Composer Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” — with its slapdash and vivacious rom-com plot, its familiar arias and its accessibility in musical and showmanship terms — is one of the most popular operas.
It’s also a familiar work for Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who performs as Rosina, the object of affection for two different swains, a dilemma best solved by Figaro, the smart and scheming title character, played by Andrey Zhilikhovsky. They are joined by Taylor Stayton (Count Almaviva), Alexandria Shiner (Berta) and Paolo Bordogna (Dr. Bartolo) in Washington National Opera’s production of “The Barber of Seville,” running April 28 to May 19 at the Kennedy Center.
A gifted, winning singer and actress, Leonard has performed Rosina several times, including at the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. You might think that she could do the part in her sleep.
New York-born and of Argentine ancestry on her mother’s side, Leonard doesn’t sound on the phone like the type of artist that would sleepwalk through anything. You suspect that there is no such thing in opera, where even the lightest of material — and “The Barber of Seville” is a comic opera full of improbabilities and exaggeration — presents challenges to test an artist’s vocal abilities, energy and dexterity. No one, for instance, would dare sing the aria “Una voce poco fa” (“A voice a little while ago”) in an opera house except a bona fide star like Leonard.
“It’s very much in the traditional style in the ultimate degree,” she said. “This production is traditional in that we are using period costumes and a lot of the humor comes directly from the text … There’s a certain structure to be followed in comedy — it is a comedy after all — and that’s what makes it fun to perform. And it is funny. The jokes, the situations have to work, but the music and the singing is also very challenging.”
All of which would make Leonard ideally suited for the “Barber” contretemps. She started out her performing life in dance as a little girl (“I was five or so”), continuing into her teens. “I learned very early about moving and dancing onstage because of ballet. I danced in ‘The Nutcracker’ for two seasons with the Joffrey Ballet at City Center in New York when I was a child.
“I still have a lot of friends from the world of ballet,” she said. “They’re very supportive. It’s lovely when some of my childhood ballet friends and teachers come visit me at the opera.”
You can’t pigeonhole Leonard in terms of genre or lifestyle, for that matter. Going by her track record, she obviously loves a challenge. She seems to love the world that she’s made for herself.
“It’s not easy, but it’s the world I live in and I love its challenges, its diversity, the travel, seeing the world, performing in all the different venues. At the same time, I’m a divorced, single mother, which is the most important challenge to me. I strive to create a healthy balance in order for everyone to feel good in the process. I take Teo [her 7-year-old son] with me on tour as often as possible and there is no doubt the experiences enrich his life. You also realize how privileged your child is when he asks: When are we going to have a house like the one we stayed in this summer in France? I’m careful to teach him gratitude.”
Leonard performed with WNO in a 2015 production of Rossini’s “Cinderella,” a production that went well beyond the borders of fairy-tale or comedic opera. She held her dramatic and musical ground as Angelina opposite the evil stepsisters.
In conversation, she’s thoughtful in her answers, with a quiet sense of humor and a warm, very musical laugh. She’s comfortable in a wide range of genres and loves listening to jazz (Ella Fitzgerald is reportedly a favorite). Soaring with high energy in arias, she won a Grammy for her work on the recorded album of British composer Thomas Adès’s opera version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and one for Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortilèges” with Seiji Ozawa.
And (as mezzos tend to be) she’s rangy, flying through musical space and on the stage. She also knows her way around the music of Leonard Bernstein — witness her recent recital in the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center and check out the YouTube clip of her singing the wild “I Am Easily Assimilated” from “Candide.”
She is, you suspect, among friends and family, peers and costars, funny, witty and — probably best of all — good company.