For many performers, three Grammy Award wins would be enough to rest their laurels on, but for opera singer Isabel Leonard, it’s all in a day’s work.
“At first, I didn’t even know you could get a Grammy Award for singing opera music,” the world-famous mezzo-soprano says. “Then I found out I was nominated and that in itself was a great surprise.”
Leonard, who will be playing the title role in George Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Kennedy Center May 14-28, grew up in a home with high expectations for success.
“It was the kind of household where if I got a 98 on a test, my parents would ask what about the other two percent?” she recalls.
That drive and ambition has led Leonard to the heights of the opera world, with performances at all the great opera houses and numerous accolades (including those three Grammys) to her name.
Now, for the first time in her career, Leonard will play Carmen, the impetuous femme fatale who shocked audiences when the opera premiered in Paris in 1875. Although it is sung in French, “Carmen” takes place in Seville, Spain. The titular character is a young Gypsy woman who defies conventions and lives life on her own terms — sexually and otherwise. In the Habanera, one of opera’s most famous arias (trust me, you have heard it before), Carmen warns: “If you don’t love me, I’ll love you, but if I love you, you’d better be careful!”
“Carmen has a great joie de vivre and a desire to be the mistress of her own life,” Leonard muses. “That can be very off-putting to some. In her strength and desire to live freely, she is also sexually free, which is the thing that everyone gloms onto, but there is so much more to her than that.”
Although many doors have opened for strong, independent women in the century and a half since Bizet created his groundbreaking character, Leonard can relate to Carmen’s struggles.
“We deal with the same stereotypes and roadblocks as women still to this day. A strong woman still seems to have a much more difficult path than a strong man in some ways.”
Singing in French comes easily to the singer, who grew up in a bilingual Spanish and English household (her mother is from Argentina). She then studied French in middle school and again while at Juilliard.
“One of my biggest insecurities in life and onstage is not being able to communicate, so I love to sing in the languages I speak,” Leonard says. “But singing in other languages is part of the job. Singing in German, for example, is for me a slower and more intense process. Not impossible, but more work.”
Leonard’s involvement in the arts started early in her childhood, first as a dancer with New York’s Joffrey Ballet, where she performed in the “Nutcracker” at New York City Center at ages 9 and 10. She then attended the famous “Fame” school (New York’s LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts) before moving on to Juilliard and worldwide success.
“I used to tell my mother when I was little that I wanted to have a different job every day of the week,” Leonard recalls. “I was going to be a vet one day, a singer the next day, a teacher the next day. And the funny thing is that as an opera singer, in a way that’s come true. I get to play all these amazing characters.”
Washington National Opera’s “Carmen” runs at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through May 28. For tickets and more information, click here.