Leah Crocetto: Our Next Verdi Soprano?

When soprano Leah Crocetto sang Verdi at San Francisco Opera’s Merola Grand Finale in the summer of 2008, we in the audience were stunned by the sheer size, weight, and power of her voice. Soon thereafter, when I interviewed San Francisco Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald, she echoed my sentiments.

“She makes me want to hear more,” Greenawald enthused. “Leah was studying at the Moody Bible College when we auditioned her. I practically fell off my chair when I heard her high notes. It’s thrills and chills.”


Immediately accepted in SFO’s two-year Adler Fellows program, Crocetto soon confirmed her gifts at an opera press conference. Singing Leonora’s “Tacea la notte placida” from the first act of Verdi’s Il trovatore, she came across, not as a student, but as a full endowed artist with the voice, artistic sensibility, and sense of drama necessary for a major career.

A year later, it came as no surprise when the Second Year Adler Fellow, now 30, followed her triple win of First Prize, Spanish Prize, and People’s Choice at the José Iturbi International Music Competition in Los Angeles by winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in New York City. On April 18, shortly before she gave the first full-length recital of her career, she received an all-important Richard Tucker Foundation Study Grant. Clearly the folks who call the shots in the opera world are more than aware of her potential.

A few weeks before her recital, I met Crocetto in the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House for an extended interview. Below is the transcript of our conversation

Photo by John Martin

Jason Victor Serinus: Tell me about your background. Sheri Greenawald once said to me, “I snatched her out of bible school,” [Leah laughs], which is a little dramatic. Where do you come from, where were you headed, and where are you going?

Leah Crocetto: I actually was a student at Moody Bible Institute in 1998. I was only there for about a year, but I met my teacher there, Arnold Rawls. So I continued to study with him.

Back in 2007, when I did my Merola audition, I said that he was still my teacher, and he still is today. He still teaches at Moody, and builds his renowned career as a tenor all over the world. He’s not yet been to the Bay Area, but he just finished doing the lead role of Manrico in Trovatore up in Seattle. So he’s making his way.

JVS: The reason you went to Moody Bible School was…

LC: Vocal performance. They have a really excellent conservatory program there. It’s located right in the heart of Chicago’s Gold Coast.

JVS: And the reason you considered a conservatory in a bible school is…

LC: I went to private schools my whole life, kindergarten through senior year of high school, and it was just the natural path to go to a Bible-based school. Pretty much all the schools I attended were bible-based. And Moody did a really good job of recruiting me. The academic demands were a little bit too much; I couldn’t do everything they wanted me to do and study music the way I wanted to study music.

JVS: Was there a religious motivation for your attendance?

LC: Not necessarily. I went there specifically to work with the fantastic teacher I still work with. I check in with him still as much as I can. He’s the one that developed my technique. It’s important for us to have those go-to people that we can check in with and make sure we’re still doing everything.

I left after a year and a half, but stayed with my teacher. I commuted twice a month from Michigan to study with him. I also did competitions. Then I took a bunch of years off because I, like every young person, had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

I ended up moving to New York and singing jazz everywhere. I made my debut in Sam’s Club on Restaurant Row on West 46th St. I used to sing jazz and cabaret a lot while waiting tables at the Olive Garden in Times Square [laughs].

Opera was always my passion. But I lost sight of it. I thought that my moment had passed, that I was getting too old to sing opera. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it.

JVS: How old were you when you thought you were too old?

LC: [laughing] Twenty-five. All my friends who were singing opera were younger, and had already done all these programs and everything. I had done Utah Festival Opera program at age 20, but that was all I’d ever done besides winning some competitions in Chicago way back when.

After two years, my dad got sick, and I moved back to Michigan to help my mom out and live with the family. I got my degree in acting at Sienna Heights University in Adrian, MI. I don’t have a music degree.

JVS: Were your parents musicians? How did you get into opera?

LC: I come from a big Italian family. I’ve been listening to Luciano Pavarotti sing since I was in the womb.

JVS: Same here. It wasn’t Pavarotti because I’m older than you. But I know the feeling.

LC: My dad was the most conscious lover of music. He knew about every genre, and he kept us engulfed in every kind of genre imaginable, from Bob Dylan to the Rat Pack to Pavarotti to Earth, Wind & Fire. I grew up to all that stuff.

Pavarotti’s is the first voice I ever remember hearing. I used to pretend I was singing like him when I was four years old walking around the house. I would sing the Neapolitan song “Non ti socrdar di mem” and also sing “Nessun Dorma,” I loved opera from the time I as a little kid. I’ve never wanted to do anything else than sing opera.

JVS: That’s simple. How big was the big Italian family?

LC: There are four girls, and I’m the oldest. We’re as close as you can possibly get; we’re best friends, all of us.

My mom and my dad, on each of their sides, have four siblings. So we have cousins and great aunts. It’s crazy.

JVS: How was your dad about having four girls?

LC: He loved it. He loved it. He passed away two years ago, but he always was so proud of us and supportive of anything we wanted to do.

We always grew up with male animals, though, so we had some balance [laughing]. We had a dog, Samson, and our cat, Simon. But my dad loved being surrounded by women.

My mom’s wonderful. She’s coming out for the recital.

JVS: Uh oh. I’d better not say anything bad in the review.

LC: Just be honest. It’s okay. I can take it.

JVS: Is she a big music person?

LC: Yes. She plays the piano, organ, and clarinet. Both my parents sing in the church choir, and my dad was actually in a rock ‘n roll band. Even my one sister who’s in politics, who says she doesn’t do music, has a really great voice. We all four have sung together with my mom on the piano. I know it sounds like a Norman Rockwell Christmas card, but it wasn’t.

Photo by Jason Victor Serinus

JVS: What did it feel like to win first the José Iturbi, then become one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions?

LC: For José Iturbi, which was a week long, hundreds applied. There were maybe six finalists out of 26 who started the week. I never expected to win, but I did expect to do well because I prepare for competitions the way I’d train for a marathon. By the finals, I expected soprano Heidi Melton, who placed second, to win, and me to get second.

We sang three pieces in the first round, four in the second, and seven in the final. We had to sing art song in Russian (I did the same Liszt and Rachmaninoff I’ll sing for the Schwabacher Debut Recital), two Spanish pieces (by Obradors and Rodrigo), Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Porter’s “So in Love,” Fauré’s “Après un rêve,” and five opera arias. Mine were “Ach, ich liebte,” “D’amor sull’ali rosée,” “Depuis le jour,” “Do Not Utter a Word,” and Doretta’s aria from La Rondine.

José Iturbi couldn’t have been more different from the Met competition. There was less pressure, even though the prize money was greater. It was also in Los Angeles, which felt like a vacation. And it was really fun to perform, because I got to collaborate with pianist Martin Katz in the finals. We’ve formed quite a friendship, and we’re performing a recital together this summer for a Merola Signature event that will be auctioned off at a fundraiser this spring.

The Met was a whirlwind. I still feel like I haven’t yet woken up, due to the fact that I’ve been dreaming of winning the Met competition since fifth grade when I saw my first operas, Carmen (I really identified with Micaëla) and Tosca (I wanted to be Tosca). I never expected to win, especially since I’m 30, and they never pick older people.

It was really wonderful. We were there for 10 days. Everyone wanted us to be the best we could be, from the stage manager up to conductor Marco Armiliato, and they all helped us get there.

After several days of coaching, the first competition was March 7. We sang two arias with piano. I sang Verdi’s “Ernani, involami” from Ernani. Then conductor Marco Armiliato picked “Sombre forêt” from Rossini’s William Tell for me for the second piece.

After that, we worked with acting coach Peter McClintock and Marco Armiliato throughout the week to shape up our arias and get them ready for orchestra

At the March 14 finals, I sang “Ernani, involami” and “Chi bel sogno di Doretta.” The Met was completely full. They had me close Acts I and II, so the applause was very generous. The audience wouldn’t stop applauding in the middle of “Ernani, involami,” and I had to pause before the cabaletta. It was kind of surreal.

After I won, I was schmoozing with people who paid to come to the champagne reception. This cute little woman came up to me, shook my hand, and said, “My name is Marni, and I’m a great fan of yours.” When I realized it was Marni Nixon, I was taken aback. I also met Frederica von Stade and Marilyn Horne. They were both so gracious and lovely.

JVS: Since you won the competitions, have there been a few little knocks on the door?

LC: Yes. My career is taking off. I’m blessed and excited. I’ve got really great management, and they’re doing a great job of keeping me busy.

I’m singing Leonora [from Verdi’s Il Trovatore] at Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2011. That solidified maybe five weeks ago, after I won the Jose Iturbi Competition in LA. Wanna come to Bordeaux?

JVS: Of course. Now I have to convince the husband. What else is coming up?

LC: I can’t talk about specific houses just yet, but it looks as though I’ll be singing in Maometto Secondo (Rossini), Traviata, Trovatore, and the Verdi Requiem. There is also talk of Manon and Lucia and Puritani in the future at some very reputable houses in America and Europe. What we can talk about, in addition to Bordeaux, is Beethoven’s Ninth with the Philadelphia Orchestra in August in Dutoit’s final season. There will also be other Verdi Requiems (following my performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic). A lot of things are stirring and brewing.

JVS: You’ve lost a lot of weight since I initially saw you. Is that intentional?

LC: I now work out with trainer three days a week.Also, I have changed my diet habits slightly. The problem is that I wasn’t physically active since high school. when I played volleyball and softball on the high school teams and in the community leagues.

I’m making it a slow journey until I reach my ideal size and can keep the weight off. This will not just a circuit weight loss.

Photo by Jason Victor Serinus

JVS: The second time I heard you, you sang “Tacea la notte placida” from Trovatore at the SF Opera season announcement press conference. I was ecstatic. Are people seeing you as a Verdi soprano?

LC: They are. I am completely an Italian soprano who will sing the dramatic bel canto repertoire such as Guillaume Tell, Maometto II, and other late Rossini stuff, Lucia – that kind of bel canto repertoire – and the early Verdi stuff that I’m singing now. Eventually I would love to move into Elisabetta in Don Carlo. I’d want to sing Ballo. I would love to sing a Butterfly, and other Puccini repertoire in years.

JVS: Why in years?

LC: I believe that I should stay as light and as coloratura as I can, until I can’t sing that way anymore. Right I have a high extension, and my voice is pretty flexible. So I want don’t want to weigh it down with heavier roles. I keep my voice balanced by singing “Regnava nel silenzio” from Lucia, “Qui la voce” from Puritani, and all such roles.

Right now, my audition repertoire is anywhere from “Ach, ich liebte” from Abduction from the Seraglio…

JVS: That aria is extremely difficult. When Joan Sutherland was asked if she knew Lilli Lehmann’s acoustic recording, which she made in her late ‘50s, she replied with something like, “Do I know it? It haunts me in my sleep!”

LC: [laughing] That sounds about right. It’s the hardest aria I’ve ever sung. But it’s right there on the list. The “Ernani, involami” which I sang at the Met, is also there.

I do some French repertoire too, which is fun. I’m covering Pat Racette this season in Faust. And the French does feel nice in the voice.

As far as where I’m going, I would say pretty much the Verdi repertoire with some other bel canto stuff in there.

JVS: Do you have a high E-flat?

LC: Yes!

JVS: Pity me, I’ve still to hear it. So you don’t have to take the lower notes?

LC: Oh, no, no. Never! NEVER!

JVS: Some very respectable sopranos have.

LC: Speaking of E-flats, I’m actually working on Traviata now, and there’s an E-flat at the end of “Sempre libera.” I don’t take the low note.

JVS: I must burn you a CD of Magda Olivero’s famous laugh that launches the cabaletta, “Sempre libera.” It’s pretty fabulous.

There are lots of stories of singers who burn themselves out because they sing repertoire that’s too heavy. But what you’re saying is that this falls naturally in your voice.

LC: Absolutely. That’s why I’m not yet taking Don Carlo, Ballo, or things of that weight. My voice is pretty flexible, and I don’t want to weigh it down. I keep it balanced by singing “Regnava el silencio,” Puritani and “Qui la voce.”

JVS: I must get you you Olimpia Boronat’s aria recordings from Puritani and Sonnambula.

Older singers took lots of liberties. Are you running into conductors who insist on strict time until you slow down at the end of the phrase where it’s marked rit., or are they letting you have your way?

LC: They’re pretty much letting me have my way. When I worked with Riccardo Muti in the Verdi Requiem, he was very to the book, but it was his book, the latest Chicago Press Critical Edition that he put out, that we were using. But he’s also known for being strict to what Verdi has written.

To be honest, my liberties aren’t as liberal as some sopranos. I like to keep with tradition, and I’m very in tune to what tradition is, but I still like to make the performance my own.

JVS: Do we know that Verdi didn’t want anyone to slow down or speed up, and that he expected everyone to sing strict time?

LC: I can’t speak to that. I just know what feels good to me.

So far, so good. The conductors and I have either found ourselves on the same page or been able to find a happy medium. It’s been great.

Last year I had the opportunity to learn the Pergolesi Stabat Mater and perform it with Nicola Luisotti and the orchestra here. I feel that learning that piece broadened my horizons so much. It’s a piece I never thought I’d sing. I thought my voice would be confined, and it would be too hard to box the voice in to that repertoire, when in reality it taught me so much discipline, and showed me that there are so many more facets to my voice than I ever thought there were. I feel, because of that, I’ve learned how to take respectful liberties with other repertoire.

I did a lot of early music last year. I even did the Messiah. Last year was a learning year.

JVS: What are you singing in your forthcoming recital?

LC: I’m singing six Bellini songs, “Malenconia, vane rose fortunate” – that set of six Ariettas. I’m singing the four Rachmaninoff songs from Op. 21, including “How Fair the Spot” and “Lilacs;” and the Petrachs by Liszt. It may be moved, but I think I’m singing a song cycle by Gregory Peebles, who sings with Chanticleer. It’s called The Humanities. I’ll hopefully do it some justice. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s really nice.

It’s about three different men in three different periods of their lives, not necessarily in terms of age, but more like everyday things. One is called “From Shamus,” and it’s about opening your home to someone and being hospitable. Another is “About Cory,” the third “About Peri,” or Pericles. It’s about what happens on the day of the great volcano, Mount Vesuvius. It’s all his ow poetry, and it’s fantastic.

I’m also doing four Barber songs: “The Shore on the Shining Night,” “A Nun Takes a Veil,” “Nocturne,” and “Songs from Old” or Songs from the Old. Then I do three Obradors songs, including “Del caballo mas util.” I’m closing with six Gershwin and Porter songs.

JVS: Since you used to sing jazz, may I assume that you’re not going to sound like you’re slumming?

LC: I hope I don’t. That’s what I used to do for a living.

JVS: Who are your models in terms of sopranos?

LC: Caballé of course. She’s kind of what I want to be when I grow up.

JVS: But how can you be Caballé? Can anyone else float those exquisite, long-held pianissimi on one breath?

LC: I’m going to try. That’s the goal. If we don’t set our goals, we won’t be able to even halfway reach them. So I’m setting the bar up there. And Leontyne Price of course. Oh gosh. And Joan Sutherland. Those are my three girls right there.

JVS: Wow. Those are three very different girls.

LC: And of course Callas. Of course Callas.

JVS: Without the drama, I hope.

LC: Of course without the drama. But you can hear the pain and the drama in the voice in the role she’s singing without even seeing her performing. That’s what’s so incredible about her. It might not have been the most beautiful voice in the world, but it was by far the most dramatic. I don’t mean that in the fach sense, but in the inherent sound. You could just feel what she was feeling.

JVS: Do you know Muzio?

LC: No. Oh wait. I do have some Muzio, on a great sopranos CD along with Ponselle.

JVS: If you want to know where Callas got some of her interpretations, listen to Muzio.

People no longer hear art song or even opera on the radio or TV. How do we get this music to younger people? What do we say to people to encourage them to come here this music in foreign languages?

LC: This is something I’ve thought about a lot. Art songs were the pop songs of their day. Liszt, Schubert, Schumann, all those songs. We forget that as artists performing it.

In the movie The Young Victoria, the young Victoria says that her favorite music is Bellini, while her suitor’s favorite music is Schubert. So they have this long talk about what makes one better than the other. Bellini was kind of breaking the mold of German lieder. I feel if we can just get across to people my age or younger – the common man who doesn’t know art song as we know it – that it’s the pop music of their day… if our collaborators and accompanists and teachers wouldn’t be so boxed in with the music, and realize that because it’s an art song, it is open to interpretation. I feel if they were to realize that it’s not going to be the same every time they hear it, it will be exciting.

Art song is new to me, since I didn’t go to Conservatory, and was only at Moody for one year. Preparing this recital has been completely new to me. I had loved art song, but I had never really delved into it before. It’s a completely new experience for me.

In my research, I’m discovering all these amazing points. As I said, this was the pop music of its day. Everybody listened to it, and everybody who sang it performed it differently.

It’s okay if you make this eighth note a dotted eighth note, or if you syncopate this rhythm instead of keeping it exactly in the form that’s on the page. It’s okay, because it’s interpretation.

JVS: Listen to what Cecilia did at an early age. It’s brilliant, and so alive.

LC: Exactly. As for the Liszt songs, of the only two women I’ve heard who have recorded them, Renata Scotto’s interpretation is just divine. It’s so beautiful.

JVS: She made her debut at a very young age.

LC: Yah. She is one of the best interpreters of song and of a role. YouTube her singing Suor Angelica, and it will kill you. Oh my gosh. Plus, Suor Angelica is one of those pieces that make you want to sob. Even singing my small part in it for the SFO production was so special.

JVS: Can you float the last note the way Caballé did, hold it on and on?

LC: [Laughing] Well, do I be modest about it, and say “I hope I can,” or do I say, “Pianissimo notes are my specialty”? That’s the voice I love to sing in, so I strive to be able to do it.

JVS: That’s not being immodest. It’s just saying the truth. We have to know who we are.

What was it like singing the “Star Spangled Banner” for the Giants in AT&T Park?

LC: It was fun. In high school and college, I used to do it for basketball games. I’d never done it outside. It was fantastic. It wasn’t intimidating; it was fun. I was so used to singing it in a lower key than I would sing it now that I started it in my old key. That would have been the key to start in if I had been doing a jazz version and belting out some riffs. It wasn’t the right key to present San Francisco Opera. But I started in the old key, and ended up throwing an extra high note in there and belted a little bit. It’s on YouTube- check it out.

Excerpts from this review previously appeared at sfcv.org, the website of San Francisco Classical Voice.