BWW Interview: In Met's IDOMENEO, Soprano Nadine Sierra Flies High
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.)
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.")
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.
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."
(NB: There are two commercially available versions led by Levine: a DVD with Pavarotti, Cotrubas, von Stade and Behrens and a CD version with Domingo, Grant-Murphy, Bartoli and Van Ness.)
"Especially when you're working with somebody like him, you want to be well prepared and leave a good impression," she explains. "I have to say that, at the Met, he is like a sacred being--the way people treat him and the way the orchestra reacts to him. It's been a special experience for me--and probably one I won't get to experience for a long time. Probably the only time I've had something like this before was doing Lucia in Zurich with (conductor) Nello Santi, who had worked with Callas."
Do you sometimes have to slap yourself and say--she interrupts, nodding 'yes, yes'--is this really happening, I ask? "Yesterday was a moment like that. We all"--her IDOMENEO colleagues Matthew Polenzani, Alice Coote and Elza van den Heever--"felt it. Maestro was working with the orchestra and he sang one or two things, and the orchestra reacted and did exactly what he wanted, immediately. The result was so powerful that myself, Alice and Elza all started tearing up, because we were witnessing a phrase or two of greatness that doesn't come along very often. So yes, I do have to slap myself because I'm shocked that I've had the opportunity to do this."
Something of a calling card
While Ilia offers the soprano some great opportunities to show off her endless legato and incredible breath control, there are other roles that she feels a special tie to, in particular, Gilda in RIGOLETTO, her debut role at the Met and something of a calling card for her at this point in her career.
"I started to look at Gilda when I was 22 and I debuted it when I was 23. She's very special to me because I relate to her very much," she explains. "I grew up with a father who was very protective-- he still is--and also experienced things in my young, teenage life that seemed to be perfect and wonderful and then had my heart tramples on. I learned that not everything is what it seems--and how can you make that reality serve you in a positive way."
Sierra gets a fiery look in her eyes when she talks about the general perception of Gilda as a kind of victim. "I hate this thing that people say about Gilda--that she's stupid little girl, how could she have killed herself for this man who obviously lied to her. My answer is, excuse me, she didn't just die for the man she loves, she also died for her father. She came from this religious upbringing, thrown into a convent, and only knew about Jesus's teachings; one of those is forgiveness, to love thy neighbor."
She continues, "This idea of her father being the sole reason that this man is going to be killed is a tremendous sin, and she's trying not only to save the Duke but her father's soul as well--because that's what she believes in . She's the most honest and true character out of all of them. Rigoletto has led the life of a lie, especially by not telling her anything about his life. And she, at the very end of the opera, her last words, are 'I did this for you, so that I can watch you with my mother and protect you.'
"That is so unbelievable to me--that this young woman who doesn't have the life experiences of everyone else in the plot has had says these tremendous words of wisdom, of love and compassion. So I see her as a heroine in this story. It's a Jesus symbol in a way"--Sierra herself is not religious but considers herself 'spiritual'--"sacrificing yourself for other people's sins. She is really this gem and I love her for it--and, of course, she has this beautiful music."
"Lucia-obsessed at the moment"
The other role she is ready to dig deeper into is the title role in LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, which she has already sung to much acclaim. "Yes, I'm Lucia-obsessed at the moment. I started taking voice lessons when I was six but my first time on an opera stage, at 14, was as a chorister in LUCIA.
"I'm getting ready to sing it at La Fenice"--that jewelbox of a house (destroyed by fire several times) in Venice where many Verdi operas had their premieres, including LA TRAVIATA-"which is exciting on many levels, including being in Italy. Every time I've sung Italian opera in Italy, I'm always so happy and always learn so much.
"I had an extraordinary experience with the second Gilda I ever sang, at the San Carlo Opera in Naples. The chorus men--who had been singing there forever--came up to me and gave me advice, some very good advice about a variety of things, relating to characterization and certain Italian traditions. Also, they helped me with the meanings of certain words that maybe I had interpreted a little differently. I loved that experience of learning form the people who completely cherish this music and where it came from.
"I never associate singing with fear"
"As for Lucia, I'm very excited because it's a wonderful role. I love her character and can understand her character with its female oppression." (She sang one of the opera's great arias, "Regnava nel silenzio" to a wild ovation at the last Richard Tucker Awards concert.) But particularly singing at La Fenice is amazing; I sang there once before, at a New Year's Eve concert and just fell in love with the house. It has a magic to it, an old school quality. There's something sacred about it--like it also is at La Scala.
Sierra also made a splash with the role at the San Francisco Opera, flying in from Paris on short notice when soprano Diana Damrau was sidelined. Did she have stage fright, coming in to replace one of opera's biggest draws? "No, I don't have stage fright. I was so excited, I love stuff like that. It's the best kind of experience you can have at my age.
"I never associate singing with fear. School always made me feel awkward; everything I did after school, with opera and singing, I felt normal," she recalls. "That's how the stage is for me. I feel like I'm in a normal place; it makes me happy and that is the key to success. It's the key to doing your job well, of waking up in the morning feeling positive and giving that energy to the universe."
IDOMENEO will be broadcast in the Met's LIVE IN HD series on Saturday, March 25 at 12:55 pm EST. Further performances of the opera at the Met: March 10, 13, 17, 21, 25mat, with Nadine Sierra singing all performances but the 17th. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here. Running time: 3 hours and 56 minutes, two intermissions.