Classical Singer Community
Contact Us | Subscribe | My Account | Login
Stay Logged In

Classical Singer Magazine
Current Issue | Search the Archives | Subscribe

Wise Beyond Her Years:
Nadine Sierra

by Mark Watson

Nadine Sierra
This has been a big season for soprano Nadine Sierra, an exotic beauty with a creamy voice and sensational figure. Some highlights include the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro as well as Pamina and Lucia in San Francisco; her debuts at Paris Opera as Zerlina, the Metropolitan Opera as Gilda, and La Scala in the same role (where she and her Rigoletto, Leo Nucci, gave such an exciting performance of the duet “Si vendetta” that the audience demanded an encore); Amor in Orfeo ed Euridice at the Berlin State Opera conducted by Daniel Barenboim; the sleepwalking Amina in Verona; and Tytania, Queen of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Valencia. That’s a queen, a princess, a countess, a mischievous god, a few peasants, suicides, murder, and a lot of speculation about unfaithful lovers or husbands—all in one year!

Sierra has been gathering admirers for quite some time. Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, began following her progress after she became the youngest singer to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council finals. “Nadine is a rare talent with extraordinary potential who sings brilliantly,” Gelb confided in a phone interview. “At her Met debut, she had made a connection with the audience—that’s a sign of a great artist. The staff backstage loved her right away too. We would like the Met to become her artistic home where she can continue to grow. We have plans for her through 2020.”

David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera is also a fan. “Ms. Sierra is a marvel of talent, looks, and maturity,” he shared via e-mail. “At 27, she has it all together as I have seldom seen at any age. If she can handle early success, she will have a stunning career.”

I caught up with Sierra last December while she was in New York City. Her time there was busy. While rehearsing Rigoletto, she sang a Gala Concert for the Richard Tucker Music Foundation in David Geffen Hall that was telecast in February. We were finally able to arrange an interview in the pressroom at the Metropolitan Opera.

You have won competition after competition, and now your career just seems to have exploded.
Yes, it’s true. My manager, Gianluca Macheda from IMG, is really the one who is responsible. He took me under his wing and created this trajectory of my career that I was not expecting so quickly. It hasn’t been a long relationship, only a year and eight months, but it has been a very progressive one.

We met when I was singing Gilda in Seattle and he was managing two of the artists there. I liked his approach to what he thought young singers, especially sopranos with my voice type, should be singing and his ideas about what it meant to be a manager. It wasn’t just about booking gigs but about taking everything into consideration, even the PR aspect. I thought that this could be a groundbreaking relationship for me.

Also, he is Italian . . . and my family is very Latin. My mother is from Portugal and my father’s side is from Italy and Puerto Rico, so I am used to a certain attitude of being direct and straightforward. He has that. I could tell that there was this fighter in him. I felt he would support me in the good and support me should anything go wrong. That’s important. You have to have somebody that you can trust who will always have your back.

Our relationship has never been about money or becoming famous. It is about my growth as an artist and my goals in life. And I do have big goals. I told him I want to debut at the Met and La Scala, and he made these things possible.

We both agreed on repertoire. There were some things that I had accepted that he didn’t think were best for me, but since I was already scheduled, he said, “Let’s go with it and try to have your voice teacher with you constantly. Then we will put that away for a few years.” We discuss my performances in detail. He has such great ears.

You first fell in love with opera after seeing the Met broadcast of the Zeffirelli Bohème, and you knew then and there that you wanted to become a singer. How did things progress from there?
A few years later my vocal coach, Kamal Khan, suggested I join the Palm Beach Opera chorus to get a feel of what it was like to work in the business. So at 13 I auditioned for and was accepted in the chorus. I think I auditioned with “O mio babbino.” They asked me if I could sight read. I told them, “Not very well, but I am taking piano lessons.”

How did you balance that with school?
During the day I’d take classes at the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, then walk across the street to the Kravis Center for rehearsals at the opera. My teachers were very supportive. They let me leave school early for dress rehearsal and were understanding when I sometimes turned in assignments late. I was taking voice lessons with César Ulloa and coached with Kamal Khan. I call them my “Dream Team.” I still work with both of them.

At the Palm Beach Opera I had a supportive community. If there were sections that were hard to learn, the soprano next to me would sing louder. One chorus soprano, Gerri Kinley watched over me like a second mom. She’d also drive me to and from rehearsals and performances. I got my real opera experience onstage. It was my foundation for opera training for sure.

How did the chorus respond to you?
I think they thought it was kind of cool to have someone very young in the mix. For the most part, I was never really treated like a kid. The chorus gave me the chance to be this little hatchling and have wings to fly in this business. A lot of people thought I was older because my parents had raised me to be well educated, to present myself professionally, and to have manners. I had a mature demeanor as a teenager.

Do you remember your first performance on that stage?
It was Lucia [di Lammermoor]. I almost didn’t feel like I was part of the choir, I felt like an observer or audience member who was lucky enough to be onstage in a costume. Everything I did onstage felt organic and normal. I was watching the artists and seeing how demanding it was.

Did you speak to the principals?
No. I was too scared to talk to the leads. It was intimidating, and I was just a kid. Then at 16 I was accepted into the Palm Beach Young Artist Program. They paid for all my lessons—which was great—and I got a chance to make my debut as the Sandman in Hansel and Gretel with Julius Rudel conducting. The next year I sang the first Knaben in Magic Flute.

At age 18 you decided to study in New York. Tell us about that.
The most important thing for me was to find the right voice teacher. César and Kamal suggested Ruth Falcon at Mannes. The school gave me time off for international competitions and performances while I focused on technique. I was coaching regularly with Kamal (who had accepted a position at the school), studied voice with Ruth, and always stayed in touch with César. My Dream Duo became a Trio.

After Mannes, I went to the Merola Program in San Francisco and then became a member of the Adler Young Artist Program. César had moved there, so I was thrilled to be able to study with him again.

Through Marilyn Horne’s program, The Song Continues, I sang concerts in schools and colleges around the country and participated in Q&As from the audience after. I really encouraged aspiring young singers to contact me with questions about auditions, teachers, repertoire, and competitions. I felt I could offer them the perspective of someone who had just been there. Besides, what better way to keep opera going than to be a mentor for the younger generation?

What kind of questions do you get?
When students ask advice about voice teachers, I ask them first to list the things that are important to them and their growth. I try not to make it about my agenda. I am always telling them that if you are not feeling something with a teacher and don’t have another resource, you need to be outspoken. Say, “This is not working for me—what are other ways we can go about this?” There should be a dialogue between student and teacher, especially when the students are so young.

Then I say, “Experiment. Go for it! Don’t be scared.” Students are often intimidated by their voice teachers and think that the teacher is doing them a favor when actually it is the other way around. Voice teachers work for us. We are the CEO of our company we are self-promoting. Our PR representatives and managers are our employees.

When they ask about repertoire, I say, you know you are singing the wrong repertoire when after you sing it a few times you feel tired, hoarse, have soreness, feel that you had to push for certain notes or have just a general feeling of being uncomfortable. If you sing something that you feel is easy and effortless, stick with it. It’s OK even if you don’t think it is impressive or interesting, because that’s part of your growing. If you stick to certain things for a long time, then you will start to jump levels. That’s what I did. When you are young, bad habits can form very easily. The sooner you form good habits, the more advanced you will become.

So, in your case, how did you gauge your progress?
I knew I was progressing because things started to become more effortless. If I didn’t want to breathe in a certain phrase, I’d work on it with my voice teacher and I’d practice. I’m a huge practice person. I have to practice an hour a day almost every day. I have to look at music or vocalize—like an athlete. It’s my way of stretching and maintaining what I already have.

I record myself and try not to be biased when I listen. “OK, do I still sound flat? Am I going sharp? Does the phrase sound even?” I was kind of my own teacher—listening, paying attention, and being honest with myself. I think it is hard when singers are not honest with themselves.

Have you had to have that discussion with young singers?
Absolutely. There are some singers who refuse to listen to themselves. This is wrong because if you can’t stand the sound of your voice, how can you possibly think that anybody else is going to be able to stand it either? You need to be able to love what you have and accept and be honest about it. If there are things that you don’t like about your technique, you have to say, “OK, what can I do to change this? How can I present it to my voice teacher so that they can give me the skills and tools to make alterations?”

I recorded every lesson, then would go home and play it and practice it over and over. I don’t know how many boxes of cassettes I have with my lessons on them. I have most of them since I was six years old.

You started singing so young. What were those lessons like?
When I was a young girl I mostly focused on Italian art songs, which are the best and healthiest way to approach technique at the beginning. The language is consonant vowel, consonant vowel—perfect for singing. Then when I was 12 or 13, I started to sing things like Mozart arias for mezzo and “Una voce poco fa” in the lower key to develop my middle voice.

The high notes started coming out in my early teens. I would never push. I would do it in a way that I wasn’t trying to get the high notes, but I allowed them to be there. And if it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there. And if it was, it was. It was an organic way. I never rushed that area. I was looking at the A and A-flats in things like “O mio babbino caro,” then working on “Je veux vivre” when I was 14 and getting to the Bs and kind of hitting the D a little bit. “Glitter and Be Gay” . . . these kinds of things. I would also look at classic musical theatre. [That] was a big part of my training, like Tuptim’s “My Lord and Master” from The King and I or music from Oklahoma! and Carousel.

When did the voice that I heard the other night at the Met “appear”?
I would say 11 or 12 . . . 13 is when it really came out. If you heard a tape at 13, you’d recognize my voice.

Your pronunciation is very good. How did you acquire your language skills?
I started taking Italian when I was 14. My mother speaks French, Italian, Portuguese, and English. She would correct my Italian when I would sing art songs as a little girl. I took French and German at Mannes.

When I was singing Gilda at the San Carlos in Naples, some chorus members would approach me and say, “You know Ms. Sierra we need to tell you that there is one or two things that you are saying that the vowel could be more open or closed.” I was like, “Give it.” They would notice something I was doing onstage and they would say, “Think more about this, because the real meaning of this phrase is . . . ” I appreciated it so much because I was 23 and thought, “This is an education.” It was a wonderful experience.

When I did Pamina at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, the entire cast was German or Austrian. In the rehearsal, I asked them to correct me. I love Europeans. They’re not scared to go up to you and say, “This is wrong. May I please tell you the right way?” I even had a coaching with my Sarastro.

When I’ll do Pamina again, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I’ll find any German friend or German coach, and I’ll go over and over it until it flips easily off my tongue. If I am uncomfortable with something, I will go up to a German-speaking colleague and just ask. I have never been scared of asking. I don’t want to sound uneducated when I am singing.

What is a day of performance like for you?
In the morning I wake up at 7 or 8 and go to the gym. The gym is my “go to.” I will do a class, or yoga, or light weights with a lot of reps. I am a young woman and I like to be active. It is a social thing for me, too. I may meet a group of girls and develop friendships. Then I will lounge around or take a walk in the park. I am not going to coop myself up in the apartment or not talk to anyone. I am not like that.

I usually do my vocalizing closer to when the performance starts. So, about 4:30 I will vocalize for about half an hour and then stop. Then when I go to the theater, I will start up again. I start with a lot of lip trills, then vocalises that focus the sound in the mask, like “Nyah-nyah-nyah,” to wake up the resonators. Then I’ll do full-body vocalises with certain vowels, and then I will do scales to stretch the cords a bit to get to the top of my register. I usually start about A below middle C in chest to the high C. When I get to the theater, I start to vocalize the very top from C to E natural for Gilda. I don’t like to do that too early on because the larynx can feel too high or pulled up for sopranos when we sing up there.

Have you ever done operetta?
I have. If someone were ever to approach me to do Pirates of Penzance or Candide or The Merry Widow, for sure I’d say yes. I love musical theatre, too. If somebody ever asked me to do something like The King and I next door [Lincoln Center] or West Side Story, I would say yes for sure.

Do you listen to recordings of sopranos?
Yes. My two favorites are [Mirella] Freni and [Mariella] Devia. I wish I could work with Devia. The technique! She is just a master at singing. She is just so consistent, and the voice still sounds so fresh. Freni is one that I listened to most when I was a young singer, and I still love her.

What was it like to make your Met debut?
All the staff made me feel very normal and comfortable. When I was onstage, I wasn’t nervous. “This is so bizarre,” I thought. “Why do I feel so at ease?” Then I had this thought in my head: “Well, yeah. I finally got what I wanted, and all I can do is be grateful about it and hopefully do a good job.”

And you were singing opposite Piotr Beczala, who had just been your leading man in Lucia.
He’s the best colleague in the whole world. He makes everything enjoyable. Honestly, if you are having a hard day or hard time singing, he makes it all better.

You just finished a successful run of Gildas at the Met. After spending a few days with your family in Florida, it’s off to Italy to sing an international telecast of the New Year’s Eve Gala at La Fenice, and then to Milan for your Scala debut as Gilda starring Leo Nucci and Vittorio Grigolo. Do you ever have any stage fright?
No. Because I love it. It is even better than it was before because all of these dreams I had as a child are coming true. Sometimes I don’t even believe that it is real. It’s like I’m dreaming. That’s very cliché to say, but it really does feel like that. I want to feel happy and feel that I am contributing to an art form the people are very serious about. Even today, if I didn’t love it, I’d quit and do something else.

Trained on full scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music and winner of several international vocal competitions, Mark Watson has sung concerts, operas, and oratorios in Israel, Italy, and Belgium and on national television in Japan. In New York City, he has appeared in Alice Tully Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and Carnegie Hall. He has also sung roles with regional opera companies in America.

Can't find what you're looking for? Use our Shortcuts:

My Account

Contact Us

the Convention
Vocal Competition


the Magazine
Article Archives
Change of Address
Current Issue
Gift Subscriptions
Retail Outlets
Auditions Plus
Summer Programs
Submit a Listing
My Calendar
Singer Websites
Singer Websites
Hosting Fees
Search for Singers
Subscribe Now
Tech Support
My Account

Copyright © 2000-2017 Classical Singer, Inc. All Rights Reserved.