Saturday, December 12, 2015
Nicole Cabell: "I was always drawn to unusual music"
My older son is in town, visiting from college this weekend, and we slid by the Civic Opera House Friday afternoon to hear Nicole Cabell sing Hanna in the Lyric Opera's production of "The Merry Widow"—she's sharing the role with the great Renee Fleming. A few weeks earlier, we had sat down and talked about the part, her career, and opera in general.
When the Californian was cast in Franz Lehar's delightful frolic, she had not only never appeared in the opera, she had never seen it. That did not deter her, even though she doesn't have a lot of experience with frothy operetta.
Well, why not? she thought.
"I know the music will be good for me," she said. "Everything I'm doing this year is outside of my comfort zone. So why not do this crazy thing and come back to the Lyric and just have fun?"
I began our conversation by pointing out that she seems to put out more recordings than the average soprano.
"I think it's really good, especially if you can put unusual repertoire into recordings," she said. "Because people are making them less now. For me it was, okay, this is stuff you don't find."
The reviving of obscure works is interesting to me, but I've always come to it from an audience perspective, as experiencing, if not enduring, compositions put on for your edification more than your enjoyment, a painful shot delivered to improve the general health of opera as an art form.
I never thought about how the artists themselves view it, and Cabell quickly took me to school, explaining such pieces offer an opportunity to shine.
"You have your own special interpretation of A, B and C," she said. "But if you also have something unusual, like I did a Ricky Ian Gordon record. He doesn't have a lot of recordings of only his music. [So I do] that as opposed to doing another version of 'O Mio Babbino Cara.'"
On the other hand, you don't want to just do unfamiliar works either.
"You have to have a balance," she agreed. "For me, of course, I like to bookend, to alternate my popular recordings with unusual recordings. Or my roles. I need it as an artist. I need to be challenged and to go outside of my comfort zone. If I just sing the Top 40 of opera, I get a little bit bored. You have to consider your audience, and they might get a little bored. I was always drawn to unusual music, I think because there is a freedom in that. You get a little bit in the box when you sing stuff that's been sung a million times. People look at you as an artist in a fresh way if you're singing something that is not something they always see.
"For instance, 'La Traviata,' Everyone has seen and has an opinion on 'La Traviata'" [you can find mine here]."So all they do is compare you to other people. When I sing "Capuletti e i Montecchi," that is not done very often, and they say, 'Oh, what does she have to say?' I would like to make everything my own."
Cabell is not alone in this.
"Most artists, probably love to be challenged," she said. "You feel fresh. If you haven't heard it before, or not very often. You think, 'Oh, I'm giving birth to something new, something very fresh.' But I'm also a traditionalist in a lot of ways, so I need to come back to my Mimis, to my Juliets, to my Violettas. I need this as well."
Speaking of being compared to others, how is sharing a role with Rene Fleming? Does that invite comparison?
"Totally different, apples and oranges, right?" she said. "If somebody compares me to Rene Fleming I feel they have no imagination. It's apple and oranges. She's a beautiful, red delicious apple. I'm a tangerine."
She tries not to obsess over reviews or the techniques of others.
"I try not to watch people too much for fear of becoming a poor man's version of them," she said.
On the subject of comparisons, one detail of Cabell's resume demands being shared, because Chicagoans, particularly when it comes to the arts , can feel as if they're dwelling in the shadows of New York. Cabell was a young singer, accepted into the Juilliard School in New York, when a chance to audition for the Lyric Ryan Opera Center came her way.
"What happened was, I sang for [then Ryan director] Richard Pearlman back in 2001," she said. "At the time I had already been accepted to Juilliard. The summer before I was to start at Juilliard. It was totally a fluke I sang for him. I got to the finals. I thought, 'I'm already going to Juilliard. There's a snowball's chance in hell I'll actually get into the [Ryan] program.' That was my thinking. I went to Juilliard for ... two days. Then I went here to audition for the program, got into the program, flew home Sept. 10, 2001. Sept. 11, 2001 was my third day of class at Juilliard. Of course I only had two periods before they shut down everything."
What made up her mind?
"I had been thinking over the course of the weekend, 'Do I stay or do I go?' When Sept. 11 happened, that was my official date of withdrawal from Juilliard. "
Did the 9/11 attacks factor into her decision?
"I hadn't made up my mind if I was going to stay the semester," she said. "I remember watching the TV, thinking, 'I don't feel safe anymore.' For somebody 23 years old, to say that, that anything could happen at any moment and everybody living on borrowed time. When they finally reopened a week later I had already made up my mind: I don't want to stay in New York. I stayed for another three weeks then I left."
Not that leaving was easy. It took her a while to find the proper perspective.
"I told somebody at Juilliard that I got into this program and I was going to drop out," Cabell said. "They said, "Oh, but this is Juilliard, you can't do this!' Then I talked to another person, one of the counselors there, and said they were giving me a hard time, and she said: 'This is what you go to Juilliard to do. To get into a program like this.' And I said, "Oh. Right. Goodbye.' Of course it was the best thing I could have possibly done."
Nicole Cabell sings Hanna in this season's final production of "The Merry Widow" on Sunday, Dec. 13.