The annual gala at Palm Beach Opera is a fund-raising opportunity for supporters to gather and celebrate the company while enjoying an exclusive performance by an international opera star.
This year, the company needed to look no further than home for an authentic operatic sensation.
Nadine Sierra, a Fort Lauderdale native whose family moved to Delray Beach when she was 13 so she could attend the Dreyfoos School of the Arts, will be featured at the gala Monday at The Breakers. The 33-year-old soprano is a still-rising star on the world’s opera stages whose second recording on the elite Deutsche Grammophon label, "Made for Opera," comes out next month.
That same month, she’ll appear as Lucia in Donizetti’s bel canto classic "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, then reprises the role the following month for the Metropolitan Opera.
In June, she has a return engagement at Italy’s most-storied opera house, Milan’s La Scala, as Gilda, the tragic heroine of Verdi’s "Rigoletto."
“I like to play women a little stronger than they’re written. Sometimes that’s not possible,” Sierra says by phone from her parents’ home in Palm Beach Gardens. “Sometimes, when I do have control and can modernize the part, I do ... I don’t like seeing these women as weaker than they are. Circumstance plays a big role in how a human being develops — it’s that question of nature vs. nurture — and so I try to play them a little more assertive if I can.”
In the case of Lucia, who has been married off to a man she does not love, the consequences are profound. In one of opera’s most famous “mad scenes,” Lucia appears before the horrified wedding guests covered in blood, having just stabbed her new husband to death. She wanders around the stage, imagining she has just been married to Edgardo, the man she really loves.
“It’s very hard to play Lucia at a distance, to keep her emotions, while singing, at a distance. Sometimes I even find myself, especially during the cadenza of her mad scene, feel like crying,” she said. “You just find yourself thinking about her, and thinking back to when I was around that age. It brings up a lot of emotional recall from one’s own life.”
It is that kind of connection to the characters she portrays as much as her big, rich coloratura voice, that have given her a major career.
“First and foremost, she is an extraordinary artist whose career is continuing to skyrocket,” said David Walker, general and artistic director of Palm Beach Opera. “She is at the level of the artists we like to have on our gala, which is major international stars. And she certainly has become one. Second of all, we are very much a fan of her artistry — her singing, her technique, her vocal beauty, her acting.
“And she’s a home girl who had her mainstage debut with us. She was part of our opera program. It’s a perfect fit, to bring back someone who is part of our opera family for our 60th anniversary season,” Walker said.
Sierra first became enamored of opera at age 6, when her mother brought home a library videotape of Puccini’s "La Bohème." She began training with Palm Beach Opera at age 14, and by 16 had made her house debut as The Sandman in Humperdinck’s ''Hansel and Gretel." She sang a supporting role (First Spirit) in Mozart’s "The Magic Flute'' two years later, and then took a starring role in 2011 as Euridice in Gluck’s "Orfeo ed Euridice."
By that time, she had become at 19 the youngest-ever winner of the Marilyn Horne Foundation Vocal Competition, a prestigious honor that led to mentoring and a lasting relationship with Horne, a legendary mezzo-soprano and teacher.
“She really helped me in the beginning of my career. She believed in me, she had faith in me,” Sierra said.
Sierra earned a bachelor’s degree from the Mannes College of Music in New York, which has been her home base ever since, and then joined the Adler Fellowship Program at the San Francisco Opera. She has won a host of awards since then, including the Richard Tucker Award in 2017 and the Beverly Sills Artist Award from the Metropolitan Opera in 2018.
She has appeared on the leading opera stages of the world for much of the past decade, as well as given recitals in its top halls. At the Met, she has sung three Mozart roles (Ilia, Susanna and Zerlina) in addition to Gilda, and most recently she has sung Gilda, Nanetta (Verdi's "Falstaff") and Sophie (Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier") for Berlin Staatsoper; Massenet's "Manon" for Opera Bordeaux in France; and Juliette (Gounod's "Roméo et Juliette") for San Francisco Opera.
In August, she sings Adina in Donizetti’s "L’Elisir d’Amore" for Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires; in September, it’s Violetta in Verdi’s "La Traviata" for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino music festival in Florence. She also has concert dates in Montevideo, Berlin, Vienna and Paris, as well as cities in Germany, Belgium and Finland.
“I knew when I was young that I wanted to be not just a national but an international opera singer, and I realized that I would have to travel for my life. But I didn’t realize how much,” Sierra said. “And I didn’t realize that my life belongings would be following me in a suitcase 11 months out of the year. But that was my choice, to have that kind of career and that kind of trajectory in the industry.
“And it shows you that there’s one side of opera that’s very glamorous and a lot of fun, and there the realistic side is not so glamorous. You’re always on the road, you almost never get to see your family and friends unless they have the financial means to travel and see you often. The idea of having a family or not kind of comes into play as you get older, and you wonder: Is there actually going to be a future for me, or am I always going to be single and childless?” said Sierra, who had been engaged but is no longer.
“And you’re always changing time zones. You always have to work incessantly because you’re learning new music and you’re always having to keep the same level, if not becoming better and better as you grow older,” she said. “So I knew that it would be a lot of work and that it would take a lot of dedication. But I didn’t understand what that dedication could possibly do to me as a person, how it would change me as a person, as a human being.
“And thankfully I’ve had so many positive experiences in my life, far more than negative ones, that I’ve been able to come out of that OK. I've been able to come out of that stronger, more independent,” she said. “Interestingly enough, I have fallen more in love with opera and the industry than I was already in love with it when I was so young.”
The sold-out gala at The Breakers will welcome about 225 guests, Walker said. A cocktail reception will be followed by Sierra in recital with Bryan Wagorn, a Canadian pianist and vocal coach who has worked with the soprano for more than a decade. After the recital in the Mediterranean Ballroom, guests will return to The Breakers courtyard for a champagne-and-dessert reception, Walker said.
"She’s one of our own. So it’s just a magical event," he said.
Sierra endured a bout of COVID-19 in the summer of 2020 that aggravated her mitral valve stenosis, giving her “butterflies in the chest” for hours. “That was very, very annoying,” she said. “Not that it was painful; it was very uncomfortable. I think I had that for about three months after having COVID.”
She also temporarily lost her senses of taste and smell, and she and her mother came down with a shingles rash “all over our bodies, and on my face and eyes,” she said.
“It was so many different symptoms, I’m glad that I actually had it before getting vaccinated, because I feel stronger after having had it. And also I feel less fearful of getting COVID,” she said. “My body had the opportunity of getting it … and should I get it in the future, my body will be able to fight it.”
Sierra maintains an active presence on social media, particularly on Instagram, where she engages with young aspiring singers; she also has given lessons over Zoom to some of them. Social media allows opera singers to “show people that we’re not just artists, we’re also human beings,” she said.
When she returns to La Scala in June for Gilda, a role she sang there in 2016, she will be bringing a different artist to the role, she said.
“I just feel like a more polished version of myself,” she said, now that she is in her early 30s. “And to bring that to a place like La Scala, which is at the top of my list of things to do and places to perform.”
Back in 2016, she was approached after her performances by numerous audience members who had been attending opera at La Scala for decades.
“At La Scala, opera is literally a religion, it’s a sacred art form, for this community of people,” she said. “If they accept you, they kind of embrace you. And especially being an American soprano, being embraced by that community with all that history, it definitely feels like a great accomplishment.
“It’s very humbling,” she said.
The Palm Beach Opera gala begins at The Breakers at 6:30 p.m. Monday. The event is sold out. For more information, call 561-833-7888 or visit pbopera.org.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Opera star Nadine Sierra to headline 2022 Palm Beach Opera gala