Talking with singers: Nicole Cabell Photo by Devon Cass.

Talking with singers: Nicole Cabell

Jenna Simeonov

“You know, if I suppose you let that pressure get to your head, you’d never sing,” laughs Nicole Cabell, who’s currently sharing the role of Hanna with fellow star soprano Renée Fleming, in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Merry Widow.

A self-professed “glass half full” type of person, Cabell focuses on the inspiration of working with an idol. “I remember watching [Renée] in ‘96, I think it was, on TV - I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard, and I said, ‘that’s what I want to sound like one day!’ And of course, nobody can sound like that, but at the same time, it’s so wonderful to have her as someone who has done [the role], something to aspire to, and just to be in her company is amazing. It’s like being with your hero.”

Hanna is a role debut for Cabell, and Lehár’s operetta is a departure from her usual calendar of Mimì, Juliette, and Violetta. “I wouldn’t say [operetta is] crossover, you have to sing it with operatic style, but it’s really fun! You can take a little bit more liberty in the interpretation. And it’s just really great music.” Cabell will sing opposite Thomas Hampson as Danilo, making that “two opera idols” she’ll work with this month. “[Thomas] and I had worked together a couple of times before, and he’s so supportive and to work with.”

Cabell has had a long relationship with Lyric Opera of Chicago, starting with the Ryan Opera Center in 2002. She spent three seasons as a young artist, and has since returned for roles like Pamina (Die Zauberflöte), Leïla (Les pêcheurs de perles), and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. Cabell now lives in Chicago, and Lyric Opera is “sort of like my home company. It’s really nice to live in a city where you can sing at home.”

Photo by Erika Dufour.

Travel junkie

Hometown gigs are a delicious rarity for busy singers, and the nomadic lifestyle can become too much for some. “You have to be a certain breed of person to do this sort of thing,” agrees Cabell. “There’s a part of me, and every singer I know, that wants to settle down and have a normal job and a family, and all that. But then there’s this other part, and I think if you don’t have this, you’re going to have a hard time. There’s this other part where you’re really restless if you’re not always going, and having crazy adventures. Wanderlust, I guess. I have that in me.”

If they’re successful, singers are presented with what seems like an impossible decision, choosing between time spent at work and at home. For Cabell, it was never about making her singing fit into her life, but about her life fitting into her singing. “It was more, how do I make these other things I want, so more steady relationships, maybe living in a place that I feel grounded in, how do I make that work with this other part of me, that’s actually a bigger part of my personality? I still have that, I still get really excited to travel, and I get a bit restless if I’m at home too long.”

While most singers see travel as an industry perk, for Cabell, it’s almost as if singing is a perk of travel. “If it weren’t for the travel, I don’t think I’d be as in love with it,” she says. “Travelling and seeing the world is part of why we want to do this, I think.”

Not everyone has the same attitude, and Cabell knows she’s fortunate to thrive off the nomadic lifestyle. “I think if you’re sensitive or if you need company all the time, I don’t know if it’s for you, this career. You have to be really comfortable being alone, and you have to be pretty independent, just kind of fearless in getting by in a foreign country by yourself.” It’s something that Cabell understood early on about the life of a professional singer, “but I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of independence you have to have, and proactivity.”

Cabell as Adina, with Àngel Òdena as Belcore, in L’elisir d’amore, Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2012.

Great ladies and bucket list roles

“I always love Mimì,” says Cabell of her enviable repertoire of roles. “She sings from the heart, and she’s so genuine and lovable, I think ‘that’s who I want to be’, I can relate to her.” Last season she sang Mimì at l’Opéra National de Paris, and she has sung Musetta at The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Santa Fe Opera.

“I had to be patient. The roles that I really wanted to sing, Countess, Mimì, those things, Traviata, they took some time.” Cabell reminds her private students about the long-game that is a singing career. “I don’t have a big voice, so I really had to wait until it warmed up enough, to be able to do those things.”

Violetta in La traviata is another of those favoured soprano roles available to Cabell. “Traviata’s tougher, for sure. She’s such a spicy character. She has a heart of gold, of course, but you have to have a little bit of bite.” She compares Violetta to singing Musetta, two roles she finds challenging. “You have to have a bit of steel to your voice to really sing those characters.”

So, what does it feel like to be able to sing Juliette, or Adina, or the Countess? “Each job is like climbing a mountain, it’s really challenging. But you get to the top, and there’s a real adrenaline rush, and it’s kind of an amazing thing to be able to do. And everybody’s different; some people just really love the act of singing. I love all of it.”

Nicole Cabell as Violetta in La traviata, Michigan Opera Theater, 2013.

Cabell is a free spirit when it comes to the future of her career. “I want to teach, for sure. I don’t know where that’s going to fit with the repertoire I get offered. I’m doing things this year I never thought I would do; I never thought I would sing Alcina, I never thought I would sing Merry Widow.” Now, she’s reaping the rewards of her exhaustive work, and she has the luxury of choice and curiosity with the roles she takes on. “I’m a lucky person because I can say that I’ve crossed everything off of my bucket list. Once I sang Mimì in Paris I said, ‘Ok, that’s it, everything else is just frosting.’ I’m in a good place, because I don’t have a plan. I know I’m lucky in saying that. I’m very grateful.”

Her love of singing has always been present, but Cabell insists that going with the flow was something she had to learn the hard way. “Everybody is a different voice, couple that with a different personality, what they look like, all that stuff is going to predict where they are, what the world wants to do with them. And they don’t have as much control over it as they want to believe. I think your best bet is not to take it all too seriously, have a little bit more fun, and just roll with the punches.”

Nicole Cabell sings in The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago, December 9-13th. For details and ticket information, follow the box office links below.

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