Fast-rising Fort Lauderdale soprano is poised on the verge of a major career
Nadine Sierra’s opera career was launched by the Broward County public library system.
When she was 10, her mother came home from the Imperial Point branch in Fort Lauderdale with several VHS cassettes, including one of Teresa Stratas in Puccini’s La Boheme. Sierra fell for it then and there, and never quite recovered.
“I kept watching it every day for a week, and I cried every single time,” said the 23-year-old soprano. “All I knew was that I wanted to create that kind of magic on stage too. My favorite opera to this day is La Boheme. I just love the spirit it has. It’s just all about the simple things in life, and how having love in your life is probably the most important thing.”
Sierra, who performs a recital June 4 at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall, has seen her career take off in the past two years. While not quite a star yet, she has won important competitions, impressed major singers and begun to take on roles at significant opera houses. A recent graduate of the Mannes College of Music, Sierra is currently an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera.
Next fall she will appear in the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier starring Thomas Hampson at San Francisco Opera. Based on the life of the security director of a World Trade Center firm who died rescuing people on 9/11, Sierra will play a woman whose husband died in the attack.
“It’s very exciting for me because my — I can call him my colleague now — Thomas Hampson is going to be the soldier, the main character. The opera is going to be a flashback of his life in Vietnam, the love story between him and his wife and then of course, his death.’
The renowned baritone says that Sierra is “one of the most talented young singers I’ve had the pleasure of encountering and working with.”
“She has a beautiful voice and she’s a smart girl, and sings with tremendous commitment in whatever she’s working on,” says Hampson. “I’m very enthusiastic about Nadine’s career, as well as her future.”
Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, where her father was a Broward County firefighter and her mother a bank teller, Sierra practiced every day from the time she was a child. She would sing at least an hour of scales and arpeggios on different vowels, as well as working on arias and art songs. Her mother, a bank teller who speaks several languages, helped her with diction — and with discipline.
“My mother was very strict,” she said. “If I didn’t practice, I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t go to movies. I couldn’t go out with friends. From six to the time I was 18 years old. I didn’t have a normal childhood. But at the end of the day, it was what I wanted to do. If I hadn’t done that, the life I’m having now wouldn’t have happened.”
In addition to spending so much of her childhood and teen years practicing, she also appeared on stage with the Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre. She appeared as Witch Hex in Snow White, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz and the nurse Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. She was asked to join Palm Beach Opera’s Young Artist program at age 14.
“She’s very comfortable on stage,” said her mother, Melinda Sierra, who now lives in Delray Beach. “She has been performing since she was a little girl so we used to go everywhere. She used to perform with Radio Disney, with the boat parade, plus the theater. She got really comfortable and really used to being on stage, so at this point she’s really a pro.”
Her voice teacher César Ulloa, now at the San Francisco Conservatory, taught Sierra from age 14 through 18, until she went off to New York’s Mannes College of Music. He helped her with breathing techniques, with singing in a more flowing style and with finding the right repertoire. But he was careful not to impose too much on her innate style and musicality.
“A lot of times with these natural voices, you have to be very careful not to over-teach them,” he said. “You have to let them grow naturally. She has a passion for singing. Her musicality, her phrasing, was so innate.”
He described her voice as a light lyric soprano, currently best suited for roles such as Juliette in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette and Susanna in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, but large enough to eventually take on heavier roles. “She has that beautiful middle voice and I knew she was going to grow into a lyric,” he said. “But I think it’s healthier for her now to stay in lighter soprano stuff so she doesn’t push her voice.”
Her break came in 2009 when she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a high honor that helped launch the careers of Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Ben Heppner and Samuel Ramey. Suddenly the young unknown soprano from Fort Lauderdale was in high demand.
“It was like all of a sudden the doors to everything opened,” she said. “Going to the finals is a big step because everyone hears you. Everyone in the industry usually goes to that. It was like, I don’t know, like it wasn’t my life. Like I was seeing somebody else’s dream come true.”
Agents courted her, and she signed on with prestigious Opus 3 Artists. Students contacted her through Facebook to seek her advice. Thomas Hampson invited her to sing a duo recital of American art songs with him for the U.S. Supreme Court, an event followed by dinner, in which she chatted with the opera-loving justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sierra joined the San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows program, a highly competitive young artist program for singers that allowed her to participate in performances at a leading opera house.
She currently lives in Daly City, outside of San Francisco where she stays with a few other singers in the large home of an opera company sponsor. In the morning, after a breakfast of yogurt, granola and fruit, she boards the MUNI trolley for the 20-minute ride to the opera house, where she undergoes coaching sessions for SFO works in which she will perform. In addition to Heart of a Soldier, next season in San Francisco she will appear in Mozart’s Magic Flute as Papagena, and cover the roles of Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Romilda in Handel’s Xerxes.
Some singers seem to almost grudgingly take up the stagecraft necessary for a singing career, appearing to be vocal recitalists who make only obligatory attempts at acting.
Sierra, however, is one who embraces the theatrical elements of opera performance. At Palm Beach Opera’s performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice earlier this year, she plunged into the emotional aspects of the role of Euridice, from her anguish when she thinks Orfeo has rejected her to the joy of their reunion.”
I love being on the stage,” she said. “It feels very natural to me. This sounds a little weird but sometimes it feels more natural to be on the stage than to be myself in real life.
“It just feels nice to let go of everything that you’re feeling or trying to express on stage. It’s a safe zone. You’re allowed to be dramatic and act crazy on stage. And it’s like my opportunity to release any of the drama that I have in my life on stage in a safe way, without anyone knowing what’s really bothering me or what I’m really happy about. It’s like we’re kids on stage. We get to pretend.”
Her South Florida recital is presented by the Sunday Afternoons of Music, and, in spite of the series’ name, will take place on a Saturday evening. The concert will constitute a vocal biography of sorts. There will be arias she’s loved all her life, such as Caro nome from Verdi’s Rigoletto and Ah, je veux vivre! from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, a set of songs in Portuguese by Joaquín Rodrigo and Debussy’s Quatre Chansons de Jeunesse, among other works.
“I have arias that I put into the Met competition that are literally ingrained in my soul,” said Sierra. “I have the Madrigales by Rodrigo because my background is Latin —my father is half Puerto Rican, my mother is from Portugal. I love Spanish songs, so I decided to put a little bit of my heritage into the recital.
“It’s not only some of my favorite stuff, but it also expresses who I am,” she said.
Nadine Sierra performs a recital 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4, at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall. www.sundaymusicals.org, 305-271-7150.
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Wed May 25, 2011
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