If I quote from a piece I wrote in 2012 for Isabel Leonard’s recital at Notre Dame, it is because what I said then is still true—even more so. “To say that Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano and winner of a number of prestigious prizes, is one of the most sought after singers in the world would be an understatement bordering on untruth.”
Fast-tracked from Julliard to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, Isabel Leonard debuted as Stéphano in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. In what was to become a suite of critical praise spanning almost 12 years, she has been lauded not only for the quality and range of her voice but for her stage presence. Here are but a few representative examples:
Writing of her performance as Cenerentola at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, John von Rhein says: “[She] has the vocal and physical beauty, the natural stage charisma, the sure dramatic instincts, to win all hearts from the outset. She also commands the coloratura agility, flexibility, and precision to satisfy the role’s stiff technical demands and graceful bel canto lines.” (Chicago Tribune)
In his review of Marnie, David Salazar writes: “The title role is a fine vehicle for Isabel Leonard. The American mezzo has earned her place as one of the company’s foremost young stars with her gorgeous, bright voice, strong musical instincts, and exemplary acting. All three are on display in her performance as Marnie, the first of three lead roles she’ll take at the Met this season. Leonard’s rich, smoky singing and dark introspection made her monologue at the top of Act II a moment of gripping tension, as she brooded on her deep psychological wounds.” (Operawire)
Regarding her lead role in Dialogues des Carmélites, Anthony Tommasini says “The mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is an ideal Blanche. She sings with beguiling tenderness in moments of composure, but her voice throbs with penetrating intensity when Blanche is overcome with anxiety.” (New York Times) Incidentally, on May 5, Dialogues with Isabel reprising Blanche will close out the 2018-2019 season of The Met: Live in HD at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. On a personal note, I consider the final scene, heartbreaking and heroic, is one of the greatest endings in all theater, not just opera.
Since her Met debut in 2007, Isabel has triumphed as—and, once again, the list is partial—Charlotte (Massenet: Werther); Cenerentola (Rossini: Cenerentola); Rosina (Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia); Adalgisa (Bellini; Norma); Blanche (Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites); Mélisande (Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande); Cherubino (Mozart: Les Nozze di Figaro); Elvira and Zerlina (Mozart: Don Giovanni); Dorabella (Mozart: Così fan tutte).
I group the Mozart roles last as a segue to what I will call “Isabel Leonard at Notre Dame.” In 2010, I attended a performance of Così fan tutte at the Met. The production boasted a dream cast that included, among others, Isabel, Nathan Gunn, Danielle de Niese, and Miah Persson. I was to have dinner with Nathan after the show and Isabel joined us. At the time, Opera ND was in the early rehearsals of its own Le nozze di Figaro. On the spur of the moment over dinner at Tribeca Grill, I asked Isabel if she would consider coming to Notre Dame and do something like a Mozart workshop for the cast. She agreed and gave her first masterclass.
Truly masterful, it underscored not only Isabel’s technical expertise and pedagogical acumen but also her uncommon generosity of spirit. This latter quality was punctuated on opening night when a bouquet of flowers and note of encouragement arrived from Isabel. The Department of Music and DeBartolo Performing Arts Center brought her back the following year for a recital, one half of which consisting of art songs in Spanish, the other in English. This program was a reflection of, and a bow to, her heritage.
Notre Dame is delighted to have Isabel Leonard back, this time in concert with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. She and the orchestra are on a tour that visits 11 states. Their collaboration will feature the music of Leonard Bernstein, to which Isabel is no stranger. She sang in the Tanglewood Berstein Celebration and has placed her personal stamp on Maria from West Side Story and Claire de Loone from On the Town.
We can expect a thrilling and memorable evening when Isabel Leonard and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra join forces in the Leighton Concert Hall here at Notre Dame.