• A Third Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Isabel Leonard

    We interviewed Isabel Leonard for the third time, on the occasion of her performance of the female title role of Pélleas et Mélisande at the Metropolitan Opera House, in late January 2019. As usual, this intelligent artist's answers are exceptional, adding valuable insight to the understanding of this excellent and complex opera. Isabel also addressed her latest CD, and two other roles, in Marnie and Cold Mountain, among other topics, in a must-read interview.


    Photo credit Fay Fox

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    We will not repeat here elements from Isabel's artistic biography, given that they've been included in her first interview with Opera Lively, which can be consulted by clicking [here]. Her second interview, also interesting, is [here]. For more details, the artist's website is [here]. Her Instagram handle is @IsabelleonardNY. Therefore, without further ado, let us get to Isabel's precious answers.

    Questions by Luiz Gazzola. Pictures provided by the artist's PR and by the Press Department of the Metropolitan Opera House, fair promotional use. The copyright for this interview is owned by Opera Lively Press. Reproduction of excerpts is authorized as long as the source is quoted, and a link to this article is provided. Reproduction of the entire interview requires authorization; click on Contact Us on the bottom of this page.

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    The Third Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Isabel Leonard

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – Let us start by talking about the vocal side of Mélisande. It has been sung by sopranos and mezzos, and it seems to me that it is very well suited to you, because firstly, you aren’t exactly stuck in the mezzo range, and secondly, the role sits low and does not have a huge range anyway – not that it would be a problem for you if it did. So, if the range is not the expressive tool, the important part is to focus on the color and the pronunciation, given that Debussy put a lot of emphasis on the rhythm of the spoken phrase and on the colorful sounds of the French language. It is a role that uses declamatory parts, and silence. It requires precise focus. Like a specialist of his role in this opera told me once – Laurent Naouri who did this piece more than a hundred times – Debussy puts strange stresses on the words and phrases, in his written score, and it is important to follow him to the letter because it makes sense. By the way, I thought that you did extremely well, and you earned in our review the maximum score of A++. In your first interview with us, you said you are very detailed-oriented and organized so these skills come in handy for this kind of piece. Please tell us about the vocal experience of singing Mélisande, and maybe the possible difficulty in learning this complex vocal score for this role debut.

    Isabel Leonard – It is interesting, because you answered your own question [laughs]. If I could just read your question to you, it would be the answer [laughs].

    OL – I’m glad that you agree, then!

    IL – Exactly. Debussy’s music is very specific. When you are learning any of the roles in Pélleas et Mélisande, the first challenge is that many of the words have been written with the unstressed syllable being stressed, and that can be frustrating for somebody who likes to communicate the way the language should sound. But as you go along, you realize that it actually makes sense, because there is something about this slight extra stress that makes it more comprehensible to the audience.

    He also sets repeated phrases like “Ne me touche pas” in a different rhythmic way; which is perfect, because that’s exactly how we speak. If we were to say to somebody “Don’t touch me” it would come out differently, because of all our experiences, and perhaps because of the reaction to the first time we say it. If you say “Don’t touch me” and the person still comes at you, you say “DON’T TOUCH ME!” [speaks faster and louder with an angrier tone], but if they recoil and feel shamed that they came near to you, you just say “Don’t touch me” [uses a soft, tender tone], right? The score is compatible with natural speech.

    OL – Yes, natural speech is really the style, in this piece. Now, a very peculiar moment is the solo a capella when she sings in the tower. It is interesting because the singer is supposed to express a quiet state but she still needs to project to the audience, especially here at the cavernous Met. Tell me about that moment.

    IL – I don’t necessarily think that Mélisande has to project a quiet state in that moment. It is not necessarily quiet, so much as it is a moment of solitude. Somehow, we have culturally assumed that moments of solitude have to do with quiet, but they are sheer moments of freedom in which nobody else is watching. She is sitting in the tower and daydreaming, as free as she is ever going to get from the cage in which she lives, which is being in her human form in the world, right now. So, she sits there and sings freely, and that is what makes this moment so beautiful, and why he wrote it the way he did.

    OL – Interesting answer! Let us turn to the psychological part. Mélisande is a damaged woman, likely with a history of being abused. But beyond this aspect of being frightened of contact which is the most obvious side, her main psychological trait, in my opinion, is that she is very spontaneous. She honestly lets out whatever she is feeling or noticing, without much of an elaboration or subtext. In psychoanalytical terms we would say that she is a walking and talking id. For example, she is able to say, as she feels it, “I’m uncomfortable. I’m not happy.” But she cannot articulate why. This is part of why she is so disconcerting for the people around her, because of the absence of a subtext. People are used to other humans who try to disguise their emotions or try to manipulate the environment by providing a subtext to their feelings when they express them, while Mélisande is just raw spontaneity. Maybe this is why people ask her so many questions – because she leaves everything hanging out there and does not really provide the usual expected answers so she instigates a desire to keep asking. Do you agree with this take, and if not, what is your view of her psychology?

    IL – I do! I completely agree with everything! Once again, you have answered the question. One of the most difficult things for those around her is that she has a very keen sixth sense. She knows from the start that her end is near. She is not for this world very much longer. She cannot express in specifics how the end will come, but she feels, at a deep level, where things are headed. When she first meets Pélleas, it is a shock because nobody expects to find a real love at the end of their lives. It is the beginning of the end, which makes it so tragic! She doesn’t need to say very much. Much of what she says is what the men around her understand. It is entirely possible that she has a lot more to say, but what we are hearing is the very little that they comprehend.


    Paul Appleby as Pélleas and Isabel Leonard as Mélisande - Photo Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera

    OL – What you are saying about this awareness is interesting. On the other hand, in the final scene she says, “Oh, am I dying? I didn’t know.” So, how do you conciliate your idea with this moment?

    IL – I think her soul is already gone. She does not fear death. When she says “Open the window” it is so that her soul can get going. For the rest of the scene, these two worlds are still connected by a thread: her physical body in the bed, and her soul hanging out almost out the window, and then finally it breaks off and exits the room. She is having a moment of doubt. It just reminds us again that she is still human, despite having a stronger connection to the more spiritual side.

    OL – She is very natural, even at dying. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal. She goes along with the process.

    IL – That happens for some people who fall asleep and pass away. Dying is not always a traumatic event. In that particular scene, she fades away.

    OL – What about that gesture you make at the end, extending your hands forward? What was the meaning behind it?

    IL – I do not like to necessarily tell somebody what they should see in that. If you are open to being profoundly moved by something so tragic, all of those gestures can mean whatever they mean to you. The real point of truly deeply loving, is that everybody does it their own way, with different impacts.

    She was always reaching to the water. There is something so liquid and fluid about the music of Debussy! She is of that world; not of the boxed-in, square, tangible world. Water just flows, right? That is who she is. She loses the crown and the ring in the water, and even if she would not be able to verbalize it, she knows that ultimately, it is where she is headed.

    OL – Wow! This is one of the best insights I have heard, about this piece. It is interesting that she does not want things to come out of the water. Golaud says “I can get it.” She says, “No, don’t; leave it there.”

    IL – That represents major trauma. Yes.

    OL - One of the strengths of this production is that all the external scenes are actually depicted inside the castle. The forest, the cave, Yniold’s scene with the boulder and the sheep, are all played in rooms rather than outside, adding to the claustrophobic feeling of isolation from the exterior world, which Maeterlinck had highlighted by naming the fictional land he presented in his play, Allemonde, which is close to the word used in French for Germany, but is also a bilingual word pun that can be translated into “the entire world: alle – le – monde.” Another aspect I have noticed is that when Golaud first encounters Mélisande, her gown is colorful. Later when she comes to the castle there are fewer colors but she still holds a bouquet of colorful flowers. Progressively her gowns become simpler and more monochromatic, culminating with a black dress when she is first shown pregnant. It is like her colors fade as she is exposed to the oppressive atmosphere there, and finally what is usually associated with joy, the pregnancy, results in her already mourning the somber destiny that her daughter will have to fulfill, as per the last lines issued by Arkel. Please tell us about Sir Jonathan Miller’s production.

    IL – That is a very good description of Jonathan Miller’s production. It is absolutely a stark image of isolation, and Mélisande goes from being in tandem with the colors of nature and the colors of who she is, to losing color, becoming very clean and aseptic, tied-in with a corset in that first scene when she meets Pélleas, wearing traditional clothes for the role she is supposed to play as wife.

    It is always interesting to me that she is wearing black when she is pregnant. The household has been preparing for the death of the king with a sense of mourning, but for her, there is a preemptive mourning in the color scheme. Everybody gets darker, as well. The temperature changes into winter time; there is less light, and everybody is a little depressed.


    Isabel Leonard as Mélisande - Photo Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera

    The castle is a very isolated place. There are very few people who interact with them. Jonathan Miller and John Conklin who made the set design did a great job. The slow-moving set also adds very nicely to this sense of the slow passage of time. It is always there, but it is crawling along.

    OL – Yes, in Aix-en-Provence I saw a Pélleas et Mélisande stage-directed by Katie Mitchell, and she used a lot of slow motion. People physically moved very slowly. Stage directors have taken different approaches to the issue of Mélisande’s sexuality. I have seen productions in which she is sort of a-sexual, innocent, and passive, or others in which it is all ambiguous, which is likely the more frequent approach that can be said to be closer to what Maeterlinck did in his play, where maybe nothing happened except for a kiss in the end, but a lot did happen inside the heads of the characters. I have seen still others, like the one by Katie Mitchell I have just mentioned, where she is extremely seductive, frequently disrobing and kissing the men on the mouth, including Arkel – there in Aix, Mélisande looked like a character from Pasolini’s movie Theorem, seducing all the men in the household, and the issue of whether her love for Pelléas was platonic or sexual, is resolved with no possible doubt, since one of the scenes depicts her unequivocally making love to Pelléas. Also, in that production Arkel’s relationship with Mélisande is creepy, while here it is grandfatherly. Over there, ambiguity kicks in as well in the relationship between Golaud and Yniold, with some pedophilia overtones. Here, I would say that Jonathan Miller took the passive approach and did not focus on any of this. What is your take on Mélisande’s sexuality?

    IL – To me, the thought of her being outwardly seductive to all the men in the house is a really boring way to take the story, so I’m very happy that this production does not go there. Honestly, bringing it into a “Don Giovannish” type of character misses the point. It may bring it to a more modern perception of what is actually happening, but the truth is that the story is based on Symbolism. You can take one more step down the line and create a production of Pélleas et Mélisande where there is nothing but Symbolism, and the voices are just voices. Putting the piece into these types of aggressive characters misses the real level of deep connections they all have with each other, and the connection Mélisande has with another sense.

    By nature of being a beautiful young woman, she attracts attention from men. When you first see her with Golaud, all that she knows is that whatever power she has, comes from her beauty. Like for most young people, before they realize that this is a power, they just notice that they are able to survive and get things that they need because of it. Then, at some point there is a choice in life to become a manipulator, or to grow up. She never gets even the opportunity to make that choice. In that sense, she is not a Lulu. All the men, even Arkel, are attracted to her.

    When we use the word attraction, everybody immediately goes to sexual attraction, but you can get attracted to people just because there is something about them that pulls you to them, and that does not have to be sexual. All the characters are attracted to her in that sense, perhaps by nature that she is just somebody new in that isolated house. She is going to be paid attention to, because she has something that people cannot quite grasp.

    Some people have a gift and are special in that sense. Maybe you do not believe in those things but then something unusual happens and you say “Wait a second, that is a strange coincidence; how do they know that?” Their intuition is so high that they can read someone’s energy very well, which as a culture we still have a hard time believing and accepting. That is where the attraction to Mélisande comes from; it is not just sexual.

    OL – That is from them, to her. What about her own sexuality? Is she an active element in this, or is she just in the receiving end of that attention?

    IL – No, the whole point is that she is who she is, the entire time. You do not have control over what other people thing of you unless you are trying to get a certain reaction, and this is not at all what she is doing.

    OL - You are someone who loves to dance for fun, and you were trained in dancing since the age of five. You have done many physical comedies where you move a lot on stage. Over here, this Mélisande is rather static and frozen. How did it make you feel, physically?

    IL – Mélisande was not static or frozen in this piece, at all. On the contrary, she is absolutely fluid, but very slow; physically fluid like water running on a very slow slant, just trickling, trickling. But there is a lot of movement, at least for Mélisande. It is just that you have to find it, because the piece itself is so still! Static and still are two very different descriptors.

    OL – You are right. I picked the wrong word.

    IL – No, that’s OK! You have to leave me something to say! [laughs] Otherwise you might just as well write an article without me, right? [laughs] Because you are so good at this! So, I think it is still, rather than static, and it is tricky because people become uncomfortable with that sort of non-dynamic.

    OL – Yes! But I was used to seeing you on stage, moving a lot more than this!

    IL – I know, I know!

    OL – But how did the piece make you physically feel?

    IL – It was fine, but it was quite difficult in the beginning because we did not have the turntable in the rehearsal room, so once we got to go on stage with the turntable, it helped. From a dance background, movement is not just quick movement; it can be slow. There is an active current going through all the movement. I was not just walking slowly off and on the stage. Every entrance and exit had something always interesting going on in it, with a direction to it, no matter how slow. There were challenges of different types.

    OL – You have changed my perception of this production.

    IL – [laughs]

    OL – We should have talked before I published my review! Anyway… moving on. One of the most pressing issues in Pélleas et Mélisande is Golaud’s need for her to confess. Some see it as his denial that something did happen between his wife and his half-brother, which he had displayed earlier by attributing their flirting to a characterization of them as childish, therefore, a-sexual. Others see it as a power trip: he knows that things did happen but wants her to admit to her guilt and do it as prompted by him: “confess!” How do you see this scene?

    IL – Yes, Golaud really does at the end want her to confess. People want others to confess to them when they have also done something wrong, so that they feel better about themselves. It’s Psychology 101. He feels very sorry for what he did to Pélleas. He feels guilty about his rage. If you look at it as a symbolic story, Golaud represents the everyday person who works hard. He does what he thinks is right. He wishes for all those things to come to a good end, and cannot understand when they do not. It is very black-and-white. It does not compute. He puts the numbers in, but they do not come out the way he wanted. He thinks that if he can get certain answers, he can balance the numbers and maybe it will all fit. Part of Golaud’s own process and path is that he does not yet know, but he needs to learn how to flow a little bit more, right? [laughs].

    OL – Nice! It is true that the play by Maeterlinck belongs to the Symbolism movement therefore is very rich in layers. For example, Golaud is hunting a boar in the first scene, and a boar is the Celtic symbol of knowledge. A she-wolf is the symbol of fertility. In the scene when Golaud asks Yniold to look through the window into Mélisande’s room, there is a moment when he stumbles because he sees a wolf in the forest. Therefore psychologically this corresponds to a little spark that he gets, and he tells himself – “Could Pelléas be the father of Mélisande’s baby?” There is a lot in the choice of words, of objects, of trees; the lime tree is the symbol of eternal love, and the willow is the symbol of eternity. There is often a shiny object – gold, a ring, a crown – that appears to symbolize an object of desire, but it always ends up submerged in deep waters and barely accessible. In your preparation for the role, did you look into the symbolism, to inform your acting?

    IL – We talked a little bit about Symbolism throughout the process of staging and getting into our characters. Symbolism is fine and wonderful to know, but I don’t think you can act Symbolism. You have to be the character. And then, you learn and you are informed by Symbolism, but you don’t act it; you make the choices based on what the character is feeling, thinking, reacting to, and listening to, in that moment.

    Yes, there is certainly Symbolism, even in the first scene with Golaud where she says “Je commence à avoir froid” - I’m starting to feel cold – which is symbolic to death. She mentions death in every scene even when she talks about the boat: “Il faura peut-être naufrage.” It might drown. It is this constant image of her getting into water. Essentially, something that has transported her is already drowning – the crown, the boat, the ring – it is only a matter of time for her to go in and…

    OL – Sink.

    IL – Yes, and in every moment she says “I’m happy but I’m sad.” In her understanding, to be in love and to love is a happy thing but she knows that it is not for long; it is going; it is leaving.

    OL - What is the effect, on the person of the artist, of portraying Mélisande? I have interviewed artists who said that it is hard to avoid feeling sort of devastated by the intensity of the role; that the barrier that separates the artist’s real person from the depicted character is more difficult to uphold, in roles such as Mélisande or Lulu. Did Mélisande affect you in any way? If yes, is it a lasting effect; meaning, will you be a different artist in some aspect, after this role?

    IL – Every role that you play can get under your skin, if you are the type of actor who empathizes and gets into a character fully and completely, which is the only way to truly get into someone’s shoes. You have to be able to understand, to justify their actions and what they say. By doing that, you learn a lot about other types of people, and you hopefully become a more compassionate and well-rounded person. Perhaps you have gone through some therapy and you have actually gotten paid for it, rather than the other way around. [laughs] But for sure, there are definitely characters that can affect you quite a lot, like Marnie. Mélisande affects me in different ways.

    Sometimes these characters bring to light things that you possible knew about human nature, but now they are being distilled for you in a role. The sheer act of living through a situation five or six times clarifies it more and more. You leave with an understanding that you might not have had just by one conversation about it. Every time I get on stage and I start in that little pond, it is the beginning of the journey all over again. It is like Groundhog Day. [laughs] You are reliving it every time.

    Point A to point B is the same, but the little journey in-between fluctuates. When you accept that little fluctuation, you do not emotionally go to all the same places throughout that path. You accept and discover new things. It is interesting; it is really living; it is human, very much like being in the character; otherwise you just try to recreate the same thing every day and that is not life. You brush your teeth every morning, but you do it slightly differently every single day, even if you think that it is exactly the same. That is more human, and you learn a lot in that process.

    OL – Yes. Vivica Genaux once told me that each performance that she does, even if they are in the same run and very close to each other, is different. She said she reacts to the character and to the public’s reaction and input. When I was interviewing Barbara Hannigan about Mélisande, once we talked about one of the aspects of the piece, she said, “Oh, since we talked about it, my performance will be different, tonight.”

    IL – Yes, sure!

    OL – It is interesting, because we get used to thinking that because there is a score with all the markings and stage directions, everything should go as planned, but it is live theater and it changes a lot.

    IL – Yes, all the time.

    OL - The score goes from triple piano to quadruple forte. The dynamics are very important, especially considering the different sizes of the houses – Pélleas et Mélisande premiered in the small Opéra-Comique, and here at the Met it’s a 4,000-seat house. I thought Yannick and the Met orchestra did great. What do you think of Debussy’s score?

    IL – Debussy’s score is just beautiful! I love what he has done. He is so very clear and sure of the rise and the fall of the emotional content in the score! The music absolutely paints images and emotions in your mind – which music does, as we know. You can hear a chord and it can strike your heart in such a way that nothing else does. Debussy does that from start to finish.

    OL - Now, let us put Pélleas et Mélisande aside, and talk about other aspects of your career. I am a huge fan of contemporary opera, and I am sad that I did not have an opportunity to see your Marnie here at the Met. I never listened to this opera; I am intrigued by the acting possibilities of incarnating a character with multiple identities. So, please, walk me through it, and tell me about the piece and your role, and Nico Muhly’s music.

    IL – There is a misconception about Marnie. She didn’t have a split personality disorder at all. She changed her physical appearance and a little bit her voice and posture, if you read the book. She put on different identities, but she herself did not have multiple identities, if that makes sense.

    OL – Yes, I chose the words multiple identities, without the disorder part. I did not say split personality disorder. I am a psychiatrist, by the way. So that is why I made this choice of words.

    IL – Yes, OK. I just wanted to make sure, because when people talk about multiple identities, for me it does not clarify exactly what her deal is. If at any point people think she has any version of a split personality, then the story goes out the window.

    I thought she was really fascinating. When I read the book, I knew that I would be playing her, so I was automatically more empathetic to what she was doing and going through; it is a slightly different and super interesting perspective when you know that the character’s voice will be your voice: you start building an immediate connection. She, just like Mélisande, came from a very difficult, maybe not physically abusive but certainly emotionally abusive childhood and young adulthood, and that informed everything about her, later on. Her choices to steal were all about her desire to get approval from her mother. As you know, getting approval from your parents is a life-long therapy session. All of it, for her, really stemmed from the desire to have her mother say “I accept you and I forgive you,” for something that later on we understand that Marnie never did, but she was led by her mother to believe that she had killed her baby brother. Not only did she believe that she did this horrible thing, she has been asking for forgiveness her whole life, which she never gets, until the end, when she is told what happened and gets a little bit of clarity.

    She was very fascinating because there was this level of strength, and the only time her shield would be cracked was around Mark, because she had feelings for him. Marnie spent most of her life shying away from any intimate relationship or emotional connection whatsoever. It was how she protected herself, because of her damaged life. Every time she was around Mark – and you read it in the book very, very clearly – she would think “Why do I feel this way? What am I feeling?” and couldn’t even bring herself to say it.


    Isabel Leonard as Marnie and Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland - Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

    The book was written from her own voice and perspective, and we can see that she would change the subject, and take a left turn out of her suppressed feelings towards him, which is always so interesting and fascinating to me. Being attached or having any connection did not work with what she was trying to do: stealing, so that she would get the money and take it home, to get that acceptance from her mother. To have a character that was doing these crazy things and be able to empathize with all of her choices at such a deep level, was fascinating.

    OL – What about the music?

    IL – The music had a completely different feel than Debussy’s, although in similarity, there was also a sort of liquid feeling in it. There were some very jagged sounds in the score of Marnie that very much depicted how she was feeling. The music is just very different. Nico Muhly had little motifs for different characters, and he used instruments in a different way. Also, as a sing, vocally I was all over the map. I interacted with Nico while he was writing it, and I said “I love doing leaps, I love octave leaps.” So he wrote a lot of them for me! [laughs]

    OL – [laughs] So you were like, “Me and my big mouth!”

    IL – Yes! You get what you wish! I know, but it turned out to be, vocally, just elastic, in a very strong way. It is hard to be elastic and strong at the same time. You can be, but you have to finesse it carefully, and I think that is exactly who Marnie is, because she has to meander through these different situations she puts herself in. In some point or another, she breaks, finally.

    OL – I’m sad that I didn’t have an opportunity to see it. I have to see it.

    IL – It will be on PBS on February 1st at 9 PM EST.

    OL – Oh, excellent! The same question about Marnie applies to another recent contemporary opera you did, Cold Mountain. Please tell me about it.

    IL – Yes, Cold Mountain was also so fun! I read the book knowing that I would be playing the part of Ada, and I was so interested in playing her! In some ways, with these characters, you find connections between yourself and them. Ada was a city girl who also had to go to the country and figure out what to do. If that had happened to me, that would be who I was, because I wouldn’t have any clue! [laughs]

    OL – You are the quintessential New Yorker!

    IL – Yes, I wouldn’t know what to do with a farm. But I could one hundred percent empathize with her unequivocal love and dedication to this man that she had fallen in love with, who was gone into war and she had not seen for years. There wasn’t a thought about not waiting for him. She never knew if he was even going to come back, but a connection had been made; it was there, and there was no breaking it. It is one of those love stories that everybody says “Nah, it doesn’t happen in real life” but I believe those tragedies do happen. She was really fabulous and very strong, and had a lovely arc to her! She learned so much!

    OL - Opera Lively interviewed you in May 2014 and again in November 2014. It’s been more than four years. We’re thrilled to have this third opportunity to talk with you. Please update us on what was most notable in your prestigious career, during the last four years. What was most impressive to you as an artist, in this period?

    IL – It’s been four years, really? I have no idea what I did in the last four years! [laughs] I have to look. I’m like a goldfish. The next day, whatever happened yesterday is long gone. I have so much on my plate, so many things to take care of with my child and all; I get one thing done and I say, “OK, what’s next?” People sometimes will say “How was it last night?” and I go [says it like whispering to herself] “How was it last night?” I have no idea what they are talking about. [laughs]

    OL - Your career has ranged from Vivaldi and Handel to the latest contemporary operas and almost everything in-between. Not only you sing comfortably in low and high tessituras, but you are also not type-cast, since you are asked to portray wildly different characters and styles. I find your career quite fascinating. Please tell us about the privilege of having such a wide range of singing and acting skills.

    IL – Thank you for saying that I have a wide range of singing and acting skills. I feel very blessed for having been able to portray different characters; it is just so fun! I would hate to play the same character over and over again. That would be boring. [laughs] I like being challenged and learning about characters. I love the idea of transforming into a character, and getting lost so much to the point that someone says “I never once saw you; I saw the character.” It is wonderful and really neat, because it also means that the music, the singing, the acting, and the movement are no longer individual things; it is all just one big storytelling, so you are never distracted by just one aspect of it. It all comes out as one complete picture.

    Having all the different opportunities that I’ve had has been wonderful, and I hope to continue stretching. It would be great to do more of different things: film, plays, to teach more, to direct; I love all of those aspects.

    OL - As a follow-up to the last question, I’d like to talk more about career goals, even if you’ve partially answered it already. You once told me you would love to do music theater (you did do with West Side Story in Philadelphia). You’ve recorded things as diverse as The Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz. You’ve been doing a lot of Spanish music. You’ve portrayed a squirrel (L’Enfant et les sortilèges)! What is left to do, that you really crave?

    IL – [Pauses, thinks]. I don’t know if I would ever want to do eight shows a week in a musical theater run, but I would love to do another West Side Story. That would be great, or even a recording of it. The more diverse, the better for me.

    OL - Tell me about your recording “Alma Española.” You have Spanish roots in the figure of your Argentinian mother. What is your relationship with this culture? And please address your choice of songs for this CD.



    IL – The songs for “Alma Española,” they came to me when Sharon [Isbin] and I put together a recital. We did all the Lorca folk songs, and we worked heavily together on creating what sound we wanted with the guitar and with the voice, because they don’t have guitar transcriptions. We added two of the songs from Montsalvatge’s Canciones Negras. I gave her all of them [Editor’s note – there are five of them, for voice and piano or orchestra], and then I said “Are there any of these songs that you think you can transcribe into the guitar?” and she said that the lullaby and the dance [“Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito” and “Canto negro”] would be the ones that she could do, and I said “Perfect, let us do those.”

    So, yes, of course my mother is from Buenos Aires, I speak Spanish, and I have the sound of the music that connects to us, culturally. I don’t know how to describe it, except that it is something that is part of my DNA. It just goes in, and it feels right. There is also in that series [Manuel] de Falla, the Siete Canciones Populares [Espanõlas], and that was the very first set of Spanish songs that I had ever done.

    OL - You once said that if not an opera singer, you would have loved to be an anthropologist. Please explain this interest.

    IL – Yeah [laughs, dismissively], I was in High School when I wanted to be an anthropologist. I think it has probably changed at this point. I still think that Anthropology is awfully exciting. The field of Anthropology has changed quite a lot since I thought of it at the time. There have been so many discoveries since twenty years ago…

    OL – We do have the full human genome, now.

    IL – Yes, it is fascinating. But at this point, if I didn’t sing opera anymore, I would still be doing something else in the Performing Arts business.

    OL - I believe that your son is soon turning about 9 years old, right? Are things getting a little less intense in your hectic life of juggling two full-time jobs of mother and opera singer?

    IL – No, it is never getting less intense! [laughs] No, it is totally intense, all the time! It is a constant juggling of schedules. Now, there are his desires and his opinions on how much time I am here or not here, and what he wants in his life. You are dealing with that; you are talking to another human being with desires for his own life, right? I want so very much to make sure that he gets certainly the fundamental things he needs, the things that fill his soul!

    OL – You mentioned to us at one point that you had an open invitation for him to come see you perform, but no pressure.

    IL – Absolutely.

    OL – Did that evolve in any way? Is he coming?

    IL – Ah… there is nothing that I am doing here, this season, that is quite appropriate! [laughs]

    OL – Right, true! [laughs]

    IL – So, there is that. He will come, for sure, if it is appropriate, almost every time; usually most of the Mozart. He might come in here to see the little boy sing in Pelléas but he will not see the whole show. He will stay on the side perhaps during that scene and then go home, because I do not think the piece is something that he will, one, understand, and two, have any interest in. For him, it will be too slow, because there is no physical storytelling that he, at his age, can comprehend. Well, he is very intuitive, so he will see something and ask questions about it for months later. I cannot have him watching a death scene where his mother dies. It is just not possible. [laughs] I just cannot do that, yet.

    OL – How about the psychological side, for him, of knowing that his mother is a very famous artist? Does that have an impact on him?

    IL – Well, he says things, sometimes. He saw my face all over the place because of the promotional pictures that the Met had put out for Marnie. There was a bus stop near his school that had my picture, and he would say “that’s my mom.” At one point I got a picture taken by his babysitter who picked him up from school, of him standing next to my face, and he was having this look on his face, like “Eh… it’s just my mom; whatever.” [laughs] So, he has a little bit of that. But he knows that I work very hard, and he knows what I do, and he goes, “You’re famous, mama.” And I say, “Well, I don’t know; the world of opera is a small place; I might be well-known in the world of opera but I’m not really famous.” Then, he will look at me and he will say, “No, you’re famous!” [laughs]

    OL – I think he is right. [laughs]

    IL – But again, that is what he knows. He knows the world of opera.

    OL – Do you take him worldwide in trips, and so forth?

    IL – I do. He still travels with me, a lot. Of course, he has to stay for school, and I do not take him out of school all the time. I only do, when it seems appropriate, or the timing is right and he has a break. So, yeah, it is difficult. Scheduling is no joke. I wish I could clone myself.

    OL – In my interviews, I’ve heard from most singers that they lament the issue of performing opera and having their family life curtailed, but I remember a singer telling me that on the other hand, she was able to open the doors of the world to her child.

    IL – Yes, absolutely. There is certainly the fact that the opportunity that he can have to travel is huge, and it is there. Traveling, especially in today’s day and age, is important. You really need to know that the world is vast and there are still vastly different cultures out there that should be learned about and respected.

    OL – Absolutely! Last question! How is life treating you recently, Isabel? How are things going for you? We can ask you what Golaud kept asking Mélisande: are you happy?

    IL – How is life treating me? [laughs] Is this the licensed psychiatrist’s question? [laughs]

    OL – Yep! [laughs] It is in my DNA!

    IL – So funny! [pauses, thinks] I think I am a very fortunate person. I can live in a place where I feel safe, for the most part. I can keep my son hopefully safe for as much as I can control things, which is very little, in the world. I get to sing for a living, which is a joy! And I get to meet a lot of new people, and now, with twelve years in, I get to see the same people, and I have to say that they are really lovely people, and that is a gift in and of itself. I am healthy, my son is healthy, we have a roof over our head. We have all of the things that we cannot take for granted. By those very basic privileges we have, things are good.

    OL – Good! Thank you so much, Isabel. It was great, as usual!

    IL – My pleasure!


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