Isabel Leonard, a mezzo-soprano from New York City, has won this year’s Richard Tucker Award, given annually to a promising American opera singer. The award, which was created by the Richard Tucker Foundation in 1978, consists of a cash prize of $30,000 and a concert appearance.
The award comes less than a week after Leonard made her debut at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, and just three weeks before she is to appear as Blanche in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmelites.
“This week has been – I’m surprised I haven’t fallen into a puddle of tears,” Leonard said by phone from a taxi on Sunday. The Tucker Award, she said, holds particular meaning for her because its namesake tenor was also a native New Yorker. She is the first mezzo-soprano to win the prize since 2002, when it went to Joyce DiDonato.
The 31-year-old Leonard is increasingly familiar to New York opera audiences. A year after graduating from Juilliard with a Master’s degree in 2006, she made her Met debut as Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette. This season’s Met appearances have included Miranda in Thomas Adès’s new operatic adaptation of The Tempest, followed by Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
Leonard has also performed this past year at the Canadian Opera Company, the Glyndebourne Festival and the Vienna State Opera. Two days after performing at Zankel, she began rehearsals for Poulenc at the Met. “This is by far the hardest season I’ve had to juggle,” she said.
The mezzo also has a toddler son, Teo, who turns three next month, and who travels with her on the road. "There isn’t a downtime – when the nanny leaves I’m with Teo. Whew, it’s hard just organizing day-to-day things, and making sure he’s okay."
Leonard said she's been vigilant about pulling her son into the backstage world of opera (his father is the baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes). “It’s not really a place for him,” she said. “He has plenty of years. I want to let it be his choice." She jokingly recalls some confusion during a dress rehearsal for Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito in Toronto earlier this season, in which her character is pushed to the ground in one scene. “I could see him saying, 'what’s mama doing?’”
Born and raised in Manhattan, Leonard attended LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and studied dance at the Joffrey Ballet School. Prior to winning the Tucker Award, Leonard's industry accolades included a Marilyn Horne Foundation award in 2005 and the Beverly Sills Award in 2011. Considering her accomplishments, Leonard notes that she recently finished reading Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book that posits exceptional success is due to hard work and making the most of any advantage one is given.
"After all these years in my career, I’ve learned things about myself," she said. "In order for me to be prepared, I have to really understand what it is I’m trying to communicate in the music."
Below: Isabel Leonard performs in The Greene Space at WQXR in Oct. 2012