December 6, 2017 at 9:51 AM
NEW YORK — She made history of sorts at age 20 by becoming the youngest singer ever to win the Metropolitan Opera's vocal competition. Now, at the age of 29, Nadine Sierra is on the brink of stardom.
It's been a dizzying rise for the Florida-born soprano, who started voice lessons at age 6, began performing in opera as a teen and made her Met debut as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" in 2015.
Return engagements have followed at the Met, including a Live in HD broadcast of Mozart's "Idomeneo" and an upcoming run as Susanna in "The Marriage of Figaro." She's in demand in Venice, Milan, Paris and Berlin, and she is featured in a recording of "Rigoletto" starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky that was released shortly before the Russian baritone's death.
To cap it off, she won this year's Richard Tucker Award, worth $50,000 and a chance to headline a gala concert at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, Dec. 10, to be broadcast live on WQXR radio and streamed on its website.
"She has charm, she has style, she has grace, and on top of that she has a terrific voice," said Barry Tucker, son of the legendary tenor and chairman of the foundation that nurtures up-and-coming American singers.
Critics agree with Tucker's assessment. Of her Met debut, George Loomis wrote in Opera magazine that her "limpid tone and delicate phrasing proved ideal for the naive, sheltered girl, as did her lithe, slightly fragile appearance."
The "promising young artist" tag became attached to Sierra's name the moment she was named one of four winners in the Met's National Council Audition finals in 2009. But soon she longed to shed it.
"I've always wanted to be seen as more than just a young, promising singer — even when I was," Sierra said in an interview. "A lot of young singers get into this trap. They're treated as young artists for a really long time before they're taken seriously as professionals."
Her answer to that problem? "I guess my strategy has been to sing roles that are really hard to sing and sing the (expletive) out of them."
Gilda was one such role, and she sang it "over and over" until the Met decided she was ready.
"I didn't want to go into the Met singing small roles and covering," she said. "I wanted a real debut."
As ambitious as she is, Sierra is a big believer in the importance of saying "no" to roles that she might be right for five or 10 years down the road but which don't suit her lyric soprano sound right now. Mimi in Puccini's "La Boheme" is one such role, and the title role of Massenet's "Manon" turned out to be another.
She was engaged two years ago to sing the latter role in San Francisco this fall but said when she took a closer look at the score, "I honestly didn't think I could do it justice. It's heavier than anything I've really gone up against."
"I didn't want to get into the theater and sing it my way and have somebody tell me, 'You know we can't hear you, can you give us a little bit more?'" she said. "And have that pressure to give more sound and feel like I'm pushing."
But Mimi and Manon are likely in her future, as is Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata." She'll try out Violetta's first-act coloratura aria at the gala, where she becomes the latest in a parade of American singers like Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato and Christine Goerke to be honored with the Tucker prize.
Barry Tucker said the panel of judges who choose each year's winner are looking for someone on the cusp of stardom. For him there's no question Sierra fits that description.
"She's ready to blast off," he said.
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