Rambling About Tanglewood: A singer's roads not taken


LENOX -- Who is the more conscience-stricken sister, Fiordiligi or Dorabella?

Tradition has it that Dorabella is the flightier, flirtier of the pair -- the more easily won over in the mock exchange of lovers -- in "Cosi fan tutte." Fiordiligi stands firm: "like a rock," she sings in her showpiece aria "Come scoglio."

Tell that to Isabel Leonard, the Met's Dorabella in its April HD simulcast of the Mozart opera. In her Met return to the role after a gap of three years, she matched her sister in ruing the inconstancy.

So, how much of that character was Isabel Leonard and how much was Dorabella?

"There's always a little bit of us in every character that we play, even if we're consciously trying to not play ourselves," the mezzo says.

Tanglewood and Octavian are next. On Saturday night, Leonard takes the role of the love-smitten page in excerpts from "Rosenkavalier" at the gala concert celebrating Andris Nelsons' arrival as the Boston Symphony Orchestra's next music director.

In the joint BSO-Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra program, Nelsons will conduct the student orchestra in bits from the Strauss opera, with Sophie Bevan as Sophie and Angela Denoke as the Marschallin. It's mostly uncharted territory for Leonard -- her first time to sing under Nelsons, and an infrequent sally into "Rosenkavalier" excerpts.

At 32, combining a luscious voice and good looks, Leonard has conquered the Met and other principal opera houses in such roles as Dorabella, Cherubino and Rosina. On her website, she says that if she weren't a singer, she'd be an anthropologist.

Which, with her on the other end of the phone, leads to the question: Is there a connection between exploring characters in strange cultures in far-off lands and exploring characters in the strange culture called opera?

She'd never thought of it that way. But it's true, she said from her home in New York. In both fields, "you're looking into characters and searching out what makes them tick."

Luckily for opera and the concert stage, the danger of losing Leonard in a distant jungle is slim. If she had to stop singing, she says, she'd probably continue in some other aspect of music. But "I'm very happy in my work at the moment."

Singing won out over jazz and dance -- she studied with the Joffrey Ballet -- when it came time for this native New Yorker to pursue a career. She took bachelor's and master's degrees at the Juilliard School and made her Met debut as the page Stephano in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette."

Tanglewood heard her in her American orchestral debut. It was with the BSO in 2006 under Gustavo Dudamel in Falla's "The Three-cornered Hat." This is her first time back.

Leonard is the single mother of a 4-year-old son, Teo. An interest in anthropology began with classes at New York's Museum of Natural History during her early high school years. She became intrigued by "the thought of looking into these bones and finding out who these people may have been."

She didn't realize it at the time, but in retrospect she sees that theater -- specifically singing -- was what she really wanted to do all along. She names Falla, Gershwin and Berlin among her favorites to sing.

"I used to sing with a jazz band in high school," she recalled, "and it's something I miss doing quite a bit. And now I'm trying to find a way of getting back into it."

On the wish list, she'd love to do Bernstein and Sondheim musicals, especially as Maria in "West Side Story." She slips a few such pieces into recitals and is working with stage and musical director Ted Sperling on doing a program together.

She sees no heavier roles, such as in Verdi, for herself for now. It's not her voice type, she says.

Other secrets of the website:

"In one opera, I had to slap my stage lover on the cheek, and I was so worried about hurting him that every night I managed to miss his cheek but ended up hitting him on the eye, the nose, the throat or the ear."

"I can't go onstage without contact lenses!"

Blue is her favorite color and chocolate is her greatest love.

This Dorabella is not greatly troubled by the cameras following her during simulcasts. If she has to make a larger-than-life gesture for the cameras, she said, the audience at the Met understands operatic excess. "And if they don't, they should!"

One other item of note: She'll be back in Met HD productions of the two "Figaro" operas in the fall: Cherubino (a trouser role) in "The Marriage of Figaro" and Rosina in "The Barber of Seville."

"So," she says cheerfully, "there'll be opportunities to not only see me as a boy but see me as a girl."


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