Warm Up: Isabel Leonard Seeks a Quiet Place

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Isabel Leonard as Rosina in 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia'

Described by W Magazine as "opera's it-girl," mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard has added numerous roles to her repertoire over the last few years—including that of mother to son Teo (her husband is also a busy singer, baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes). With so much going on in her life and career, including a current run as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Met, the question is begged: How does she do it?

In a new feature on Operavore, we catch up the singer, mother and former ballerina to find out about her warm-up routine as she moves from Manhattan to Seville.

A Long Show Day’s Nap
The habits have changed since my son was born. He’s 17 months old now, so basically everything has changed. The one thing I try to ensure myself is sleep. Other than that all bets are off because anything can happen when you have a little kid. I basically stay quiet and relaxed. I’m not gonna go out and run 10,000 errands if I can’t help it, or be in a very loud restaurant the night before or stay out late or anything like that.

I may or may not have a lesson. When I’m in New York, I tend to see my teacher sometimes before shows because it kind of gets me out of my head. I’m with someone that I trust with my voice and will warm up and work on some things and have sort of like a mini-lesson.

Calm Before the Storm
It’s mainly keeping myself sort of calm. I try not to think too much about getting hyped up for the show until I have to be hyped up when I go on in the afternoon or evening. I go over in my head what I have to bring to the theater if I have to bring anything to the theater. I’ll think a lot about: “Okay, if the show starts at 8, I need to be there at 6:30 for hair and makeup and all that stuff and then warm up…" I sort of calculate that, which basically allows me to stay calm all day long until 4:00. And then I get in the shower and then my routine of getting ready and going to theater -- that process has begun from that point until the end of the show.

Ballerina Roots
Lately, my routine has suffered because I have no time. So the one thing I try to do consistently is just basic stretching. I do a lot of stretching and a bit of very simple, light yoga—nothing too strenuous, just something to get my blood going and warm up my body before I warm up my voice. It fluctuates depending on the day and how I’m feeling to begin with. My body has a kind of an idea of what it feels like when it’s functioning properly because of that, that level is very different now than when I was younger and definitely more flexible and probably stronger. But the understanding of ease and flexibility and not having a stiff spot is still very much present in the body. Warming up is good for that, good to get all the kinks out. Physical discipline is something that sticks with you for your whole life. I definitely know how to push myself without injuring myself.

A Jolt of Java
The advent of my son has brought me to all these different vices. I definitely drink a cup of coffee before shows now because I need it, and I never before drank coffee or any other caffeinated beverage. But I’ve found it lately quite helpful to get me going, and especially at night when I would much prefer to be in bed since my son gets up anywhere between five or six o’clock in the morning. It keeps me going for the evening.

Intermission Feature
[At intermission] I try to stay out of my own way. If things have been going well, I try not to think too about it. I’ll think, 'okay, don’t come down, don’t let the energy fall too much.' There’s usually something to do at intermission besides sitting around. In Barber of Seville, I have to change my costume and between getting back to the dressing room, getting a little bit of a touch-up on makeup and a touch-up with the wig and changing your costume, it takes about 15 or 20 minutes. By the time I actually have a moment to sit down, they’re calling 10 minutes to places. I don’t walk outside of the dressing room very much; I try to stay in my own space. If I have to look at the music for the second act, I’ll do that—I always have a little score with me. I like to be able to refer back to my score if I need to check a note here and there.

Extra Credit
If I’m singing something like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, once the second act is done, Cherubino has done much of his work for the evening. So I’ve gotten accustomed to now, when I perform Cherubino and I have something else that I need to be learning, I’ll go back to the dressing room and work on music completely unrelated [to Figaro] until I have to go back on for the finale. Whereas with Rosina, I’m very much present in that mindset the whole way through and I try not to come out of it.

Interview has been condensed and edited