Interview: Nicole Cabell on her Covent Garden debut as Musetta plus recording projects

'I didn't bring a dress for the final! I thought I wasn't going to get there, so why burden myself?'

6 July 2008

Nicole CabellAmerican soprano Nicole Cabell's rise to prominence in the last few years has been astronomical. On winning the BBC Singer of the World in Cardiff Competition in 2005, she went on to make various important debuts around the world and signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca. Her first album, Soprano, was superbly received and won the 2007 Georg Solti Orphée d'Or from the French Académie du Disque Lyrique and an Echo Klassik Award in Germany.

Cabell made her Royal Opera debut in 2006 in concert performances of Halevy's La Juive at the Barbican but on Sunday she sings at Covent Garden itself, as Musetta in a revival of La bohème. The role has taken her all round the world this year, from Chicago and Washington, and a recently-released recording of the piece taken from concert performances in Munich will provide the soundtrack for a forthcoming film version starring Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko.

With all this and lots more to discuss, I chatted to Cabell in between rehearsals to see what the future holds for her.

Of the character of Musetta, Cabell says: 'She's a bit of fun. I've been doing her for a couple of years now, and I'm starting to wind down my performances of her!' she laughs. 'I've been through so many metamorphoses of the character since I began doing it. I started off making her very sultry and French, then it went to the other extreme, to a crazy, nutty Mediterranean personality.

'And now I'm trying to combine everything,' she continues. 'Yes, she's definitely multi-dimensional, but you can't do too much at the beginning in terms of introducing her Act IV shift. She loves to have fun; she loves to play with just about anybody – men, women, anyone. She has a little dog! She's completely confident: she knows, no matter what, she will always get her way. I guess she's under the impression that she might be able to live the life of some rich, important woman, so she acts like it, but underneath it all she's a Bohemian at heart, which is why she turns around eventually.'

Nicole CabellVocally, the part suits her very well. 'I love singing it,' Cabell admits. 'I've found that there are sections where it's easy to get covered by the orchestra; with Musetta, down at the bottom you don't have any sustained lines, so it's unlike Mimi where you can cut across. That can be challenging, but when I hit the high notes, that's where I like singing! It's fine when I get up there and it's not really that much of a challenge.'

I ask Cabell whether she minds singing a smaller role rather than the main character, but she replies: 'Actually, I like it. I'm not technically making my debut, but it's the first time I've sung at the opera house, so it's nice not to have to carry the show. Sometimes I've been thrust into lead roles in big houses and it's been kind of stressful. This is nice because I've done the role before and I feel comfortable with it.'

Not nervous, then? 'I think I would be if I hadn't done it so many times, but I'm more excited than anything. Of course, I love London, so I want to make a good impression – I'd like to continue to sing here! I'm nervous about that, if anything, though I'm coming back in a future season.'

Earlier in the year, Opera Rara released a new recording of Donizetti's Imelda de' Lambertazzi based on a concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in which Cabell played the title role. 'That was my last longer period in London. We spent about two weeks doing it, and it was quite a challenge because we had to prepare for the concert while making the recording, but it was really enjoyable.' The recording is distinctive for its unusual use of a period instrument orchestra – the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. 'I loved that,' enthuses Cabell. 'I don't have the hugest voice in the world so it was great to perform with an orchestra that was very sensitive. And the Queen Elizabeth Hall is intimate, too – it isn't like the Royal Albert! I did A Child of Our Time at the RAH in April, which was fun, but it was hard to do Les Illuminations at the Proms and try to get the subtlety of chamber music in such a massive space.'

Nicole CabellNicole Cabell's most recent recording finds her as Musetta in a complete La bohème. 'That was the second time I'd ever sung it,' she comments. 'I've done it so many times since that I keep thinking "I wish I could add this and this and this!" But it was great fun, and it was fantastic working with Netrebko and Villazon. It's funny: I had never heard Anna Netrebko live before, so what a privilege to hear her right next to me – amazing. She's just the most natural singer: it comes out with no tension, it's wonderful. And of course Rolando gives 110 percent all the time. We just made the movie version of it. It's very traditional and lovely. Robert Dornhelm, the director, has done a lot of epic films, and it was great that he let us do our own thing. Compared to opera, making a movie was a breeze – you have just one thing to do well as opposed to having to do a lot of things well, which can be very exhausting. I think it'll be a wonderful project – we were able to see some clips of it and it's a dream come true.'

Cabell's debut CD, Soprano, featured a selection of arias from a wide range of composers, including Berlioz, Tippett, Puccini and Gershwin. 'A lot of the repertoire was based on the Cardiff competition, and it was recorded about six months afterwards. It was the first recording I'd ever done, and I was nervous because it was a new experience. We had five sessions, and for the first couple of days I was still singing like I was in an opera house. By the third session, I finally started to get it! I picked things I liked singing so that it would be personal: here's who I am. I love the aria from Benvenuto Cellini: it's a fun piece but it's not done very often. I first came across it when I was covering for a concert, and it was a bit of a mess because I couldn't get it into my voice. But I finally got it, and then I started to love it and brought it to Cardiff.'

Nicole CabellAnd that's by no means the end of Cabell's time in the studio. 'The plan is to record a CD of French exotic songs and arias in January and hope to get it out later next year. It's things like Ravel's Shéhérazade and arias from Thais, possibly Djamileh and Les pêcheurs – all exotic themes. French music was such a strong movement at the time, and something I really relate to. I feel I have a French-toned voice, and I'm still working on my French, so hopefully it won't be too much of a handicap!'

On 30 August, Cabell will join John Tomlinson and John Mark Ainsley for A Child of Our Time at the Edinburgh Festival. It's a work that means a lot to the soprano. 'When I did it in Chicago, it was the first time I'd heard it, let alone sung it. It's a very personal work to me because the first experience – with Andrew Davis – was wonderful, and I love the music. It's by a British composer but it has the spiritual element to it. I love music by black composers, and spirituals, and Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, all that kind of stuff. So it's a way to kill two birds with one stone. I love the composition as a whole, and I get very emotional when I sing it, so whenever I can do it, I say yes.

'The message of the piece is always significant. I'm sure that every time it's performed, people say that it's more significant than ever, but truly the message is universal and unchanging. When you're singing something like this, you always have current events to think about. It's very deep: it's not about showing off vocal beauty, but rather it's about the state of humanity as a whole.'

Of the Edinburgh experience, Cabell comments: 'I'm really looking forward to performing at the festival. I went to Edinburgh for a day and a half, two years ago. My friend was in England and said "Oh, there's some New Year's fireworks over at the castle" so we went over for the day! It was cool, but we didn't have much time. So I'm looking forward to looking round properly.'

As if singing Musetta at Covent Garden were not enough, next season brings Cabell's Met debut. 'It's very exciting; for an American singer, this is the top,' she says. 'I'm doing the English reduced 'family' version of The Magic Flute for my debut; again, it's a good way of getting your feet wet. Then in the Spring, I'm doing Adina in L'elisir d'amore, which is the deep end of the pool. So I hope it's not going to be too nerve-wracking; I have to remember Cardiff – nothing could be more nerve-wracking than that. I've auditioned at the Met and sung in a competition there already, so at least I know it a little. Pamina's never a problem; the orchestration's never heavy so you're not going to get covered. Adina: we'll see. But I will eventually sing Micaela and Musetta there, so it's going bigger over time. After that, we'll see what happens – they haven't heard me onstage there yet, so it's really remarkable to have these four roles.'

Although Cabell went on to become perhaps the most famous winner of recent instalments of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, she was initially reluctant to take part. 'I think it was 2003 when I was approached to do it, and I said "No way!" So when 2005 came around, I thought that although there was a snowball's chance in hell of winning, I might as well do it for the experience. So when I got to the semi-finals, it was already like winning a huge competition – I was elated beyond words. I was so excited. When I got there, all I could think was, "Please don't let me screw up on national television!" I felt very nervous and couldn't sleep, but then when I was in the performance, I was concentrating on my technique and giving everything I had. So it wasn't too bad, but I was pretty nervous at the final. I had never sung the Mozart before, which was not the smartest decision, but I had to pick a varied programme.

Nicole Cabell'And I didn't even bring a dress for the final!' she declares. 'I thought I wasn't going to get there, so why burden myself? I was going on an audition tour after Cardiff, and I had just one bag to go all over France with, which is why I picked boring dresses. It turned out to be a theme – the little black dress! – because I couldn't fit my big fluffy things in this bag. So I went dress shopping in Cardiff the day before the final, and bumped into Joan Sutherland!

'I'm still in touch with Marilyn Horne, who is a goddess. When I went into the competition, I thought that if I won, it might look bad because she was on the panel. But in fact, she was the hardest judge to convince. Both Quinn Kelsey and I were in the competition, and I knew that if I didn't give my top performance, she would not have been happy. So she wasn't prejudiced at all. And I was fortunate enough to keep in contact with her afterwards and get lots of advice from her.'

What did she get out of the competition? 'I was at the end of my residency at the Young Artists' Programme in Chicago, but although I had a few engagements, I knew I had to go on an audition tour. But when I won Cardiff, the work started coming in – thank God! Then I did the album. When I'd got that security, I had to start picking projects that suited me, and not everything did. They had to be good for my voice and image, and things that I enjoyed. Fairly soon, I found that it was a lot of work! Even though I was picking the right things, I was still doing too many of them. So that was a lesson I had to learn. Cardiff gave me everything.

'When I look back, I still feel very lucky to have won: the other singers had strengths that I could only hope to have, and I only won by one vote.'

Cabell's childhood was remote from classical music. 'There was plenty of music going on though. My mother was into what I like to call "hippy rock" – music from the 1960s and 1970s – and, although it's terribly embarrassing to admit it now, I was into hair bands in the 1980s! Thankfully, my taste improved as the years went by. When I started singing, it was musical theatre and jazz. Within six weeks, I was studying with a classical teacher, because I was singing it like an opera singer without knowing it. So I started singing opera right away, when I was sixteen, and that was the first time I heard it. It's been a very interesting process, learning to appreciate opera at the same time as learning how to sing it. Three years later, I arrived at college singing all the wrong stuff. My teachers were fantastic, but I was overambitious and would say "I think I'll do Tosca this week!" and they would have to stop me. I love all the Verdi and Puccini works.'

Although she loves the theatre, Cabell is also a keen recitalist. 'I was slated to do another Rosenblatt, but I'm not sure if it's going to work out logistically. But I'm doing lots in America. I'm doing one in Toronto, and the series that year is unbelievable: Kathleen Battle, Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming – and me! So what do I do? I have to come up with music that is somewhat interesting in itself, because although I know I will give a good performance, these are legends. These are the women! In Europe, I do a lot of aria programmes, because the Liederabends don't market well – it's not as profitable for people. I would love to do them, though.'

Nicole CabellI ask her about her plans for future repertoire. 'I'm very cautious with my voice,' she replies, 'and I'm just now starting to feel out some slightly richer repertoire like Micaela. At the moment I'm doing things like Pamina and Adina, more Musettas, which is great, but I hope to move on a little. It'll be a while before I do Mimi, and I'll start it in a smaller house, get my feet wet and see how it goes.'

Our conversation comes to a close with a discussion of Cabell's operatic idols. 'Of course, Freni and Horne. I have really always loved Renée Fleming because she has a vulnerability and humility, yet manages to exude this diva presence and be completely down to earth. The marketing of her as an artist and of course her incredible instrument, and her commitment: I really admire it all. I love listening to her recordings! I love Scotto and Callas stylistically; they're unrivalled, I think. I watched the DVD of Scotto's L'elisir d'amore and thought, how is something so perfect? As an actress, a person, an interpreter, she's just remarkable. What I love so much about Freni is that she sings with 110 percent heart. The voice is so beautiful, and it's unpretentious. It's honest, and you can't help but cry when you listen to her sing. She is my vocal idol.'

By Dominic McHugh

La boheme opens at the Royal Opera House on 13 July at 3pm.

Soprano (Decca), La boheme (Deutsche Grammophon) and Imelda de' Lambertazzi (Opera Rara) are out now.