Grammy winner Isabel Leonard offers expertise and inspiration to Shepherd School students

2023-24 Aleko Endowed Master Class artist led a public master class April 14

Isabel Leonard master class
Isabel Leonard master class
 2023-24 Aleko Endowed Master Class artist Isabel Leonard capped her multiday residency at the Shepherd School of Music with a public master class involving four opera students. (Photos by Lynn Lane)

Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music students say they came away inspired after a public master class led by three-time Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. The April 14 session at Brockman Hall for Opera’s Morrison Theater was part of Leonard’s multiday residency as the 2023-24 Aleko Endowed Master Class artist.

The master class featured Shepherd School opera students Tessa McQueen (soprano), Audrey Welsh (mezzo-soprano), Kellan Dunlap (tenor) and Adam Partridge (baritone), accompanied by principal coach of opera studies Bethany Self. Leonard, known for her captivating stage presence and insightful interpretations, provided the singers with guidance on vocal technique and emphasized the importance of critically analyzing the music’s text to refine performances.

“Her way of expressing text is incredibly powerful, something we all witnessed in her recent performance as Maria in Houston Grand Opera’s ‘The Sound of Music,’” said Dunlap.

Dunlap highlighted Leonard’s real-time text analysis as a valuable takeaway, expressing his excitement to incorporate her feedback into his own studies.

“Working with Isabel Leonard was such a wonderful experience,” McQueen said, noting that she performed Donna Elvira’s aria “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” a role Leonard just performed last season for the LA Opera. “She gave me so much to consider. She is such a detailed, thoughtful, kind artist and someone I respect very deeply in this industry.”

Leonard’s notes about language, diction and overall expression of the piece left what McQueen called a “beautiful impact,” acknowledging thanks to the Shepherd School and Director of Opera Studies Joshua Winograde for the opportunity to work with Leonard.

“I introduced my little niece to opera by watching Isabel sing on ‘Sesame Street,’ so you can definitely say it was a special moment for me,” McQueen said.

Partridge, who performed Rodrigo’s aria “Per me giunto” from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Don Carlos,” worked with Leonard to refine the character and voice of the piece, delving deeper into the psyche of Rodrigo.

“I’ll be honest, it was a little out of my comfort zone, but we often need to venture there in order to grow as performers,” Partridge said. “I feel so fortunate to have been one of the four students who worked with Ms. Leonard and am ever thankful for Rice continuously providing opportunities for its singers to become better artists.”

“Isabel Leonard’s class made it clear for our music students that she is a well-deserved star of the opera stage,” said Matthew Loden, dean of the Shepherd School. “But she also has an extraordinary ability to inspire real artistic growth through her incredible teaching. We were so lucky to have her with us.”

The singer’s residency additionally provided students with invaluable access to the world-renowned artist through one-on-one coachings at the Shepherd School. Leonard’s busy schedule includes performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Wiener Staatsoper and LA Opera, where she tackled “Don Giovanni” and “The Barber of Seville” in 2023.

The annual Aleko Endowed Master Class Artist Series brings leading artists and teachers to work with Shepherd School students. The Shepherd School graciously acknowledges Houston Grand Opera for coordinating this important teaching residency.

The Shepherd School’s 2024-25 season will be announced this summer. Sign up to receive the full lineup via email.