blanche with such great singers as Felicity Palmer and Patricia Racette and with all these fantastic women singers at the MET is a wonderful opportunity, if daunting, too.
Where will you be appearing this summer?
I’ll be participating in two free MET Opera park concerts in July in New York, at Summer Stage and then at Brooklyn Bridge Park. In August I travel to Japan to perform in a double bill of Ravel operas at the Saito Kinen Festival, with Seiji Ozawa conducting. In the fall, I return to the MET in Mozart's Così fan tutte, which Maestro Levine will lead—I can't wait. It is the first time I have worked with him, except for a master class many years ago. In November, I’ll be in the San Francisco Opera production of Barber.
Travel is essential to your career as an opera singer. How does it fit into your life as a musician and a mother of a three-year-old boy.
When I am performing in an opera, I can be at a different city for 8 to 9 weeks, including rehearsals and performances, travel requires a great amount of planning and organization—as a matter of fact, now more than ever to maintain my son’s routine. I am adamant that his schedule stays the same no matter where we are. When we change time zones, the first few days are a little rough but the overall structure is the same. Regarding packing, I always make sure that I never put anythinginto my checked baggage that I would be upset about losing. I travel with the music scores I'm working on in my carry on. I can replace a lost or forgotten toothbrush but I always make sure also to pack in my carry on thecouple of stuffed animals that he sleeps with. As long as we have the things we need for him, I'm OK.