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Rising opera star Madison Leonard returns home for ‘Marriage of Figaro’

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 21, 2018

Madison Leonard, a rising opera star, will perform in the Inland Northwest Opera's production of "The Marriage of Figaro." (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Madison Leonard, a rising opera star, will perform in the Inland Northwest Opera's production of "The Marriage of Figaro." (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Tonight at the Fox Theater, the Inland Northwest Opera opens Mozart’s comedic masterpiece “The Marriage of Figaro.” The production features rising star soprano Madison Leonard in the role of the clever, show-stealing maid, Figaro’s bride-to-be, Susanna.

“My character Susanna is the maid to the countess of the house. She’s kind of the center of the plot and I don’t just say that because she’s my character,” Leonard said. “Susanna kind of has her hand in all sorts of mischief during the day. She’s helping other people to plot and she herself has all these clever little tricks and snares for other characters; she smooths over difficulties. She’s just kind of in the middle of this one crazy day.”

The show, which Mozart alternately named “One Crazy Day,” centers around Figaro (Gabriel Preisser) and Susanna’s ridiculously drawn out attempt to marry and, their employer, Count Almaviva’s (Morgan Smith) thinly veiled attempt to prevent them from doing so. Through marital disputes, flirting, adolescent embarrassments, courtesy of the young page, Cherubino (Olivia Vote), money problems and all sorts of other obstacles, Figaro, Susanna and the count’s undeservedly forgiving wife (Inna Dukach) finally manage to save the day and appropriately end the comedy in universal celebration.

Leonard, raised in Hayden, is a 2018 Grand Finals winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which is by no means a small feat in the opera world.

“It was my third year attempting to get to the final round,” said Leonard. “The semi-finals (were) in New York and on the stage of the Met, just with a piano. It wasn’t open to the public so it was mainly about 200 industry professionals sitting up in the balcony … I can honestly say I’ve never been more nervous in my life. It was just a huge weight, just this massive expectation, experience, opportunity wrapped into one.”

Excitement continued to grow for Leonard as the finals loomed.

“We got to spend the week in New York taking lessons and coaching with this amazing conductor (Bertrand de Billy), seeing shows at the Met. Honestly just having a little backstage pass and getting to be back there was kind of a dream come true,” she continued. “Then of course the experience of singing on that stage with the Met Opera Orchestra was something I’ll never forget.”

Reliving a little of that final performance, Leonard continued:

“There was this moment before I sang the final cadenza in “Caro Nome” and it was silent. You know the orchestra’s waiting on me – I almost laughed. In this moment of silence I almost laughed and cried because my emotions were just so high. I was so grateful to be there and I was just kind of freaking out that that world class orchestra was waiting on me and my breath. It was mind blowing.”

Long before Leonard made her way to competing on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, she was a young audience member.

“For a field trip sometime in late elementary school … I saw the Coeur d’Alene Opera (now Inland Northwest Opera) production of ‘Madame Butterfly.’ I remember being astounded that they weren’t using microphones,” Leonard said.

With the exception of a few more recent works and some outdoor concerts, opera and other works performed with its technique are meant to be heard without amplification. In other words, where today’s great Broadway stars and other popular artists will have the benefit of microphones, classical singers are totally responsible for making their voices carry over orchestras and through concert halls.

It can take years of study and years of training before even the greatest stars acquire the necessary technical mastery and interpretive skill.

Leonard had had experience with musicals before and during high school but only began studying classical voice after a professor at Pepperdine University encouraged her to pursue it. Since then, she’s moved quickly through the ring, so to speak, completing her Master of Music degree at Northwestern and participating in several selective young artist programs.

“I got to do ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ with (Inland Northwest Opera) a couple years ago. That was my first professional role outside of grad school,” Leonard said. “The company has a special place in my heart. It was my introduction to the art form so I owe them a lot.”

In addition to singing talent and acting skill, opera singers have to learn to cope with stage fright and the kind of anxiety that comes along with performing in front of crowds, especially on the Met stage.

“I think you just get used to the nervousness. I can’t say that it’s ever gone away for me … I was so nervous during that audition on that stage that I couldn’t feel my hands or feet,” Leonard said. “Remember that the audience” – or judging panel – “wants you to do well. No one is rooting for you to fail. That’s what I remind myself of when I’m feeling nervous.”

Leonard, who returned to the Inland Northwest after working in Switzerland, is becoming accustomed to a mobile lifestyle. “Traveling is definitely a big part of the job, kind of that ‘Catch 22’ sign of being successful is that you’re not home very often,” she said. “It’s pretty typical to be traveling several times a year.”

Depending on the kind of gig, a singer could be called for rehearsal anywhere from two days to two months before performances even begin.

“Opera obviously requires more rehearsal time,” said Leonard.

For a little more than three weeks now, Leonard and the other INO performers have been rehearsing daily to prepare for tonight’s opening performance.

“I love this opera. It’s one of my favorites. It’s got gorgeous music while also being comedic, which is rare. Sometimes you have to just have one or the other. I think audiences are going to love it,” said Leonard. “If you’ve never seen an opera, this is the perfect show to come see as a first opera. It’ll be translated into English with the supertitles, it’s funny and there’s an amazing cast coming from all over the country.”

Leonard is thrilled to be bringing this beloved role to the Inland Northwest and the company with which her career began.

“Figaro has his name in the title so he gets the last bow,” Leonard said. “But, and maybe I’m biased, I do think the main character has to be Susanna.”

This article has been updated to reflect the performance’s correct start time.

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