LEAH CROCETTO – An Interview with “Liu” in SF Opera’s TURANDOT

TURANDOT – San Francisco Opera’s 2011 season opener and Puccini’s final masterpiece – continues tonight at 7:30 pm at the War Memorial Opera House. The production will be presented six more times including the simulcast at AT&T Ballpark of this Sunday’s matinee performance at 2:00. Turandot is the perfect choice for what promises to be an afternoon of picture-perfect weather. Through state-of-the-art technology made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite, the simulcast will be transmitted in 1920×1080 high definition to the stadium’s 103-feet wide Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Vision scoreboard—one of the highest quality outdoor scoreboards in the nation—live from the stage of the Opera House. Maestro Nicola Luisotti directs this stunning production which features Iréne Theorin in the title role, tenor Marco Berti as “Calaf”, and current member of the Adler Fellows – Leah Crocetto as “Liu”. At the Opening Night curtain call, there was a huge swell in the applause and cheering for the young soprano. “Liu” is one of the most beloved roles in the Puccini repertoire. I met with Leah to get her take on a role that has been performed by the world’s greatest sopranos.

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LEAH CROCETTO — As “Liu”
All production photos by Cory Weaver

Sean: How does it feel to be doing a role that the great sopranos have performed? When did you find out you would be doing the role of “Liu” in Turandot?

Leah: Two years ago, actually. Maestro Luisotti had approached me about it. I didn’t know officially that I was singing it, but we had spoken. As to the role which the great sopranos have done – “Liu” is the natural beginning for my voice type. The role opens the gate to other repertoire. It’s an honor to sing a role that Montserrat Caballe, Mirella Freni and Leontyne Price have done – all the girls I worship at the altars. I definitely learned some things listening to them. I like to think they helped inspire what I do.

Sean: What is it you learn from their recordings?

Leah: The traditions, the style. Who doesn’t want Caballe’s pianissimi?

Sean: I saw her as “Turandot” back in 1977 when both she and Luciano Pavarotti made their debuts with San Francisco Opera. The production and their performances were totally stunning. Leona Mitchell sang “Liu”. Prince Charles was in attendance that night, so there was a heightened sense of glamour about the evening. And here you are, as an Adler Fellow, in the opening production of the 2011 Season. How long have you been with the Adler Fellows?

Leah: Three years, which is not usual. My voice – with the size of it – needed some time to cook. They offered me a third year and I took the opportunity – to “age” one more year.

Sean: You were in the Merola Opera Program in 2008 and for just that year. Some singers are invited back for a second season, some stay for a third. Towards the end of your second term with Adler Fellows and the beginning of your third term now – what do you think that extra push is about?

Leah: That’s a good question. I think for me it’s a matter of repertoire. I’m going to sing the Verdi heroines, the Donizetti queens. I’ll sing “Suor Angelica” – the lyrical Puccini. It’s about learning the repertoire and getting my technique solid.

Sean: So they recognize your voice is going in a certain direction. Did they talk about that during your first year?

Leah: Actually, in my Merola audition, Mark Morash wrote down on my form – “Trovatore”, meaning that’s where my voice is heading. I had never looked at it, I didn’t know any of the music from it. I was very green. I had no experience at all. So, essentially, the Merola Program and the Adler Fellowship made me. Everything I’ve learned about the business and the repertoire I’ve learned here – and, of course, from my voice teacher Arnold Rawls. But everything I learned from the way productions work, to learning music, to being a leading soprano – I’ve learned here. I became this sort-or sponge and just soaked up everything I possibly could. I spent a lot of time with Steven White in the library just listening to music and watching old productions. I decided this was Me.

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LEAH CROCETTO (Liù) and IRÉNE THEORIN (Turandot)

Sean: Through listening, you can sense the physical and vocal demands of these roles in your own body. When did you start getting it that you were going to be a singer? That you are a soprano, that you’re going to be an operatic soprano?

Leah: I saw my first opera when I was eleven, in fifth grade. I hit me then. I knew I wanted to be an opera singer. I’ve always been a night owl. I love the night life, I love to sleep late. And I love to travel. All these things are innate in the life of an operatic soprano. For me, it was a matter of making it happen.

Sean: Where are you from?

Leah: Connecticut. I grew up in Michigan. I was in New York from 2004 to 2006, waiting tables and singing jazz in nightclubs.

Sean: Had you veered-off at that point?

Leah: No. I’ve always been an eclectic singer. I sing a lot of things. My degree is not in music, it’s in acting. So, I did a lot of musical theatre.

Sean: Where did you go to school?

Leah: Sienna Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald, the Rat Pack, Billie Holliday, Joan Baez, the great jazz singers, all those girls. My dad was my biggest musical influence. He played a lot of everything.

Sean: What opera singers were you listening to?

Leah: Pavarotti was the big one – his was the first voice I ever heard. I used to imitate him as a child. The first opera I ever saw was Carmen. It was in Adrian at Opera!Lenawee – which doesn’t exist anymore. They did one opera every year.

Sean: A little oasis in the desert.

Leah: And we had our own symphony orchestra and a community theatre. So, I grew up swimming in the arts. My childhood and growing up with all that stuff was great. But when I saw Carmen – I heard my voice. That is Me. That vibrato. I didn’t even know what it was called at the time. “My voice does that naturally!” It’s the most natural way for me to sing. I can sing contemporary music, but it’s not natural.

Sean: How do you get out of a jazz club and into an audition that leads you to here?

Leah: Towards the end of my stay in New York, I auditioned for the Met Chorus. I thought I was too old. I was twenty-five. All my other friends had done programs and I had sort-of veered off and done my own thing and I thought Life had passed me by. “I’m ready to just have a salary and at least be able to sing music I like and be on stage.” I don’t remember who I auditioned for, but I sang “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from La Rondine and “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Magic Flute.

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MARCO BERTI (Calaf) and LEAH CROCETTO (Liù)

Sean: How did you learn the arias?

Leah: I learned them from my teacher back when I was 18 or 19 years old. I actually went to school for opera one year. I had my five arias. I won several competitions in the Chicago area and started getting things really quickly. And I freaked-out, almost had a nervous breakdown – at 19 years old. So, that’s when I stepped away from opera. I just wasn’t ready for the pressure yet. But, I auditioned for the Met Chorus and whoever was in the room said, “Where did you come from? Why don’t we know who you are? You’re not a chorus singer.” That made me realize I needed to get back into opera. I moved back home to Michigan because my father was getting really ill at the time. I was there for about five months helping my mom and my sisters take care of dad. He said to me, “You’re not living your best life. You are not living your dream. You are here and you don’t need to be here. Go, go away.” My youngest sister was getting ready to go to college, so the two of us moved to Chicago. I got back with my teacher – this was 2007 – and I auditioned for Merola. Nothing like auditioning for the most prestigious Young Artists program your first time out! And I got it.

Sean: What did you sing?

Leah: I sang “Chi il bel sogno”, “Dove sono” from Le Nozze di Figaro, “Ain’t it a pretty night” from Sussanah, “Song to the moon” from Rusalka

Sean: I can your voice right now singing Rusalka!

Leah: Thank you. And I had one in French, from Louise, “Depuis le jour”, my favorite aria.

Sean: Mine also. What a stark contrast of material! What is your vocal “fach”, your vocal category?

Leah: I’m a full lyric soprano.

Sean: I think the demands of “Depuis le jour” as opposed to those in the aria from Magic Flute are startlingly different – written for two totally different kinds of sopranos. If I back you up against the wall – between the two arias – which one best represents You?

Leah: “Depuis le jour”. Absolutely. That aria fits my voice and everything it likes to do.

Sean: Let’s go back to you signing the contract to sing “Liu”. You know you have the training to sing the role and that your voice carries in the War Memorial Opera House. But what about the immense artistic responsibility to entertain? Especially in a role that is defined by its two very popular arias?

Leah: I’m a performer. It’s what I love to do. I love to be on that stage. When I sing – it’s not for me. I know this will sound incredibly cheesy, but it’s like I’m embracing the audience in a big hug and I just want to share what I have to offer. So, the fact that I have this opportunity to sing the most beautiful music – maybe, ever written – is a gift to me. I have to say, I was a little intimidated. But not that much. I was, really, extremely excited. And nervous. It is the opportunity of a lifetime. We’ve got eight more performances to go. Hopefully, it’s making my career.

Sean: It was clear on Opening Night that the audience just adored you.

Leah: Well, I love a San Francisco audience. There’s nothing like singing for these people. I feel like I have grown-up with them.

Sean: So, we can claim you then? You know? Like, after all these years of training here?

Leah: I wish you would! I would love for this to be my home theatre.

Sean: I’m a native San Franciscan. The Opera has always been in and around my life. When I was a student, I latched onto the role of “Liu” because I had this thing for Mirella Freni. And because the character’s two arias are a part of many a soprano’s standard concert repertoire, people know how to listen to them. You delivered the goods in a most incredible way. What we all noticed in the final aria, “Tu che di gel sei cinta”, was that the tempo had been really slowed down. And I’m sitting out there both excited and gasping for you – “This woman’s breath control is daunting to behold!” – as you sustain each phrase and finish it off to perfection.

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NICOLA LUISOTTI — LEAH CROCETTO

Leah: That’s something that Maestro Luisotti and I really collaborated on. He knows that I have the capacity to do that. He loves to mix it up. He loves to pull the tempi, but then to sometimes speed it up as well. I find this very exciting. He is a very exciting conductor. He definitely molded and shaped the arias. When I was working on the role, I took the tempos faster. But he stretched me to my limit and I so appreciate that. Because now I know I can do so much more.

Sean: Turandot is one of those theatrical pieces that invites some sort of flash. It was clear who ran away with the show on Opening Night and certainly not the first time that a “Liu” has been singled out. A full-fledged production of Turandot has all kinds of room for give and take among the principal singers and over-the-top production stuff. So, I believe Maestro Luisotti made the right choice in doing that for you. After Turandot, what else is coming up for you this season?

Leah: I’m covering the role of “Donna Anna” in Don Giovanni. I probably won’t be going on because Ellie Dehn who is playing the role is fabulous, a strong woman – so, she’ll be great. From here I go to Berlin for my debut with the Berlin Philharmonic singing the Poulenc Gloria with Nicola Luisotti conducting. Then to Houston to sing the role of the “Female Chorus” in The Rape of Lucretia. This is an extremely different role for me – it’s very much in the passagio. But it’s going to be an amazing production.

Sean: By “passagio”, you’re referring to that area in your voice that sits between E-flat and High G.

Leah: Yes, the role sits right-there.

Sean: What do you do to keep that area of your voice massaged.

Leah: Mozart. The fact that I’m working on “Donna Anna” while I’m singing “Liu” is the most healthy thing I could possibly be doing. After Lucretia I’m singing “Anna” in a brand new production of Rossini’s Maometto Secondo in Santa Fe. I’m singing opposite Luca Pisaroni. Ricordi is doing a brand new score, Chicago Press is putting out the new critical edition – which has never been done – and we’ll be the first to do it.

Sean: Therefore, a milestone production. People will be pouring in from all over to see that. Down the road, what’s your dream role?

Leah: I have so many. Suor Angelica, Butterfly, Amelia in Un Ballo. I want to do all the big Verdi girls. Also Carlisle Floyd’s Sussanah. I love her character and the music is so incredible. Last season here I covered the role of Marguerite in Faust. Now I really want to sing it.

Sean: Leading Ladies need a good Leading Man. Who would be your ideal leading man?

Leah: Oh, man!! Well — a few. Of course I would have given anything to have sung with Luciano Pavarotti. Wow. I would love to sing with Jonas Kaufman. One of the finest young tenor voices is actually performing here this season in Lucrezia Borgia – Michael Fabiano. He’s amazing. I would love to sing anything with him. And, of course, my Adler comrade, David Lomeli.

Sean: OK, a couple of fan questions. What do you do in your free time?

Leah: Oh! It’s all about unwinding. As a singer – a generous singer – I feel like you give so much of your personality. Sometimes you just need to go away. And just relax for a while. When I get home – I spend a lot of time watching the television.

Sean: Do you have a favorite show?

Leah: I love Dancing with the Stars. I find it incredibly hilarious.

Sean: Are you a movie person?

Leah: I love going to the movies. I spend a lot of time at the gym. I stand on that elliptical and run away the anxiety, which is fantastic.

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RAYMOND ACETO (Timur) and LEAH CROCETTO (Liù)

Sean: I frequently use the term “Sherman Tank” to describe the kind of singer one has to be in order to perform in a house like this. An opera singer must have the driving force of a Sherman Tank. Some of us drive a roller skate. It’s about the kind of daily maintenance, the discipline you must have to sing on that stage.

Leah: Absolutely. Thank you for saying that. It’s something I had to learn. Through that whole process, I hired a personal trainer and got in pretty great shape. In the three years I’ve been here, I’ve lost 89 pounds. For me, it’s not about getting smaller. It’s about health. And being able to sustain the breath – that I couldn’t have done two years ago in my first year as an Adler Fellow.

Sean: And your birthday? What sign are you?

Leah: January 5th, a Capricorn.

Sean: With the new sign, are you sure you’re still a Capricorn?

Leah: I don’t buy it! I am everything that a Capricorn is.

Sean: That means, knowing a whole lotta stuff about a whole lotta stuff.

Leah: Capricorns think they know a whole lotta stuff about a whole lotta stuff. Which isn’t always the case. I am a good collaborator. I listen. And I respect. I think that’s very important in this stage of my career. I think the attitude of The Diva is out. I find that the maestri, the conductors, are there for a reason. It’s a wonderful collaborative art. I’m a pretty trusting musician. So, I trust. Until I have a reason not to.

Click on the photo to order tickets on-line:
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Greg Fedderly, Hyun Yun and Daniel Montenegro (Pang, Ping and Pong),
Marco Berti (Calaf), Raymond Aceto (Timur) and Leah Crocetto (Liù).
All production photos by Cory Weaver

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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