Q & A: Soprano Leah Hawkins On Met Opera ‘Porgy and Bess,’ Maria Callas’ 7 Deaths & the Importance of Trust

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Columbia Artists)

On Sept. 23, soprano Leah Hawkins, a member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, took part in the historic opening night performance of Gerswhin’s “Porgy and Bess” with the esteemed New York company.  the Metropolitan Opera.

While she was not one of the major headliners in a cast that feature Angel Blue, Eric Owens, and Latonia Moore, among others, Hawkins reminded everyone of the old adage that there are “no small parts.” Her big moment came in the second act and lasted but five minutes as the Strawberry Women. But in those five minutes, the soprano not only gave her best, but stole the show.

“Leah Hawkins as the Strawberry Woman… blasted out some eye-opening high notes at the end of her phrase,” said OperaWire’s review of her revelatory showcase.

The audience exploded with appreciation for the soprano, one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the evening.

That is only the beginning of things to come for Hawkins, who is set to make some other major debuts this season, including her involvement in the “The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas.” Hawkins recently spoke to OperaWire about her big Met Opera breakout, her Munich debut and her career trajectory over the next few years.

OperaWire: It was your first opening night at the Met. Tell me what the experience was like?

Leah Hawkins: It was the coolest experience ever. First because there is of course the red carpet and we were all excited to put on our gowns and walk it and see all the celebrities attending.

Then of course to see all the fans taking pictures was also cool and wonderful. But being on stage for opening night of the season and knowing what it is to the season, to opera, and New York was just surreal. Yes I have always wanted to sing at the Met but opening night was exciting and I had such a great sense of gratitude to being part of it. I don’t ever want to forget that experience.

OW: After performing the Strawberry Girl’s aria, what did you feel, especially when you got such a rousing ovation?

LH: It was amazing. It’s the Met but interestingly I wasn’t nervous on stage. I had given all my nerves to a chorus member and it was just great. To have this at a place where I always dreamed of singing was important.

OW: You have worked with the Met throughout the past few years as part of the Lindemann Young Artist Program. Tell me how the Met has helped you develop your career?

LH: I did the program at the Washington National Opera prior to the Met and the Met is my finishing program. It was that extra step that I needed. At the Met we sing for many visiting people and to have these major companies coming into New York and hearing us in house, that was a new experience. That was how I booked my engagement for “The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas” at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The person that heard me had heard me a few years ago at the Dallas Opera semi finals. I didn’t make finals and that is how you know that it doesn’t always matter to win. So that is how the Met program has helped me.

And of course being around artists of the level that come to the Met and getting to work alongside them has been that extra push that you just need. I made my Met debut in a small role and then sang the high priestess in “Aida.” While they are small, they are featured and I get heard. I got reviews for both parts and in many ways the Strawberry Woman was that extra that I needed. In that role I could show what I could do. And working alongside those big artists was important because they also encouraged and told me that I could do it. The coaches in the room also told me I could do more, because at the beginning I was doing less. So it has been beneficial.

OW: You’ll be working on “The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas.” How much do you know about the work and what will you be performing in it?

LH: We are all portraying seven different figures in opera that eventually die within the operas. I am singing Desdemona and her prayer from Verdi’s “Otello.” That’s my only musical assignment. But it will feature visuals and movies and shorts. Marina Abramovich and Willem Dafoe will work together in the production.

But I still know very little about the work and I am super curious to see how it comes together.

OW: What does it feel like to know that you will be performing with so many diverse women from different backgrounds in this one piece?

LH: It’s awesome to share the stage with other women of color. One of my dearest friends Gabriella Reyes will also sing in this project. That is really special to be able to perform with a singer I consider my sister. Whenever women come together its brilliant. We’re all representing the world in this piece and we’re also celebrating one of the world’s greatest prima donnas.

OW: You’ll be performing at the Met in “The Queen of Spades.” Tell me about what’s it like to change repertoire and perform Tchaikovsky’s music?

LH: It’s another small role so I don’t get to dig in. But it’s funny going from Italian to Russian because my basic rep is in Italian. But I have a nice history with Russian because I did diction in Grad school and I had a coach in D.C. who was very tough on me.

I also spent time in Russia in undergrad during a choir tour in St. Petersburg and then for a few years I did an exchange program at the Bolshoi Theater with their young artist program. Being around the language and country you see how serious they treat their music and language.

But the music in “The Queen of Spades” is so beautiful and Lise Davidsen is amazing as Lisa. Watching her do the role is amazing and being around that score and people who get it is wonderful. It’s the same way that Americans treat their music. The music is within them.



OW: When did you realize you wanted to be an opera singer?

LH: I have always been a singer but I knew I wanted to be an opera singer since I was 12. Our school used to take us to dress rehearsals from Opera Philadelphia. And I went to see this opera and I loved everything about it and I went back to my parents and I said I want to sing like that. My dad told me I needed voice lessons and while I was taking piano lessons, I wanted to sing. So I continued piano while taking voice lessons.

I wanted to go to conservatory but didn’t get into any of the two I applied to. I ended up going to a liberal arts college at Morgan State which is historically black. And it was the best thing that happened to me because with that University choir I traveled the world. I went to six continents and got to sing with other great groups and did masterclasses in other countries. Just getting used to travel at 18 and see the world was amazing and I would have not gotten that anywhere else.

From there I went to Yale School of Music and they built the programs around the singers. I graduated there with seven roles, a few recitals and then I got into the Washington National Opera’s young artist program. I was a mezzo at that time and Louis Salemno heard me and he said “that is a soprano voice.” The first thing he gave me was “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” and I sang through it and he said, “You are a soprano.” He wrote on that score “Aida..” I still have that score somewhere and he was confident in my voice.

I was there for three years and then I auditioned at the Metropolitan Opera but I didn’t get in the first time. But they told to come back and then I sang for them again and I got in and here I am.

OW: Who were some of your inspirations while you were learning?

LH: When I first started my teacher gave me a CD called “Puccini Gala” and Renata Scotto was on that recording quite a lot. There were different artist but it was Scotto that captured my ear the most. That is a voice I hadn’t heard before.

Then I had a friend in high school and we would sit my house and hear Leontyne Price sing everything. Everything we could hear on YouTube we sat and listened. And in 10th grade, my geometry teacher gave me an album of Jessye Norman’s spirituals. I played that CD over and over again. I focused a lot on black artists and I grew up in a household that was proud of our race and I was proud of the artists that looked like me and that also sounded like me.

OW: There is a growing desire for diversity in the opera world. Can you elaborate on your perception of diversity in the industry?

LH: Because I went to Morgan State, which is known to be a black school, 98 percent of the student body was black. So everybody around me looked like me. The focus was not necessarily to be a soloist at the school and sometimes I feel that a lot of black people feel like this is something they can’t do. But once they realize that they can do it, they go for it.

But when I went to other gigs and did my first summer festival at the Martina Arroyo program I started seeing a lot of mixed races and that was a positive experience as well.

But it was in Yale that I got my first experience of being the only one in the room that looked like me. I had never experienced it and that was tough to go from historically black to Ivy League. When I did more serious young artist I realized that I will sometimes be the only one. And that is part of why I am adamant and proud of my African culture and background whether its with my hair and dress. And I am proud of where I come from and it gives courage to others.

OW: What has been your biggest challenges in your young career thus far?

LH: For sure it was the transition from mezzo to soprano. I had to rethink everything and for me that has been to trust my new technique and trust that my voice will do what I want it to do. Trust is a huge thing for singers anyway. Being sure enough in yourself is important and also not letting outside noise affect you.

I stopped  reading reviews after getting a bad review because it crushed me. And when I started building my website I had to gather them and it can be addicting to read good reviews and the kind words. And you find so many comments and sometimes ignorance is bliss.

OW: What is the repertoire you are excited to sing in the future?

LH:   I want to sing Verdi and Puccini in the next 10 years. I want to sing a variety not just the ones expected of me. For example I love Musetta’s aria and I think that is one that would be fun. I love Strauss songs and I don’t know if I am Strauss singer and maybe that is something that will come later. It’s something that might come later.

I also love new music and bringing new ideas and text to life. I love putting a stamp that hasn’t been done before which is also unique and beautiful. I would also love to do that.


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