The Singing Actress – Leah Crocetto On Acting & Approaching Her Repertory In Bel Canto Style

By Francisco Salazar

Tosca, Aida, Elisabetta and Liù are the roles associated with a lyric spinto soprano. They are the pinnacle of the Italian repertory and the works that every major diva wants to sing.

Leah Crocetto gets to sing these great operas on a regular basis, as her profile has ballooned over the last few years. Today, she has become one of the most exciting young singers of her generation.

While she has managed to reach the peaks of the soprano repertoire, Crocetto is looking to diversify in her artistry, a task she ha found increasingly challenging.

“I have to fight for Mozart because everyone wants me in Verdi and Puccini, which I love. So it’s not a challenge but I want to definitely expand my operatic horizons,” Crocetto told OperaWire in a recent interview.

That is exactly what she will continue to do this summer at The Glimmerglass Festival when she takes on the role of Eleonora in Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.”

There Will Be High Notes

Crocetto is not very well-known for her Bel Canto heroines but she is far from a stranger to the repertoire. Last season she performed in Rossini’s “Maometto II” at the Canadian Opera Company and she has also performed the role of “Semiramide.”

But Eleonora represents a first for Crocetto – the debut of any Donizetti role. And while she has the aforementioned experience in the Bel Canto rep, Donizetti and Rossini are like apples and oranges.

“There are a lot of the same versions of melismas. I mean you can tell that one was a contemporary of the other. Everybody knew everybody’s music and you can tell that they overlapped. There is one figure in [‘Calais’] that if you place it over a Rossini duet that I did in ‘Semiramide,’ it’s exactly the same. So I love that. But, I think Donizetti spelled it out a little more and there is more freedom. He gives you something written and he gives you the opportunity to embellish. There is more guessing in Rossini.”

Freedom is everything for Crocetto. She has a fascination with ornamentation and if given the chance she loves to use her high notes.

And there will be high notes, specifically a stratospheric D, at Glimmerglass this summer. Not only does the opera contain two beautiful duets that Crocetto is excited for but the new production has added back the famed cabaletta at the drama’s climax, a section that is often omitted.

“It puts me in the stratosphere because I don’t get an opportunity to use my high Ds very much. So it will be nice to do that,” Crocetto enthused.

Returning to Bel Canto is also an educational experience for Crocetto as she believes the dramatic style to be the basis of her vocal technique.

“I am a bel canto singer and this is bel canto music. It’s very dramatic and intense but the music is light so it won’t crush your soul.”

Renewing Collaborations 

The Glimmerglass Festival will not only be a return to Bel Canto but it will also renew a relationship she has cultivated for many years.

Artistic director Francesca Zambello is heading the upcoming production which takes place in a barracks and which uses many modern touches that relate to current society. The two have worked together numerous times including in a recent production of Verdi’s “Aida” at the San Francisco Opera.

When Zambello programmed “The Siege of Calais,” she knew she was taking a huge risk, as this is the first time the opera is being performed in the United States. In order for audiences to truly appreciate its dramatic brilliance, Zambello knew she needed a top artist to lead the way.

Crocetto was her first choice.

“Francesca is one of my favorite directors. She is a singer’s director but also gets the story across and her productions are not park and bark. She brings a lot of modern touches and she loves to bring a lot of what is happening in this day and age to the forefront with subtlety. And it makes people think. I have so much respect for anyone who can bring that.”

The production will also reunite her with Alex Romano, a mezzo-soprano that Crocetto worked with when both were still burgeoning artists.

“I am really excited for her. She was a young artist at Washington National Opera when I was singing in ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’ and she had one line that time. She is so sweet and it’s amazing to see her get this opportunity to sing this major mezzo role.”

A Dream Role

Following her foray into Bel Canto, Crocetto returns to her core repertoire as she makes her anticipated debut in the title role of “Tosca” at the Pittsburgh Opera.

Tosca is one of the iconic characters in the artform, but also one with a rich history of interpreters. Crocetto knows that she has big shoes to fill and has put in quite the time to put her stamp on the classic opera.

She started studying the role of Floria more than a year ago, learning the ins and outs of the virtuosic part. The process has not only provided dramatic insight, but also a personal understanding of her own voice and technique. The major takeaway? That singing verismo opera still means singing with a Bel Canto foundation.

“I approach everything in Bel Canto style because it’s the healthiest way to sing. If you weigh the voice down too much you have a short career. Most conductors approach Verdi in a bel canto style. So I’ve never had a moment where we clash. I can’t approach singing another way because my voice doesn’t work. For ‘Tosca,’ I am approaching it in a Bel Canto style.

“I was working on the role and all of a sudden my voice got darker and my teacher said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I Don’t know.’ Apparently, I was darkening it and I didn’t need to do that. I need to sing with my voice nice and bright and it comes through just fine. That is the bel canto style.”

The other thing she discovered was how crucial the text is to the role.

“What’s so unique about Tosca is that her characterization is more apparent than other soprano roles. It’s all about text because she only has one real aria moment and the rest is sung dialogue. It was kind of a new thing for Puccini when he wrote ‘Tosca.’ So I’m working a lot on characterization and how I can inflect the words she is singing. A lot of what she says is reactionary to Scarpia. It has to be very rhythmic and very exact and yet there is freedom. Even though the notes are written with pitches, I don’t sing them all. I speak a lot of the times.”

Having been an acting major in college Crocetto believes that it is serving her well for this particular role. The second Act is the one she looks forward to because it is filled with suspense and it is the emotional high point of the opera.

“The moment I think about is where she keeps climbing that ladder until she hits that high C but then she goes back right into chatter. And that can not just be beautifully sung. It has to be meaningful. As my career is progressing and I am tackling these bigger works, I am less fearful of making ugly sounds. Sometimes you have to sing on emotion and that might mean a less than beautiful sound.”

But the soprano is aware that these ugly sounds and singing on emotion can be damaging for the voice.

Crocetto wants to have a long career so she has figured out ways to maintain the voice fresh and the technique solid. One of her secrets? Warming up to Mozart, which gives her flexibility and nimbleness. The other? A solid technical foundation.

“It’s different each night and you cannot always sing on emotion because your vocal chords will crawl out but you can do it with integrity as long as it’s all supported by the breath control. You have to keep everything supported and tight underneath. I think as long as I focus I will be fine.”

Aida and Elisabetta 

After Tosca, Crocetto sings Liù in “Turandot” and then Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.”

But then in the spring, she is tasked with her return to Verdi’s “Aida” and “Don Carlo.” While both operas follow one another in the composer’s oeuvre, Crocetto notes that jumping from one to the other is quite the challenge.

“Aida is way longer than Elisabetta. ‘Aida’ is a marathon and you have to pace yourself but it is also much more lyric than people think. Elisabetta is ‘Tu che la Vanita’ and that’s it.”

But she does note that they dovetail one another dramatically in some respects. “They are both put in impossible situations and they’re both torn by duty or love.”

And of the two, which does she prefer?

“Anytime I sing a role I try to find something because that is the only way, to be honest in my interpretation. That being said, I think I identify most with Aida because I’ve never been forced to marry someone I didn’t want to marry. And that comes into play in Don Carlo as Elisabetta is forced to marry King Philip to unify France and Spain.”

A Continuous Exploration 

If you ask Crocetto what her dream roles are she would tell you that she is already singing them. “‘Tosca’ and ‘Aida’ are the quintessential roles for soprano. And they are my dreams.”

But as noted at the start of this piece, Crocetto is always looking for a chance to explore uncharted soprano territory for herself. While she is singing Elisabetta this season at the Washington National Opera, she has yet to do the five-Act version, which is something she hopes to do one day.

Doing “Calais” could be a tipping point toward more Donizetti, but one composer she insists on a desire to do is Mozart.

That said, the one opera she is dying to do and hopes to one day add to her repertory is “La Traviata.”

“That would be a special one to do someday. I love the character.”

And while that seems like a lot of Italian, Crocetto is aware that she needs to broaden her horizons to not become pigeonholed into the Italian repertoire. “I can name Italians and they will cast me because they hear me in that all the time. But I love singing in different languages.”

In recitals, Crocetto constantly finds ways to interpret music in Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Russian. It is one way to show her versatility and her capabilities in a diverse range of repertoire.

“I want to do more Russian because I love singing in it. I would love to sing Tatiana [in ‘Eugene Onegin’] and Lisa in ‘Pique Dame.’ I also want to do ‘Daphne’ by Strauss.”

But the role that is among her priorities is Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.”

“My favorite aria to perform is from ‘Susannah.’ I do that in my recitals quite a bit. I want to perform the full thing. I love singing in English and my acting background is so helpful as well. You can understand every word I sing and dramatic intent.”

But until the time comes for those new developments, Crocetto is content with digging deeper into her major warhorses.

“I get excited to do it again because I get to add more layers each time.”


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