In conversation with Nadine Sierra: "Singing always transforms my mood and my overall energy."

25. März 2024

Rubrik Interviews

©Gregor Hohenberg / Sony Classical

Whilst rehearsing for her forthcoming performances of Gounod´s all-time classic opera "Roméo et Juliette" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I get the chance to take a glimpse behind the curtain of Nadine Sierra´s undeniable passion for opera.


Convincing in any role the US-American soprano takes on, Nadine talks about overcoming vocal challenges, how she approaches her role characters and why opera is a magic place to be, once you take it back to it´s historical setting.


With a voice so crystal clear and expressively shining in the most exposed hights ,Nadine Sierra not only brings to light her flourishing lyrical beauty, but on top demonstrates a high command of her dramatic abilities.


Thus her signature roles span from Rigoletto´s Gilda, Le nozze di Figaro´s Susanna to Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor.


For Nadine Sierra opera is not just a vocal performance at its highest and most difficult level, but moreover an emotionally stimulating art form at its deepest level, if you allow yourself to be drawn into that magic.


Operaversum: Dear Nadine, having you perform in a Met series of Gounod´s opera Romeo et Juliette what are you most looking forward to in that production and what can the audience expect?


Nadine Sierra: Well, I think what I am most looking forward to in this production is that I am getting to perform this opera in a more historic setting, rather than in a modern one. And I have to say that this is very appealing, to be immersed in the poet´s original time and costume setting.


I always felt that opera is supposed to bring people into another world as a way of reflection. It is also an attempt to remind us of how these stories have come about, how we as human beings have fallen in love over time and become witnesses to all the things that have occurred in our history.


In my opinion, opera is supposed to take us back there for two or three hours.


Moreover, when an opera can be in its original setting, there is some magic that happens for me, which I sometimes miss with modern productions. For example, with the recent staging of La Traviata in Paris, I interpreted that Violetta as a kind of Kim Kardashian-type of woman.


Although I can slightly relate to this, since I also use Instagram and social media, it still seemed a rather superficial topic that can cause a bit of social and societal stress.


Having said that, I really think there is something very precious about historical settings. On top of that, I just love to wear those costumes, as they make me feel like an opera singer.


So, the staging of Roméo et Juliette at the Met allows us to travel back in time, which is them most exciting thing I am looking forward to.


Operaversum: And do you think a cinematic experience can possibly draw a broader audience into opera?


Nadine Sierra: Yes, absolutely. I think the Live in HD broadcasts at the Met are one of the most brilliant ideas. It allows for people who cannot be in New York to have the option to go and watch a performance from anywhere around the world.


Moreover, the Met does really wonderful campaigns of their productions. The posters they create for the cinemas can catch the attention of people just passing by; there is always a chance that it can spark some curiosity about the art form in the end. And perhaps it then stirs up interest to eventually watch a live opera performance in-person.


As for me, I love whenever I can be part of these Live in HD broadcasts. I was first introduced to opera when I was 10 years old – I clearly remember my mother showing me opera through VHS tapes and, in that very moment, it ignited my passion for the art from.


So imagining that there might be a girl out there like me, that gets the chance to fall in love with opera by watching an HD broadcast gives me a very good feeling. Plus I love when opera can reach a wider audience.


©Gregor Hohenberg / Sony Classical

Operaversum: Nadine I have already seen you in quite some productions and no matter which role you have been interpreting,it always felt authentic and emotional to the core. 


So which are the physical and vocal challenges you encounter in any of your dramatic roles and have you ever overstepped the line?


Nadine Sierra: That is a very good question, and the answer is absolutely! I recall that last year I was in such a situation where I was so exhausted both physically and vocally that I was having some issues with my voice. I would become hoarse right after a performance and the day after, I would even have difficulties speaking.


I remember it was in May 2023, that I went to see my ENT, who examined my chords, which luckily showed no signs of hemorrhages or nodules.


So at first I was relieved that my voice did not have any serious issues, but then I asked myself why I was experiencing this problem of a hoarse voice. Eventually they found out that I was suffering from a muscle tension dysphonia, which can originate from stress, a magnesium deficiency, or vocal overuse, which can then cause so much tension in the muscles that the vocal chords do not function properly.


And I was having this experience which hindered me to sing freely and easily. As a result, I have changed management very recently over a lot of discussions about when I am supposed to be resting, how much I can actually do, and not being pushed into engagements.


So that was a real topic, as it was difficult to find an equilibrium between fulfilling this busy time schedule of mine and taking good care of my health, something that is vital for a singer in order to always reach the highest quality of vocal performance.


Having had this stressful experience, I was even forced to cancel a couple of engagements, but what I have learnt from all of that is to take good care of myself as a singer


Operaversum: So it is not all about sucess, but also about being fulfilled in what you are doing to successfully perform?


Nadine Sierra: Definitely, because singing for me is not just about money. It is even more so a very spiritual thing for me, something that has changed my life completely. Diving into music and dedicating myself to singing was like therapy for me, as it always transformed my mood and my overall energy. These are also all the reasons why I also sing and share music.


©Gregor Hohenberg / Sony Classical

Operaversum: How beautiful! And Nadine, is there a role within your repertoire which you identify the most with?


Nadine Sierra: Yes, I would say it is Gilda from Verdi´s opera Rigoletto, as it relates to some early adulthood experiences of mine. When I was just 18 years old, I fell in love with someone who was showing me one side of his personality and basically hiding his true self.


It was a shocking experience, not really a Duca experience like in Rigoletto, but it definitely broke my innocence.

I guess I needed that innocence to be broken in order to see the world in a more mature way.


But then what does that do to a person? Comparing my experience to the character of Gilda, she is certainly the embodiment of all of that - losing her innocence and then left wondering what happens when that innocence is broken.


Does that eventually turn you into a person like Rigoletto, wanting to take revenge on people, making your personality a little bit darker? Or does it make you like Gilda who becomes a more benevolent person trying to reach higher than Rigoletto?


Through that early stage in my life, I understand and admire Gilda very much. In fact, she is the purest personality in the entire opera and very much a savior, even though some people might think that her actions are stupid. Why would you give your life for the Duke?


But in my personal interpretation, she is not simply sacrificing her life for the Duke, but very much so for her father and Maddalena. For that reason, and the sacrifices she makes, she turns out to be a very special character.


Operaversum: As we are talking about drama Nadine, your are living the drama of opera as a profession. Does this somehow impact on your personal life or do you always leave the drama back on stage?


Nadine Sierra: I love your question, Nicole. Honestly speaking it is hard for me at times to leave the drama on stage, because what I am doing when I am acting on stage is sort of an emotional recalling.


So I use my personal experiences, that is to say the events I have lived through in the past, and reflect on how they have made me feel, changed my life, and developed my personality.


In order to be convincing on stage - for example, I have never been in Violetta’s situation, dying from tuberculosis - I have to pick bits and pieces from my own life experience and relate to them so that I can interpret a character authentically.


That, I think, is very important for the overall theatrical performance.


On the other hand, when you do so, you have to reach deep down into your soul, which brings up life experiences and thoughts that you have experienced, some traumatic, some rather dark. And, like in the Violetta I recently played in Paris, it can be heavy and make you cry at the end of a show.


So after a show ends, I always need a few hours to process the stage experience, in order to let go of the past memories that I have brought up. I am that kind of performer, who is not just telling the story of what the opera is trying to convey – every performance is me telling my own story through that character.


©Gregor Hohenberg / Sony Classical

Operaversum: Dear Nadine, what was your most touching and unforgettable stage experience?


Nadine Sierra: My most touching and unforgettable stage experience was my Gilda debut at La Scala in 2016, where I sang alongside Leo Nucci as my Rigoletto. That was also the first time that I met Leo, which made me feel rather intimidated as Leo Lucci is a legend in Italian opera.


Myself, coming from another generation of opera singers, made me question whether I would be good enough to perform with this incredible singer.


But soon I discovered that Leo was a very humble person with whom one could have fun and laugh a lot. On stage, he also gave me so much guidance with his profound knowledge in acting, discussing with me at great lengths the relationship between Rigoletto and Gilda.


So when it came to our first performance at La Scala, I remember, I was only twenty-seven years old and Leo could basically have been my father. It felt like having been transported in time with this man, like we were part of another world of opera, so connected with each other on stage.


But the best was yet to come! We had an encore, which is not a common thing to do, since Toscanini had forbidden encores of specifically Verdi operas. Of course there had been a few times where this rule was broken by some artists, but not by me and also not by Leo.


I remember that evening, we were on stage just having finished the Sì Vendetta aria. The audience was clapping their hands incessantly, calling for a encore. Since I had no idea what was going on having never experienced this type of thing, especially with it being my La Scala debut, I was very confused.


Whilst holding Leo’s hand, exchanging glances also with the intendant and conductor, we came to a silent mutual agreement to repeat the Vendetta for the audience. At that moment I just thought about how crazy, how unbelievable all of this is.


After having walked off stage, extremely happy, Leo then confided in me about the significance and what it truly means to give an "encore". You know, Nicole, I was shocked and in that very moment I thought “thank God, I did not have this information beforehand.”


It was one of my most magical moments. I will never ever forget in my life, as it has taught me a lot and also inspires me for any of my performances.


Operaversum: What an experience. So talking about experiences or future aspirations is there still dream roles or opera houses on your wish list?


Nadine Sierra: Yes, indeed. I have always been wanting to perform at the Vienna State Opera, where I am now making my debut in Roméo et Juliette this fall.


And there is also an upcoming role as Luisa Miller in Naples, Italy, which I am so very much looking forward to, as it seems thrilling to welcome another Verdi opera in my repertoire that I can actually sing and which is not yet too heavy for my voice.


And there is most certainly another dream role coming up, my ultimate dream role, which is Mimì, simply because I love how sensitive and empathetic she is.


But, you know, Nicole, I have to wait a little for that role because Puccini can be deceptively heavy. In a way his music can be deceptively light, but in the orchestration, it is as a matter of fact heavy.


Operaversum: In a few words: If you had to give an elevator pitch to somebody not into opera, what defines the magic of opera and is there any feature you love most about this beautiful artform?


Nadine Sierra: Well, the feature that I love most about opera is how timeless it acutally is, in terms of how the music moves the soul and also moves the plot along. Opera will always be timeless, at least for me. And because of that timeless element, it has inspired many other things such as movie scores.


As a matter of fact, movie scores are heavily influenced by opera because the music in it heightens the emotions, much the same way as opera does. Just giving you an example:


When you turn off the sound in a scary movie, the plot all of a sudden does not feel as intense compared to when you leave the sound on, since it heightens the emotions and the suspense of what is to come next.


That for me is what opera is all about. It is about elevating those emotions for the story, not only to shine but for the story to hit you, where it hits closest to your soul and to your heart.


So no matter where you come from, no matter which kind of music you are really interested in, the moment you allow yourself to listen to opera, you can really understand how it can affect you emotionally. It can leave an everlasting impression on people, even on people who have never been to opera before in their lives.


In the end, opera is not just a vocal performance at its highest and most difficult level, but it is also supposed to be an emotionally stimulating art form at its deepest level, if you allow yourself to be drawn into that magic.

©Marty Sohl / Met Opera New York

American soprano Nadine Sierra has established a reputation as one of today’s finest young artists, in demand at the world’s most prestigious opera houses.


She is regularly acclaimed by both critics and audiences for her vocal agility, purity of tone, impeccable technique and hugely engaging stage presence – she has all the sparkling comic timing required for roles such as Susanna, but can equally embody all the emotional intensity of tragic heroines such as Gilda and Lucia, both of which have already become signature roles.


With such vocal and dramatic versatility, she has boundless potential to continue broadening her repertoire.


Born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1988, Nadine Sierra was six when her mother borrowed a video of Zeffirelli’s La bohème from the local library.


Sierra loved it so much that not only does the family still have the tape, but her latest album, Made for Opera, is dedicated to its stars, Teresa Stratas and Renata Scotto, as well as to the singer who was to become her mentor, Marilyn Horne.“Ever since I was a child, I have had this love affair with opera that keeps growing as I get older,” she notes.


Sierra went on to study at the Mannes College of Music in New York City and at Music Academy of the West, in 2007 becoming the youngest singer ever to win the Marilyn Horne Foundation Award. Two years later, on Horne’s advice, she entered the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and won – the youngest soprano ever to do so.


She joined San Francisco Opera’s renowned Adler Program in 2011, gaining invaluable professional experience in a succession of roles for the company. Global recognition followed in 2013 when, within the space of ten months, she won the Veronica Dunne, Montserrat Caballé and Neue Stimmen international singing competitions.


Her rising-star status was confirmed when she was named the 2017 winner of the prestigious Richard Tucker Music Award – one of the opera world’s foremost prizes for emerging vocal talent – and 2018 winner of the Beverly Sills Artist Award for young singers at the Metropolitan Opera.


It was in Rigoletto that Sierra made her debuts at Seattle Opera, Florida Grand Opera, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and the Metropolitan Opera.


In January 2016 she made headline news with her La Scala debut, performing Gilda to the veteran baritone Leo Nucci’s Rigoletto.


On opening night, prompted by the audience, the pair broke with a house tradition dating from Toscanini’s time as music director to encore the duet “Sì, vendetta”.


Gilda, notes Sierra, is a young heroine of opera. “And that’s what I want to be in my life – a heroine for young girls and women aspiring to be strong and powerful.”


Source: Deutsche Grammophon

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