Nadine Sierra is on a mission to redefine classical arts for younger generations.
At only 30-years-old, the Florida-raised soprano is one of the youngest stars in opera today. Amongst her vast accolades, she won the Richard Tucker Award in 2017 and took home the prestigious 2018 Beverly Sills Artist Award by the Metropolitan Opera. A fixture at some of the top opera houses across the globe, Sierra made her house debut at the revered Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2016. Her celebrated performance on opening night broke a tradition dating back to Toscanini when the infamously harsh La Scala audience prompted her for an encore.
On August 24, Sierra will release her debut solo album, There’s A Place For Us. Named after a lyric in Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” the gorgeous record highlights the singer’s boldest effort to date: making opera and classical musical exciting for and accessible to Millennials, Generation Z, and beyond.
Ahead of one of her appearances at this summer’s Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, I sat down with Sierra to talk about her upcoming album, the importance of keeping classical arts alive, how she uses social media as a tool to converse with younger fans, her career highlights thus far, and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: Why is There’s A Place For Us the perfect introduction of you as a solo artist?
NADINE SIERRA: I always knew that on my first album, I didn’t want to just create something that was like, “here are 10 arias that I’ve done in my life and here’s a pretty picture of me on the cover and that’s it!”
Anything that I do, anything that I produce – if it’s an album, a concert or a recital – I have control over, let’s say. So I always wanted the album to be a project that was more about how being an artist can affect a bigger message. If there’s something that’s happening in another person’s life or in society or the community, I try to address that through art. All over the world, music is something that has been used as a form of protest or as a thing catering to a more powerful message than just itself alone.
There’s a Place for Us is an album that I wanted to create to, yes, show myself as an artist. But with the things that we’ve been presented with in today’s world, especially in this country – with certain messages being sent out into people’s ears – I wanted to just give people who listen to it a little bit of hope. I wanted them to know that if they do feel neglected by certain individuals, or if they feel shunned and ashamed by certain people who have great responsibilities and leadership in this world, that they’re not alone.
I too understand what it is to be singled out. I come from an immigrant mother. My mother’s from Lisbon and my father’s side of the family also came from elsewhere. As we all did. My grandfather basically swam here from Puerto Rico. So I just wanted to send out a message that no matter what the dilemmas we’re facing today are, there will always be, at the end of the day, a place for everybody.
Leonard Bernstein was an advocate for that as well. He was actually a person, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, who was not liked politically. He was a social activist who used pieces of music to talk about those things. He wanted to make people actually discuss those issues after listening to his music and he wasn’t afraid of that. That’s how I want to be as an artist. I don’t just want to show a certain kind of surface façade. I want to show everything else behind that. Because to me, it means something and I’d rather be that way than the opposite.
That’s my big rant about what There’s a Place for Us – what it really means, why I created it and what it was inspired from.
I imagine that curating the repertoire list for your debut solo record is a daunting task. How did you decide what songs went onto the album? Is there a specific narrative you’re crafting by compiling these pieces together?
I got together with two teams because I’m on two labels: DG and Universal. DG comes from Berlin and Universal is in New York. When we were thinking of the list together, I told them that I would really like Brazilian or Portuguese songs to be in the mix. I’m very proud of my heritage. My mother is and speaks Portuguese and her influence on me as both a person and an artist are very big. She was the one who introduced me to opera in the first place. So I definitely wanted to show that side of myself along with the American side of myself.
Then I thought about which American composers I could highlight to make sense with that theme. Leonard Bernstein was a big one – not just because of his beautiful music, but also because he was an activist for humanitarianism. He was a man who fought for many different things in his lifetime. Now that Bernstein has passed away, there are stories of him actually being a gay man and hiding that. Ricky Ian Gordon was also a gay man. They understood what it is to feel outcast or banned from society as Americans.
I added in Stravinsky because he was a man who immigrated into America later into his life, lived in LA, and died in New York. He was influenced by American culture and American history, only to become part of American history in the 20th century.
Stephen Foster is another very big one because the great American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne was a very big influence in my life. I first was introduced to Marilyn Horne through Stephen Foster because I was watching her on YouTube singing Stephen Foster songs and fell in love with her (and ended up meeting her later!).
I was influenced by the works of people who were from other parts of the world but came into the US. I was also influenced by American composers that were directly affected by US culture and wanted to be more outspoken through their music. Then of course, I incorporated my mother’s background to highlight: what is it to be an American? What does that actually mean?
To me, to be American is to be worldly. Because we are! We’re not just Americans. We’re from all walks of life. So the repertoire list came together as a way of including everybody. I wanted to make sure that nobody would feel left out.
I also didn’t want to exclude our generation and the generations that are coming in now by creating an only heavily opera based album, should they not know anything about opera. I want it to be an introduction to those kinds of people who have never really focused on or listened to opera. I want it to be sort of an easy listen, you know? Highlighting Lenny was a way of doing that because he is probably the most well-known American opera/classical composer for these generations. That was also my strategy in organizing the rep list.
Why do you think that is? Why is it that people in our generation – and young folks in general – don’t gravitate to opera the same way that an older demographic does? What do you think can be done to end the stigma that opera isn’t accessible to audiences our age?
The stigma of what it is to be an opera singer or to listen to opera/classical music has remained the same for years. It is that you have to be older. You have to be white. You have to be rich. You just have to be of a completely different society – and more so an elite society.
But this is not the case! I think it’s very hard to break that stigma and I think it will take decades to do so. This stigma has been associated with this art form for so long.
I have been trying to break it through social media by showing a little bit more about my life. I like to show the actual real side of being an opera singer. It’s not just about the glamour. There’s another side of it too – a side that is not glamorous. My hope is to make the art form of opera a bit more human and a bit more relatable.
I was actually talking to a woman in Europe recently and she said, “Yes, but that’s what people wantto see!” But of course, she was older, wealthy, and white. She told me that people want to see a superstar with the Chanel bag and fancy gowns. I said to her, “I think you’ve just hit my point. You’re wrong. Maybe your generation wants to see that, but I don’t think my generation wants to see that.”
I think we’ve come to a point where we’re wanting to see people, especially artists that we look up to, as actually more normal than their art forms might suggest. We want to see that they go through the struggles that people in everyday life go through as well.
For me, that means breaking the social stigma of the classical arts. I want to show people that it is relatable and that you don’t have to be of a certain class or a certain ethnicity to become a part of or to enjoy it.
I get hundreds of messages a day on Instagram and I always try to make it my purpose to answer everybody. It’s important to show people that yes, there is that side that’s really great and lovely, but then there’s the other side of putting in a lot of hard work and going through a lot of struggles and sacrifices. It’s presenting yourself as a real person. Hopefully, that helps introduce younger people to classical music in a way that’s not scary.
It’s interesting when people feel ignorant about something. On one side, they feel more fascinated by it and they want to learn more about it. But then you have the other side where people feel very insecure about not knowing more, so they avoid it at all costs. Maybe psychologically, they think they’re not worthy of looking into it because they don’t belong in a certain group. That’s something I would like to break entirely. I really don’t find that that applies to today’s classical music world. Maybe it used to, but I’m definitely tired of that.
In a few weeks, you’ll be performing at the Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood (which will be broadcast later this year on PBS). As someone who has appeared on the Tanglewood stage a few times already, what is it in your opinion that makes this iconic venue so special? And what are some of your favorite spots to visit in the Berkshires when you’re here?
Tanglewood has a lot of history behind it with all of the great musicians who have catered to its legacy. They built it up to what it is today. It’s so amazing to think about when that started, who it started with, how it’s evolved, and how now our generation is coming into it and still continuing that legacy.
The classical music world is struggling, so to keep up music festivals like this – where you have people’s children and grandchildren coming – is so important to keep that legacy and interest of the classical arts alive.
For me, participating in these kinds of music festivals is not just an honor because of their histories (and then becoming part of that in a way), but it’s also a way of giving back to the community as much as possible so that the classical arts can continue.
As far as favorite spots in the Berkshires – I’ve only been here twice before, but my hot spot because I love farmer’s markets and organic stuff is Guido’s. I’m a city girl and it reminds me a little bit of Whole Foods. I love going there.
I also like just how everything here in Lenox is very walkable. It has that small town charm to it. It seems like everybody knows and supports each other. I recently walked into a coffee shop where I bumped into a musician and she was asking me a few questions about Tanglewood and what I think it is to be a musician. I could just feel from her that this is what this community is about. I really like that. That’s something that I don’t see very often. In the city, you find people are more distant. Whereas here, everybody’s very supportive and its more communal. I love that.
As a performer, do you prefer to be on stage playing a character or singing as a solo artist?
I think I prefer to sing as a solo artist. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I don’t like performing in operas. I love that! However, I think performing as a solo artist just gives me the chance to showcase a little bit more of my own personal story that hopefully a few people watching or listening can relate to.
My end goal of being a singer is not about becoming famous, making money, or having a glamorous life. It’s about impacting people, especially young people – even if they don’t sing or if being a classical musician is not in their futures. I just want to be a relatable person so that people may want to explore the art form I’m presenting a little bit further. That’s my hope.
Sometimes I even speak in my recitals and try to share stories that people can get into, because I do find that sometimes solo recitals or concerts can feel very stiff. I like breaking that because then it’s more intimate. I’m always looking for a sense of community. I really love the feeling of bringing people into my community and then feeling us as a collective orbit. Standing as a soloist gives me more chances to do that than being a character does.
As an opera singer, you’re tasked with singing in many foreign languages. How did being raised in Florida by non-musical parents influence and encourage your understanding and love of language?
Well, my mother speaks French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, English and a little bit of German. So I was very lucky when I was growing up, especially when I got into opera. She introduced me to opera when I was 10. When I was learning Italian songs or opera arias by Mozart, my mother was always my language coach. We would slowly go through all of the languages together. Even today, if I have a question about French, or Portuguese especially, I always go to my mother. She’s the first person I ask. She’s very good at that. My mother was a banker all of her life, but I always told her that she could be a linguist because she is very, very talented at it. She was the one who instilled that in me.
Interestingly enough, my high school (the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts) offered Italian classes. Usually in Florida, Spanish is the language that is taught. But I did get to study Italian for those four years of high school. Plus, I had my mother at home and then I also went to Italy after college and studied a little bit there. So Italian has been very much a part of my life besides just my opera life.
I do think it’s incredibly important for young musicians to learn languages – especially if you want to, for example, play in various orchestras across Europe. You definitely do come across conductors who don’t speak English. They speak French, Italian, or German, and it’s a very useful tool to have I think.
You mentioned that your mother introduced you to opera. What was the first opera that you saw or heard that made you dream of turning your passion for this art form into a profession?
It was Puccini’s La bohème, which I know is very cliché to say. My mother introduced it to me on a VHS tape that she got from the library in Fort Lauderdale, where I was born. We never returned this VHS. We still have it! We even had to have it reconstructed because I had broken it at some point from watching it too much.
When I saw that, I couldn’t get over it. It impacted my very young life in a very big way. After seeing that, I just knew I had to go for it. I knew I had to become an opera singer somehow.
That VHS came from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It was the Zeffirelli production that they still do today. It was the opening of that production with José Carreras and Teresa Stratas. Zeffirelli himself directed it and was very heavily involved with each of the singers. That’s something you can absolutely see. Everybody’s so in tune with not only their own characters, but how their characters relate to each other.
People still have this idea that opera singers have no idea how to act or that opera is boring. But in this production, you could really see how the characters and the music came together to create an all-encompassing powerful performance for the viewer. And I wasdefinitely an avid viewer of this thing.
I mean, still today when I watch it, I can’t help but become overwhelmed by it. It’s my childhood! It’s everything that I then devoted myself to as a kid. Because from there I took lessons every week, I studied all the time, I practiced an hour every day and I was very disciplined. I’m so happy I did that because it made me into the artist that I am now.
Speaking of the Met, next year you’ll be returning there to reprise your acclaimed performance as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto. What is it about this specific role and opera that keeps bringing you back to revisit it?
I started learning Gilda when I was 18. These kinds of roles – Gilda, Lucia, Susanna – I started learning little bits of them when I was quite young. They were either used in my warm ups from my teachers or used in order to develop my technique a little bit further. I learned Gilda’s famous aria “Caro nome” first. Then, I got to finally do the role in Florida when I was 23. She’s actually grown a lot on me since then. When I was 23, I only had a certain sense of what this opera was about because I was younger. I hadn’t experienced life in the way that I’ve experienced it now that I’m 30.
The relationship between Gilda and her father is very interesting. I understand this relationship because my father was very protective when I was young. A little bit too protective. I understand what it’s like to be of a certain age, wanting a certain thing and something or someone is holding you back. Even if they’re holding you back for the very good reason that they know you’re going to make a mistake if you’re set free. But that is what life is about!
That’s what Rigoletto is about for me. It shows people that the decisions we make in life, whether they are good or bad, can cater to goodness. I like to believe that the good parts of life will always win at the end of the day.
People say that Gilda is stupid because of the decisions she makes, like having herself be killed for the Duke. But I always remind people that this decision comes from her education of being religious. She grew up in a convent. She didn’t grow up with her father. She grew up with the teachings of Jesus and one of them is that you have to forgive.
She finds out that her father has paid off Sparafucile to kill the Duke. So not only has the Duke sinned, but her father is also about to fulfill a sin. Gilda makes her decision in order to save her father to watch over him in heaven. She wants him to forgive the Duke. Even though her decision is so heartbreaking, she believes that what she puts herself through is for a good result.
That is the point of it and why I love this opera so much. There’s always a lesson at the end. You always learn something. Even though it’s melodramatic and it can be a little exaggerated, it’s exaggerated to hit a specific point that you’ll never forget. To me, that’s the best thing about opera. It can become unforgettable, and I think the music is what does this. As humans, we associate so much emotion through music, especially in opera. That’s why it can have such a big impact on people.
Rigoletto is one of those very impactful stories that hopefully teaches people a lesson. Every time I perform Gilda, I try to learn from her ideas of forgiveness and what purity can bring to a person’s life. She inspires me to seek purity. She teaches me a lot. Even though she’s so young and so naïve, she’s very wise at the end of it all.
At this point in your career, what types of characters are you most attracted to when selecting your next roles?
I’m very attracted to roles of women whose experiences of being oppressed and used are highlighted in the story by the composer. Those characters can be reminders for people watching that these kinds of issues still exist today.
The oppression of women is not just an idea from the past. Because of that, we should be aware and more sensitive to those things that affect people on a daily basis. I like playing these women because I hope that I am able to bring awareness to these issues. I don’t want people to forget them.
But I also like playing women who have a bit more control over their destinies in opera because they’re rare to find. Don Pasquale’s Norina is one of them. I just sang her in Paris. I love this character because she’s kind of like the modern day woman. She takes control of everything around her. She even says, “What is this old man thinking to marry a young woman and control her?” That’s not how life should be. If you’re going to be in a partnership, it should be about supporting each other. I love the outcome of that story. I find it very fun.
So on one hand, I like to play women who are oppressed to send out a message. And on the other hand, I like to play women who already feel very empowered. That’s so rare to find in opera, which is understandable since most operas was written so long ago. It was a completely different mentality then.
You’ve performed at some of the most famous opera houses all around the world – including La Scala, the Paris Opera, and the Berlin State Opera. Do you have a favorite place to perform?
I do! You just can’t beat the Met. I’ll tell you what it feels like because it’s not just about the amazing acoustics – but it’s the way the theater is constructed. It’s such a big theater.
The stage is so far away from the audience because you have the orchestra pit separating the two. You stand on the stage and when you look out, it’s completely black. You really can’t make out a single face yet you can feel the energy of people being there watching and listening to you. It’s fascinating.
So you have this buzz – that at least is what it feels like to me – this buzz of energy throughout the room where you can’t make out anything but this infinite blackness and then the music being sent out into that space. It almost feels like you’re singing in space. It’s kind of a creepy feeling in the beginning and it can be intimidating. But once you get used to it, I think it’s a musician’s paradise. It makes you feel like you can do anything.
I would say my greatest memory in a place that I’ve performed was La Scala. That felt like I was being transported into a completely different world. It was like I traveled back in time to when opera was something that it’s not today. And I was kind of right when I had that feeling because I met with the people afterwards. They all came to the backstage area and I spoke with a few of them. They were all telling their stories of when they went to La Scala when they were however old, which year, who they saw, how long they’ve been coming to the theater and how much love and devotion they’ve put into that theater. That was something that I could truly, truly feel at La Scala.
It was actually a scary experience, because I was the only foreign singer in the cast. I was the only American. Everybody else was Italian, singing an Italian opera by Verdi (Rigoletto), who’s like the La Scala god. Having that in my head plus the fact that it was my debut there was so intimidating. The La Scala audience is known for being brutal and not being scared to boo you if they don’t like you. Even still today. They are very intense.
I remember when I was singing “Caro nome,” you couldn’t hear a sound. You couldn’t hear sneezing or coughing or anything like that. It was like you could feel the tiger in the cage and maybe someone was going to let the tiger out. Time was just very still. Everybody was waiting to see, “is she going to mess it up? Is she not?” Finally, when I was done, I felt like they accepted me because they applauded rather than booed me off stage. It’s a very different place to sing opera. If you’re accepted there, you’ve done something right. It is an accomplishment that feels very gratifying when that happens. But getting there is very, very scary.
What would you consider the crowning achievement in your career thus far?
For sure, singing at La Scala. My colleague who I performed with, Leo Nucci, was 73 and is still today singing Italian opera. So for me in my twenties, coming from a completely different generation and a different world of opera, almost felt like I was a child learning from a great master. He taught me a lot in those moments.
It wasn’t just an accomplishment in the sense that people liked or accepted me. It was an accomplishment because I learned something. I learned something so valuable from somebody that I looked up to and I still look up to. I learned something that I felt could cater to my overall purpose of why I’m an opera singer and what I want to give to the art form too. I think that’s probably the biggest accomplishment: the feeling that I can do something for opera itself for my generation.
You’ve also toured with Andrea Bocelli and will be embarking on the road with him again later this year. What have been the highlights of performing alongside such a crossover legend and what’s the best advice he’s ever given you?
He’s so amazing. He’s someone who’s been in the ball game for a while. I don’t think people realize this, but he’s nearly 60 now and he’s still putting on shows where like 15,000 people show up and it’s totally sold out! He’s trying to introduce opera, even though it’s in his crossover kind of way, to young people and to people in general. He does such a brilliant job at that. From my experiences with him, the audiences overall were very receptive and very appreciative of his opera side, which he actually starts most of his programs with. I love that. It shows where his heart belongs and it does belong in opera, rather than the crossover kind of repertoire that he does. Witnessing that was really fascinating.
I’ve also loved learning from him. Even with all of that fame and all of that attention that he’s accomplished, he’s remained so down to earth and just completely normal. He has his kids. His wife is with him constantly. The feeling of family and community is very important to him, which is very important to me too. I understand it well.
The best advice he gave me? To be humble and not to get too egocentric about what you can accomplish as an artist. It should humble you instead because it means giving something really beautiful to the people who are participating in it. I think that will always be my mission in life as an artist. He taught me never to get caught up in what I think is the fake side of it all. Because fame and those kinds of things can be so easily taken from you. They’re not tangible. I’ve learned a lot from my experiences with him.
On a more technical note, how do you keep your voice protected when illness or allergies strike?
That’s always a problem with singers! I am lucky to have people in my life who I really trust. Two of my instructors, my voice teacher and voice coach, have each been in my life for 16 years. If I ever have a problem, I call either one to tell them what’s going on and to ask for advice. I still have lessons with them both.
I’m also very good at canceling things if I don’t find they are good for me. I’m thankfully not scared to cancel if I have to. I think this is a result of the advice from my teachers over the years who always said not to be scared to say “no.” I think that’s how young singers, or singers in general, can preserve their voices very well. Sometimes companies do take that to heart and are offended by it. And maybe they won’t hire you for a few seasons – but if you keep showing the results from saying “no,” by singing well consistently, people kind of don’t have a choice but to then hire you again. They see that you’re reliable. They see that you are a serious artist and will do everything you can to say “yes” and to preserve the voice for a bigger reason: to serve the music as best as you possibly can.
There’s a lot of integrity in that. So I’ve never been afraid of that. If opera or classical music are going to be around for a few more decades, I would love to be a part of that. And the way that I can be a part of that is by paying attention and making sure that I’m always taking care of myself and my voice. I feel like it’s just worth it in the end.
So that’s what I do. No more than that. I’m not the kind of person where I have to wear a scarf all the time or am constantly sipping tea or taking 10 medications at once. I try not to get too obsessive. Because then I think I would just stop doing it, you know? It would be too stressful.
I just try to make singing opera something that I do, not something that I am.
Originally published on PopBytes