Hawkins is seen here as Ma Zegner in the world premiere of “Proving Up” by Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek with the Washington National Opera. by Len Lear For a young opera singer …
by Len Lear
For a young opera singer in-training, the prospect of one day singing with the Metropolitan Opera, the world's Mount Everest of opera (along with La Scala in Milan) has to be like a Little League baseball player dreaming of one day playing center field for the New York Yankees. These are the dreams of millions of young people that only a minuscule number ever realize. And most people would probably assume that once you have performed at the Met, you would be on Easy Street with offers flooding in. But how does that notion jive with real life?
“If only that were true!” said Leah Hawkins last week. “I've found that if a company doesn't want to hire you or doesn't have a job for you, that it truly doesn't matter if the Met is on your resume. It certainly has helped on a few occasions, but in general it doesn't guarantee job offers.”
Hawkins, 29, who grew up in Mt. Airy (and still lives here), attended the Houston Elementary School in Mt. Airy and the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Last year was her first season with the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. She made her Met debut as the alms collector in “Suor Angelica” and the high priestess in “Aida.”
Hawkins also completed the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at Washington National Opera, where she appeared as Ma Zegner in the world premiere of “Proving Up” by Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek and Voce dal cielo in Verdi's “Don Carlo.” Among many other roles, she appeared in “Justice at the Opera” with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Typical of the ecstatic reviews Hawkins has received over the years is this one in the Opera News of Hawkins’ performance in “Proving Up” at the Washington National Opera: “Leah Hawkins brought dignity and pathos to the role of the worried, increasingly pessimistic mother. The soprano used her sumptuous voice vividly, nowhere more so than in the opera's bleakest line, 'God, you are a rumor; God, you are smoke,' rising to a long-held C-sharp of shattering impact.”
Is it possible to be spoiled by such ethereal reviews? “I don't believe so,” said Hawkins. “For every good review there is a bad one, printed and not. The good ones are nice to read, and the bad ones sometimes sting. They are just the opinion of one person. I'm happy if I touch just one person with my music-making and OK if another doesn't care for me. Art is subjective!”
As with millions of other performers, the coronavirus pandemic has been a dagger to the heart. “My summer and fall work is just about gone. Aside from the remainder of my European tour being cancelled this summer and fall, I lost three recitals, an opera gala and two different opera productions. My industry has been hit hard, and we all have to be flexible. I'm praying to be back onstage in 2021!”
Some singers have been able to do some performing virtually through Zoom or other screening platforms. Not Hawkins. “Other than my online voice lessons, I've only contributed to one virtual recording. I haven't had any desire to sing online. I love connecting with live audiences and feeding off of their energy. Without that energy exchange, I feel a bit lost. If this continues longer than I hope, then I'll have to adapt.”
Hawkins attributes much of her success to Chestnut Hill voice coach Leigh Munro, who gave voice lessons to Hawkins from 2003 to 2008. “Leigh is pretty much the reason I pursued opera,” said Hawkins, who received her Master of Music in Voice from Yale University and Bachelor of Arts in Music from Morgan State University.
What is the hardest thing Hawkins ever had to do? “It's happening right now. Moving back home after several years away has proven more emotionally difficult than I could have predicted. I'm incredibly grateful to my parents for welcoming me back home during this difficult time, but I never expected to or planned to live with them again. It's humbling and a reminder that we are not as in control as we'd like to think.”
What is the best advice Hawkins ever received? “It came from a fellow Philadelphian soprano, Karen Slack, who told me, 'You have to learn to teach yourself to sing.' I didn't fully understand what she meant at the time, but I certainly do now. As singers we spend much of our singing lives alone and away from our teachers and coaches. We have to learn to critically listen to ourselves and quickly diagnose and fix issues. I'm learning to do that right now.”
For more information, visit leahhawkinssoprano.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org