By Mark Thomas Ketterson
Nadine Sierra first came to my attention some years ago while researching an article about singer education for Opera News. At the time, she was an apprentice in the Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera. In conversations with various educators and administrators, Sierra’s name kept popping up as an example of an aspiring singer with the rare combination of qualities to succeed in classical music. Those were prescient impressions. In the few years since, the delectable Sierra’s luminescent soprano voice has conquered the Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, Berlin State Opera, and that pinnacle of vocal accomplishment, Milan’s La Scala, among many others.
Born in Fort Lauderdale, Sierra began vocal study at the age of 6. At 10, her mother brought home a library VHS of a Met production of Puccini’s La bohème, and Sierra’s destiny was sealed. “She never returned that VHS, because I was constantly watching it,” she recalls. “I told her, this is what I wanted to do.” Sierra eventually attended the Mannes College of Music and continued to study with César Ulloa, her lifelong vocal mentor. At 15 she sang the famous aria “O mio babbino caro” on NPR, and soon thereafter became the youngest vocalist ever to win both the Marilyn Horne Foundation Vocal Competition and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
Sierra’s vocal models are exceptionally well chosen. Mirella Freni’s “beautiful and effortless” singing, she says, “inspires me, because in listening to her I grasped what it was to sing healthily.” Callas is another favorite, as “I wanted to learn about coloring the voice, so even if somebody didn’t understand Italian they would know what the singer was trying to convey emotionally.” As Sierra is now most comfortable in the bel canto repertory, she finds Mariella Devia “the absolute goddess” and often warms up to a recording of Devia’s singing, as it helps her align herself technically. “Maybe that’s just something I have convinced myself of, but I really do feel a difference. There’s a method to this madness.” Sierra’s preferred assignments at present are Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto and the tragic title character of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, but in her “15-year plan,” she hopes to eventually sing the role that first sparked her passion—Mimì in La bohème.
Having been a participant in Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute in 2012, Sierra is delighted to return to the festival on August 8 as a principal artist. “It feels fantastic, especially with Matthew Polenzani and Maestro Levine involved,” she enthuses. “We just did Idomeneo together at the Met!” The singers, along with bass John Relyea, are joining with Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus for Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. [Threads of Idomeneo run deep: Levine’s 1996 recording of the opera featured Heidi Grant Murphy in the same role as Sierra (Ilia), and the same year that Sierra was at RSMI, Heidi and her husband, Kevin Murphy, joined the faculty of the festival’s conservatory, with Kevin as director of the Program for Singers.]
When she isn’t singing, Sierra loves film and enjoys expressing her creativity through fashion. She also adores traveling; “Thank God!” she laughs. “Otherwise I’d be totally screwed!” Constant, wide-ranging travel is a proviso of artistic existence, of course, and she has taken her swift career rise in stride. “In the beginning, it felt overwhelming,” she admits. “But I realized it’s just singing. I’m giving pleasure to people. I’m not performing heart surgery. I’m doing what I love to do and what I feel I was put on the earth to do. I want to enjoy it. It doesn’t matter if I’m singing at Kentucky Opera, or Paris Opera, or the Met. It brings me joy, because the reactions of people are the same as I had when I was 10.
“I am very normal,” Sierra muses, “I see opera through the eyes of audience members, because I see the art form with the same wonder they do. I just want to share that. I never, ever wanted to reach for fame or stardom. What interests me is serving the music as best I can, and giving the audience something to take with them. That is my goal, and that will always be my goal. Forever.”
Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.