Before the lights come up at some of the world’s biggest opera houses, you can hear Isabel Leonard‘s voice backstage. But you won’t catch her singing a tune from her wide classical repertoire, ranging from Mozart to Poulenc. She’s singing lullabies to her son over the phone.
“My son is older now and his new question is, ‘Mama, when are you gonna stay at home and work here forever?'” Leonard told me. “It’s like someone stabs me with a knife! I think he gets that Mama has to work. If you were to ask me what the most important thing in my life is, I’d say it’s my son and my work, because work is how I can give everything to my son.”
Luckily for the New York-based Leonard, she’s found a healthy amount of work between both Manhattan and Philadelphia for the next several months, which is much, much easier on the commute compared to flying half-way round the world. She just finished a stint as Rosina in The Barber of Seville at The Met Opera (and will soon return there to reprise Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro in late February). For now, the down-to-earth diva is here in Philly, prepping for the East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain, a project that she’s been involved with since the concept was first announced at a press conference at the Santa Fe Opera.
“I remember going up to Jennifer Higdon and introducing myself,” she recalled. “I knew Gene Scheer, and I just had a feeling about this piece, that it was going to be something great. I knew Higdon’s choral music, and I knew Gene was going to write an incredible libretto because that is what he does.”
And, indeed, several months later, Leonard was cast as Ada, and started the challenging journey of learning the “incredible language” of Higdon.
“The best thing about the Philly engagement is that we worked so hard in Santa Fe to get the music in our minds. We went into battle learning this piece,” Leonard said. “We’ve been months away from the score, and we’ve all come back with a great understanding. It’s like coming back to your family after not seeing them for a while. You sort of fall into place, but you can tell you’ve changed. I even see changes in my colleagues.”
For those who have read the book and saw the movie of Cold Mountain: The opera has its own voice and its own interpretation of the tale, according to Leonard.
“We’re not trying to step on anyone’s toes,” she said. “Each medium is its own and that’s really great. You don’t have to reproduce each other’s work. We’re dealing with the story that Gene and Jennifer gave us. We’re focused on what we have.”
Cold Mountain isn’t the only project Leonard is working on in Philadelphia. She returns to the city in March with Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin to present an intimate recital at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theatre, featuring a program of Spanish song which includes works by Lorca, de Falla, Rodrigo, Albéniz, Granados and Tárrega.
“Sharon and I have done this recital for several years,” Leonard said. “At first, it took hours and hours to put this work together, but now that we’ve done it for so long, it’s great to get together and give it all we’ve got.”
The “give it all you got” mantra was instilled in the performer by her mother, who never pushed Leonard into a life in the performing arts. However, when Leonard was accepted into Juilliard, her mother did give her one piece of advice.
“If you’re going to try and do this, you’re going to have to try one hundred percent,” Leonard recalled. “It’s best if you find out sooner than later if it’s going to work or not.”
It’s safe to say that it’s “worked” for Leonard, who has found that the only way to really succeed in opera, or in anything, is to find joy in the work. She’ll be debuting four new roles this upcoming season, including Charlotte in Werther and, in quite a surprising twist, she’ll be trying her musical theater chops on as she tackles Claire in On the Town. Of course, there’s also her new album, Preludios, a nod to her Argentinian heritage, which features Brian Zeger on the piano. In short, she’s found her stride.
“There are so many stresses in this world and in this business,” she said. “You could turn left or right and someone will say something that is a stress. You have to find the joy in it. At the end of the day, you want to enjoy the work and the audience wants to enjoy the show and then go home.”
When she does get home, tucking her son into bed is one of Leonard’s greatest joys (“Usually when he falls asleep, it’s 8:30 and I’m groggy because I dozed off with him,” she said). However, there’s no doubt that for the next several weeks while she’s here in Philly, you’ll hear the sound of a lullaby from the wings of the Academy before the curtain rises on Cold Mountain.
Isabel Leonard appears in Cold Mountain with Opera Philadelphia February 5 through February 14. For tickets and more information, visit the Opera Philadelphia webpage. She returns on March 29 with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society at the Kimmel. For tickets and more information, visit the PCMS webpage.