BWW Interview: In Met's IDOMENEO, Soprano Nadine Sierra Flies High

BWW Interview: In Met's IDOMENEO, Soprano Nadine Sierra Flies High

BWW Interview: In Met's IDOMENEO, Soprano Nadine Sierra Flies High
As Ilia at the Met. Photo:
Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

In our time, IDOMENEO is the earliest of Mozart's operas regularly done, its full title being IDOMENEO, RE DI CRETA OSSIA ILIA E IDAMANTE--or IDOMENEO, KING OF CRETE, OR ILIA AND IDAMANTE. "Ilia" of the extended title is the daughter of Priam, the king of Troy defeated by Idomeneo. ("Idamante" is Idomeneo's son.) At the Met starting this week, Ilia is being sung by the skyrocketing young American soprano, Nadine Sierra.

At 28, Sierra's no tyro in the world of opera: Even in a profession where "rare birds" aren't that unusual, Sierra stands out. Born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to a music-loving family, she was obsessed with singing by the age of six, though it was "the little mermaid," Ariel, who caught her fancy and not Rusalka, the water sprite. (Sierra says her mother offered her lessons to stop her incessant singing of the Disney score.)

Hooked on opera at 10

After seeing a video of Teresa Stratas and Jose Carreras in LA BOHEME from the Met, two years later, she was hooked on opera. And that was that: She was a winner of the Marilyn Horne Foundation Awards at 20, the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions at 22 (the youngest ever), has sung at La Scala, Berlin Staatsoper and the Paris Opera (among many other major venues) and made her debut at the Met last year as Gilda in Verdi's RIGOLETTO, her favorite role and one she has strong feelings about. (More about Gilda later.)

BWW Interview: In Met's IDOMENEO, Soprano Nadine Sierra Flies High
As Musetta in San Francisco.
Photo: Cory Weaver

While these performances at the Met as Ilia mark her role debut, this isn't her first time as a Mozart heroine, though she admits that it's different from the others she's sung. She has sung Pamina (DIE ZAUBERFLOTE), Zerlina (DON GIOVANNI) and Susanna (LE NOZZE DI FIGARO). She sang the great aria from Mozart's early, unfinished ZAIDE, "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" at the Met Council Auditions, which pretty much cemented her place as someone to watch. She has even done the Countess in FIGARO, an unlikely role for someone with her youthful sound, in a San Francisco Opera production where then-General Director David Gockley specifically wanted an unconventional, lighter voiced cast. (It's definitely not, however, in her repertoire now.)

Unlike Mozart's most famous works

But IDOMENEO is an opera seria--a "serious opera"--that's unlike Mozart's most famous works, which were written later. It's a style that was popular in the 18th century, with simply accompanied dialogue to advance the story and lots of virtuosic arias that reflect a character's feelings. (Think Handel or Gluck, for example.) While IDOMENEO may not be as popular as FIGARO or GIOVANNI, that doesn't mean it has a lack of gorgeous music--and Ilia has two of its most beautiful arias.

"Ilia is very special for me right now, because this is my first time singing her...especially singing her with James Levine"--the Met's Music Director Emeritus--"and my first time singing with him period," Sierra explains. "When I first was looking at opera, when I was 10 years old"--a lifetime ago for someone not yet 30!--"I was specifically looking at arias written by Mozart. He was the first opera composer I was introduced to and fell in love with. In my pre-teens and early teens, his music fit so well in my voice.

(Does it ever strike you oddly, I ask her, talking about yourself when you were 10-years-old and you were so "into Mozart"? She laughs and shakes her head "no." "I don't know why it doesn't. I was a very strange kid and it spoke to me; I can't explain it.")

BWW Interview: In Met's IDOMENEO, Soprano Nadine Sierra Flies High
As Flavia in Cavalli's ELIOGABALO at the
Paris Opera. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Looking at all the "-inas and -anas"

When it came to taking her studies to the next level, she moved north to New York. "All of my girlfriends at Mannes [School of Music] were all singing Ilia and [THE MAGIC FLUTE's] Pamina, but I never looked at those roles. Maybe I thought that they were a tad heavy for me, because at the time I was looking at all the -inas and -anas"--the lighter Mozart, Zerlina, Despina, Susanna--"and thought Ilia was a step up toward the Countess and the others.

"But now, at 28, knowing how my voice has changed and grown, Ilia fits really well and I love it. What I've experienced in life now, I feel I can tackle the character because, while she's young, innocent, she's been through a lot. She's been through a war, losing her family, her people, being taken away from her own homeland and being put into this bizarre position of falling in love with the enemy's son--and accepting the enemy as a father figure. She falls into a Mozart prototype--he loved these young, female heroines and wrote so well for them, highlighting their innocence and purity.

A sense of maturity despite her youth

"At the same time," she adds, "Ilia needs a sense of maturity despite her youth. Her temperament reminds me of Pamina but with a vocal style and orchestration that is a bit heavier, somewhat like the Countess. She's a remarkable character who makes a strong impression even though she doesn't sing all that much compared to the other characters. She opens two of the acts--I and III--with beautiful and iconic Mozart arias: "Padre, germani, addio" ("Father, brothers, farewell") and "Zeffiretti lusinghieri" ("O, pleasant breezes").

"What makes this role so special for me is not just feeling that I'm in the right place in my own life to play a character like her with confidence, but having Maestro (she always calls Levine 'Maestro') leading me through it," she explains. "In the beginning when we started to work--not that long ago, 2 ½-3 weeks ago--he gave me information about Ilia and her music, how to sing it, how to express it that, for the rest of my life, I'm going to cherish. Levine has been so present, aware and very meticulous about everything--not only those of us playing the leading roles, but about the orchestra, the chorus.

BWW Interview: In Met's IDOMENEO, Soprano Nadine Sierra Flies High
At Mostly Mozart in New York.
Photo: Richard Termine

Transported to some golden age

"The experience has been very surreal and I almost feel like I'm being transported to a different time, some golden age. And the whole cast is amazing and that always helps, because the entire atmosphere just so enjoyable. There are challenges, of course, but with this cast and Maestro, it's easier to just rehearse it well and feel we'll have good results in the end," she concludes.

The first thing she did when she was offered the role was to turn to her voice teachers, Cesar Ulloa and Kamal Khan, whom she's known "forever" (in her case, it means since she was 13) and know everything about her voice. "I called and asked them, 'what do you think?' she calls. "By that time, I'd already glanced at the score and thought it would be a great fit, and they totally agreed. I learned it with Kamal in NY and then I started doing my own little research--because I knew that Maestro was going to be involved. I found out it's his favorite Mozart opera, so I wanted to get a general sense of his approach, his tempi, and so on, so I would know a least somewhat what to expect when I went into rehearsal for the first time with him."

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.