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Opera's New It Girl Comes to Town

Scott Lucas | November 12, 2013 | Story Galleries and Performance

Isabel Leonard is kind of a geek. She made a convincing Princess Leia for Halloween. She's working on a Kickstarter project. And over herbal teas one recent evening, what she really wants to talk about is golf.

"For a beginner, I'm pretty good," says the mezzo-soprano while we talk at Hayes Street Grill after a rehearsal of the San Francisco Opera's production of The Barber of Seville. "I still miss at times, but I love it." Leonard picked up the game while she was in Japan in August. Since she has been in San Francisco, she's played three rounds, sometimes with Lucas Meacham, who plays Figaro opposite her, and sometimes with a few of the trumpet players in the orchestra. "We were out at the Presidio the day the wind changed. We were freezing. But we stuck it out." She hits a seven or an eight on most holes, but she's steadily improving on her handicap of 36 ("if there were a larger one, I'd take it") and is starting to think about buying her own set of clubs.

It makes sense that she's taking up a hobby. Because this whole opera thing? Leonard has it on lockdown.

In this year alone, she won the Richard Tucker Award, giving annually to a promising young singer (ReneĆ© Fleming won in 1990), has appeared in productions around the world, and even sung on Sesame Street. "That was the highlight of the year," she says. "It doesn’t even occur to me that it’s the same Sesame Street that I watched when I was a kid. I think, surely that was the real one, and I was just on an off shoot." Not bad for someone who only made her opera debut in 2007.

In the San Francisco production, Leonard is happy to be settling back into the role she's done numerous times before. The last time she sung the part was at the holiday production at the New York Metropolitan, where the entire work was translated into English. "When we started that rehearsal, we would start going in English and then flip into Italian when we couldn't remember a word. Now, since I'm back in the root Italian version, I'm using it to get reacquainted." She had better get up to seep quickly, because after San Francisco, she's headed to Chicago and Dallas for more performances of Barber.

Though she might have the artistic parts of her life down, Leonard has plenty of chaos of her own to deal with—traveling alongside her is her three-and-a-half-year-old son. (Leonard sang onstage until she was six and a half months into the pregnancy, and her post-birth workout routines made it all the way to the New York Times.) "There are a lot of complications and expenses that we incur traveling in a troupe," she laughs. "But I try to make a home wherever I go. And to be awake for rehearsals."

I hazard to guess that she must have to keep to a pretty strict routine to keep up with all of that. She just laughs at me and shakes her head. "Life has very few routines that cannot be broken." There is one exception, of course: "With singing, I practice, and practice, and practice, and practice until I forget it and it comes out naturally. Then I allow the organic direction the piece is going in each night to go. I don't worry about what I did last night, because it won't be the same. I think that's like golf."

She laughs again. "Opera and golf. What a geek story."

The Barber of Seville plays at the San Francisco Opera from November 13th untili December 1st.

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