A bright light on the stage

Soprano Nadine Sierra takes us on her musical journey inside the iconic Metropolitan Opera House

  • Photo: Merri Cyr

  • Nadine Sierra as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" at the Opéra Bastille in Paris earlier this year. Photo: Charles Duprat

“The lights are very powerful, but when I looked out, it was just pitch dark ... and when I started singing and the way the voice was carrying in the house, it’s like singing into infinity,” Nadine Sierra said about one of her initial moments singing on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage.

She was just 19 years old at the time, competing in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, held to discover and promote new talent. To date, she still is the youngest person ever honored as its winner. In 2006, she moved to New York to attend the Mannes School of Music, and her Met debut came in December of 2015 when she sang the role of Gilda in “Rigoletto.” Next month, she will be starring in “Le Nozze di Figaro” as Susanna, the longest soprano role in the Mozart repertoire.

The Florida native knew opera was her destiny at the early age of 10. Her mother had introduced her to the genre by way of a library copy of a VHS tape of “La Bohème,” which Sierra said she watched every day for a week. “My voice at that time, even though I was a kid, was slightly operatic in a way. It was strange because it was just developing at a very rapid rate, even though I was so young,” she said.

This year, she received the Richard Tucker Award, given annually to “an American singer poised on the edge of a major national and international career,” and will perform at the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala at Carnegie Hall on December 10.

What do you remember about the first time you sang onstage at the Met?

The first time was actually when I was 20 because I did the Met National Council Auditions.... I got to sing on the Met stage twice then. So the first time was with piano on the stage and that was pretty surreal. I would say surreal enough to the point where I don’t really even remember, because I was just trying to focus on what I had to do and didn’t want to think about the fact that I was on the Met stage. But the second time I sang on the stage, which was for the final finals, I remember very well. The orchestra is in the pit and we are left onstage, alone. There’s nothing around us. So I remember coming on the stage and seeing nothing. It’s a very cool feeling because you can’t see any walls; you can’t see the ceiling; you can’t see people. So it just feels like you’re singing into space. That was something very enjoyable for a singer, to hear your own voice coming back to you, and just feeling like you’re singing up to Heaven or something.

Tell us about your role as Susanna in “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

This production has already premiered, so this is another run. And actually, this is my debut of Susanna. I have sung in this opera, but sang Contessa, and they’re very different roles in the sense that Susanna is much lower and Contessa sings a bit higher. Over the years, when I was learning how to sing opera, I was mostly focusing on all of the Mozart arias for sopranos and also mezzos. So Susanna was one of the Mozart heroines that I went to in my early teens.

What is the atmosphere like backstage at the Met? How can you describe the community there?

It’s the best. It’s so professional because of the Met’s history; you can’t get away from that. Everyone is very nice, which is good. Even though it’s the Met, at least from my side, I haven’t felt too much pressure from people. People are pretty easygoing going into the rehearsals and even into the performances. They are there to make you feel relaxed because they understand what we’re doing and how many seats, or people we’re singing for per show. And also now with the Live in HDs, that also adds a certain amount of pressure too because you want to be your best when you’re giving a live performance for the cinema as well. You almost see the same people all of them time. It feels like a little family, which is fantastic, because as an opera singer, or I’d even say as a musician, it’s the best family to be part of.

What has your favorite role been so far?

My favorite role so far, for sure, is Lucia [from “Lucia di Lammermoor”]. I love singing Lucia. I love the story; the story’s incredible. I love the history that this particular opera has, especially for sopranos. And I love the challenge that Lucia gives. It’s a very challenging role to sing. And to be able to accomplish something truly great singing that role, it really is a testament to all of the training one has done over the years. And there’s something very satisfying about that. Of course, Gilda is the role I’ve sung the most, because I started singing Gilda when I was 23. Gilda has a special place in my heart, and Lucia has a special place in my soul.

What’s one you’d like to sing one day?

The role that I would love to sing one day, that is very different from Lucia and Gilda, is Mimi from “La Bohème.” Mostly because it was the opera that really struck a chord in me when I first saw it, especially because of the story of Mimi and of Rodolfo. It had a very big impact on me as a kid. And I would love to reenact this feeling for myself because it just left such a big impression on me. But I have to wait many years before Mimi, because it’s heavier. It’s Puccini and the role needs a certain kind of sound. It needs a certain kind of heft in the voice.

And as far as songs, what do you consider your go-to?

“O Mio Babbino Caro” from “Gianni Schicchi,” because when I was 13 I learned this aria. It was probably one of the first opera arias I learned. And everybody knows it, not even just in the opera industry, but around the world. And I love that reaction from people who don’t really, let’s say, invest their time into opera, because it just shows that there are some opera stand-outs despite not really being interested in the opera itself. And I love that; it’s refreshing.

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