For mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who performs at Spivey Hall on Sunday, motherhood and Mozart will be forever linked in the most direct and personal way.
“It’s absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to balance in my life,” she says.
Just a few months after giving birth to her son Teo, Leonard was back on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the role of Dorabella in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte.” It was her first time balancing the demands of being a famous opera singer with the challenges of being a new mother, and it’s a juggling act she’s continued as her career and her son, now 3, have grown.
The discussion of balancing work and home life has reached a high pitch this month with the publication of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” about women in positions of power.
It is a tight-wire act Leonard finds herself performing daily.
Dubbed opera’s newest “It Girl” and “the total package,” Leonard has been praised as much for her lush, velvety singing voice as for her insightful acting and captivating stage presence — not to mention her movie star looks. She appears on the world’s great stages as well as in the pages of “Vogue” and “W” magazines. It creates a busy, demanding schedule that on its own could stretch the mind and body to their limits. But, with the addition of motherhood, it becomes an organizational challenge that seems, well, operatic in its proportions.
“The biggest difficulty in being a full-time mom and a full-time opera singer is that there’s no down time,” she says. “There are days when I think, ‘I would love to just not talk today.’ But I get up with him very early in the morning, and he’s raring to go. There’s no warm-up time for him.
“The minute you have a child you feel guilty the rest of your life. You feel guilty when you’re not there; you feel guilty when you’re there. You don’t quite feel like you’re putting in 100 percent on both levels, your work and your child, so there’s this overwhelming sense that you’re not doing enough.”
But having full rein is something that Leonard has constantly sought.
“I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve ever arrived in one place and can only explore my little gerbil cage of opera,” she says.
To relax at the end of the day, Leonard is more likely to turn on some Lynyrd Skynyrd or T. Rex than the workaday stuff of Verdi or Mozart. She’s likewise interested in leaving the door open to playing the musical theater roles she loved as a girl, like Maria in “Sound of Music” or Julie Jordan in “Carousel.”
“I haven’t stopped thinking about all the jazz and all the musical theater I did as I was growing up,” Leonard says.
For her concert in Atlanta, Leonard will be performing a program consisting American songs like Cole Porter’s “Where, Oh Where?” and Ned Rorem’s “What if Some Little Pain?” and Spanish songs such as the folk song “Los Pelegrinitos.”
“It’s kind of like me — half and half,” says Leonard. “My mother’s from Argentina, and my dad is from the States. It’s basically a program I really wanted to put together where I could do what I wanted to do.”
Leonard is such a natural at doing what she wants to do on stage and in front of the camera, it’s surprising to hear her admit that she was once painfully shy.
“I was one of those kids that would stand on the edge of a playground and not want to play with other kids. That’s still a big part of my personality. I just kept putting myself into my music, and the better I got, the less concerned I became about whether I was shy about it or not.”
Still, battling shyness is just one aspect of a challenging path, which, Leonard says, offers as many rewards as it does challenges.
“It’s wonderful at the end of rehearsal, when people are kind of directionless, to say, ‘I’m going home because my son needs me,’” she says. “And he knows now that I go to work at the opera. So, if I’m going off to work, he says to me, ‘Sing loud! Sing pretty!’”