I Am Woman: Isabel Leonard

By Heather Longley
February 07, 2019

The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State recognizes women in the arts. The center's 2018–19 season features women of all ages, cultures, genres and disciplines in leadership and supporting-artist roles. The scheduled events represent the success women artists and allies have found through determination, despite hardship and with the help of supporters. When you support women artists, you recognize their challenges, validate their talents and help them to advance their achievements. Learn more about “I Am Woman.”

If opera star Isabel Leonard’s life were to be captured in a song, it would require many verses to sing it.

In the past, the multiple Grammy Award-winning vocalist has performed a number of “pants roles”—a woman vocalist portraying a young male character, such as Cherubino in “Le Nozze di Figaro” and Ruggiero in “Alcina.” During the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018–19 season, she throws herself into the minds of a few of opera’s majorly flawed females— Marnie (in a character case study of the same name earlier adapted by Alfred Hitchcock), Mélisande (in “Pelléas et Mélisande”) and Blanche de la Force (in “Dialogues des Carmélites”).

Despite the accolades heaped upon her by opera critics, Leonard’s high mezzo won’t be constrained. The self-described perfectionist also sings on some of the world’s most prestigious stages with lauded symphonies and conductors. But the mother in her has also steered her to sing with Murray Monster on “Sesame Street”; and the humanist in her to sing the praises of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a frequent Met patron (“She’s truly a force to be reckoned with,” Leonard told Vogue magazine).

Leonard’s “gorgeous, bright voice; strong musical instincts; and exemplary acting” (The Classical Review) have brought her loyal new fans among theatergoers, as well as among her fellow performing artists. In 2017, Leonard released “Alma Española,” a collection of songs in Spanish featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin. In December, Boston Symphony Orchestra released on DVD “Bernstein at 100: The Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood,” followed by an anniversary tour.

Leonard will perform with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor John Mauceri, in “100 Years of Leonard Bernstein” Feb. 27 at Eisenhower Auditorium. The program will celebrate the American composer’s wide-ranging musical contributions to twentieth-century classical, film and stage canons.

In a Center for the Performing Arts interview, the native New Yorker took time to provide insight into pants roles, role models and her most intensely private role — motherhood.

Question: You often speak of strong, influential women throughout your life and career (your mother, vocal trainers Christine Jordanoff from Duquesne University and Edith Berg) who provided career and life tips to ensure your success. What was the most pointed and influential piece of advice, life lesson or training technique to your career?

Isabel Leonard: There really is not one piece of advice. I think it creates so much pressure to think there may be that one life lesson that we need to hear or learn in order to be able to succeed. Life has so much to teach, and lessons come at different times and differently for every individual person. You may or may not be ready for a lesson that is in front of you in a moment, and it isn’t until later that it dawns on you what you learned. Experience is its own teacher. The best advice that I can deign to give is to make sure, as a singer, that you have a solid technique.

"However you may identify yourself, I believe story telling is simple. Tell a story, be honest; play a character, be honest; communicate, be honest."

— Opera singer Isabel Leonard

Q: I saw a quote recently: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.” You’re protective of your personal/family life. Why is keeping a distance from the spotlight or maintaining those boundaries important to you? Do you think these boundaries are tested more for women artists and performers than male ones?

Leonard: There are still very different expectations on men and women and child rearing. Less so now, of course, than decades before. There is still the feeling in this world, that if a woman says she cannot do something in her career because of a family obligation, she is looked at like she either can’t handle it all or doesn’t want to pursue a high-level career. If she does sacrifice a family responsibility, then you can only imagine what is said! With men, I find this dissection doesn’t happen as often, at all. It’s a matter of perceptions and cultural habits. I choose to keep these things separated as much as possible because I was also simply me before my son came in to the picture, and my career was built from that foundation. My career is not connected to my mothering in that I had to learn how to be a mother after I learned how to have a career. They are two very different jobs, and I try to keep them separate.

Q: For most people, it may not register that you do your singing job almost nightly. Someone might only see you sing once and not think again that you are pushing your voice night after night. Are there differences in how you view your own performances versus how a critic portrays them? How demanding are you on yourself after each performance?

Leonard: I have ridiculously high standards for myself, honestly. I push a lot, which is not always a good thing! While I was rehearsing “Marnie,” my days all looked like this: Wake up and get my son to school by 8:15 (an hour commute), arrive back at the Met by 9:30 a.m. Then coach from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., staging rehearsal from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., sometimes only with a 30-minute lunch because of the need for a costume fitting. Arrive home by 6 p.m. to be with my son for dinner and then his bedtime at 8 p.m. Some nights, I had to attend events after my son was asleep, and some nights I had to stay at the Met for things like the opening of the season, etc., in which case, I never made it home at all until midnight. No questions, you just try to make it all work. Performance days, I still take my son to school, then I come home to nap. The one day I will not schedule anything is on a performance day. So, if a critic decides to lay into me, feel free to direct them to the paragraph above. :)

Q: Regarding “pants roles” in opera, do you think it’s more a matter of science, history, necessity or skill that more women sing the role of men in opera? Do you find the pants roles to be more challenging to your voice?

Leonard: The pants roles are historic. The composers like Mozart wrote Cherubino for a woman, for example. He did this because Cherubino was a young man not fully developed into manhood, probably still a little effeminate in appearance, softer, not such a deep voice yet, etc. A woman would play that middle ground well. Having Cherubino sung by a woman would also naturally portray the physical differences between a full grown man and a young man. These differences play a part in the opera, they explain why the women are more comfortable around Cherubino as he is not a fully grown “threat,” so to speak. They could not be so playful with a grown man without issues arising.

Q: A reviewer of the Bernstein anniversary concert said you “steamrolled over gender lines, taking on Tony’s love ballad ‘Maria’ from ‘West Side Story’ and the sailor Gabey’s ‘Lonely Town’ from ‘On the Town.’ Leonard’s powerhouse voice, seamless phrasing and commanding presence made her seem equipped to handle anything.” Is there a certain sense of superiority as an accomplished singer to reinterpret something originally meant for a male artist? Or is the song just another song?

Leonard: To me those songs are beautiful, the words are meaningful and the intent of the songs are feelings that all people can identify with. However you may identify yourself, I believe story telling is simple. Tell a story, be honest; play a character, be honest; communicate, be honest.

Follow Isabel Leonard on Instagram @IsabelleonardNY.

Heather Longley is a Center for the Performing Arts communications specialist.

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Last Updated February 14, 2019