The soprano sings Leïla in Les Pêcheurs de perles at Santa Fe Opera this month
Something extraordinary occurred in the finals of the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Few who witnessed it, whether ‘live’ or on television, will ever forget how a true artist emerged before one’s eyes, seemingly possessing every attribute needed for a remarkable career. Her name was Nicole Cabell. The last of Cabell’s selections was Teresa’s cavatine from Benvenuto Cellini, delivered in a glowing lyric soprano enhanced by flexibility, musicality and elegant French. Nailing the fiendishly difficult closing cadenza and flashing a megawatt smile, she set the seal on a performance that the audience acknowledged with a massive ovation. Cabell was awarded the top prize, receiving the winner’s trophy from Joan Sutherland.
When we spoke last winter in Chicago, six years after Cardiff, the competition was still vivid in Cabell’s memory. She’s well aware that such huge exposure can be dangerous for young singers: ‘If you’ve been doing really great and then botch your performance in the finals at Cardiff, it’s going to take a lot of repair work in people’s minds.’ But Cabell was ready, making canny choices of repertoire for the finals— Berlioz, Mozart (Idomeneo) and Tippett (A Child of Our Time). She recalls that she started out less than sanguine regarding her chances: ‘I didn’t have a huge voice, I didn’t have high E flats, I didn’t move my voice like some of those other singers.’ But in the first round her Capuleti aria drew lengthy applause, and by the time she made it to the finals, she was thinking, ‘OK, I guess I have as good a shot as anyone’.
To her credit, Cabell has never rested on the laurels of Cardiff. Instead, she is continually learning and developing. Yet, beyond the tonal beauty, technical polish, stylistic acuity, and warm, gracious stage presence, there is the indefinable ‘something to say’ that transforms technically excellent vocalism into memorable interpretation. The aura she projects is one of sheer, unadulterated niceness—she suffers greatly if she senses that she’s hurt someone’s feelings. ‘That’s part of what makes you a nice person—that you’re considerate. If people are waiting and want to talk, of course I’m going to talk to them. I find it flattering, I appreciate that they’ve waited for me.’
It’s no surprise that the Figaro Countess, of all her roles, speaks to her particularly strongly (her portrayal has earned lavish praise—initially in Cincinnati, then Chicago and Montreal). ‘She’s very earth-centered, very calm,’ says Cabell. ‘Even when she’s kind of freaking out in Act 2, she has a certain poise, which she never loses.’ Portraying
Opera, June 2012 the Countess doesn’t particularly challenge the soprano simply because ‘it’s just so natural when I’m onstage singing her’.
Rather a contrast is Musetta, regularly heard when Cabell’s career was taking off (Detroit, Santa Fe, Washington, London, also on film and CD). Puccini’s grisette is generally viewed as a showy role, but Cabell begs to differ: ‘You get only a couple of high notes in the whole piece, one little short aria, that’s really it.’ She also considers herself ‘a much mellower character onstage than Musetta. I don’t know why people kept offering that role to me,’ although she figures that companies may well have thought, ‘This is a new soprano, we want her to sing, so how do we get her in the house without taking a huge risk?’. Mozart, however, remains the centre of Cabell’s operatic life— Pamina (eight houses to date, including Chicago, the Met and the Deutsche Oper Berlin), the Countess, Ilia (Berlin—the infamous Neuenfels production), and Donna Elvira (Cologne, Berlin). As for ottocento repertoire, other than the hefty demands of Donizetti’s Imelda de’ Lambertazzi (for a London concert and an Opera Rara recording), Cabell has favoured what she calls ‘the gentler bel canto’: Adina has been a major success (Montpellier, and subsequently the Met and Chicago), and we can expect the same of Bellini’s Giulietta, due in San Francisco this autumn.
Of Eudoxie in La Juive (her Royal Opera debut, in concert at the Barbican), Micaëla, Leïla and Juliette, it’s Gounod’s Shakespearian heroine who gives Cabell the greatest joy. She’s portrayed Juliette at Spoleto USA (her first star role to draw significant attention), Berlin (triumphing as a last-minute substitute in a concert performance opposite Neil Shicoff), New Orleans and Palm Beach. When first acquainting herself with the role, she apparently wondered, ‘How am I going to get through this?’. But she found that ‘it’s written so beautifully for the voice, so I never feel I’m tired’. On occasion
■ Taking off: Cabell as Musetta at Chicago Lyric Opera, with Dale Travis as Alcindoro, 2007
Opera, June 2012