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Latina soprano Nadine Sierra speaks out about the opera world and what needs to change

"I’ve had to deal with certain male figures in my life who were very abusive, especially emotionally abusive, like with Lucia,” she said.

The first thing you notice when Nadine Sierra comes on stage is the ease with which she moves, a naturalness that comes from her long training. Then she opens her mouth and wonders happen. 

At 34, the acclaimed Latina soprano has already performed in the world's top opera houses, making history at age 20 when she became the youngest singer to win the Metropolitan Opera’s vocal competition.

Born and raised in Florida, Sierra is a musical prodigy who became hooked on opera after seeing a VHS tape of “La Boheme” when she was 6, going on to win multiple competitions and auditions when she was in high school.

The singer is proud of her heritage and speaks often of her father, a firefighter of Puerto Rican and Italian descent, and her Portuguese mother, who works at a bank. But there's another family member she mentions regularly— for a reason.

“My grandma, she had wanted to become an opera singer. She had a beautiful voice. Her father, my great-grandfather, did not want her to have any kind of working job, because she was a woman and a woman’s job was to be a housewife, have children and that was it," Sierra said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo.

This spring, Sierra played Lucia in the demanding and beloved opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The cast included the Mexican tenor Javier Camarena.

“The role of Lucia is very famous for how vocally challenging it is," Sierra said. "Lucia, she almost never leaves the stage. ... It’s the most physical production I’ve ever had to do, and the most theatrical."

She said the live performance also included two cameras following her like a movie, "and there’s a movie screen above the action and people can see our faces, our expressions."

Identifying with an opera character on 'abusive men'

But beyond the physical, fans of the opera love the plot — and the strength of the tormented Lucia.

Based on "The Bride of Lammermoor,"  an 1819 novel by Sir Walter Scott, the opera follows the tragic conflict among three main characters: the candid Lucia Ashton; her brother, Enrico; and Edgardo Ravenswood, the man she loves and who, as in many romantic classics, is the great enemy of the Ashton family.

In the opera, Enrico Ashton, who's totally bankrupt, arranges a supposedly advantageous marriage for his sister even though she was already engaged to Edgardo.

This can not go well, and that is what's shown in the opera's well-known aria, "Il Dolce Suono" — known as the scene of madness — in which Lucia appears bloodied, after stabbing her fiancé and beginning to lose her mind as she daydreams about her beloved Edgardo.

From its premiere in the 19th century, "Lucia di Lammermoor" focuses on the destruction of a woman who is betrayed and violated by those closest to her.

“You get to see why Lucia really loses her mind and how these men in her life are really controlling her, her world, and and turning her world completely inside out,” she said.

“I can absolutely identify with parts of Lucia’s life," Sierra said. I’ve had to deal with certain male figures in my life who were very abusive, especially emotionally abusive, like with Lucia."

Sierra is candid about her experiences and views, and below is a condensed version of her interview with Noticias Telemundo.

NT: What things do you think should change in the world of opera today?

NS: I think people who love opera and want to stick to all of the traditional things about opera should try to be a little bit more open-minded. ... I mean talking like on the internet.

If you keep influencing the young generation online with only negativity, how do you think that generation is even going to give opera a chance?

It’s not progressive at all. It’s so stuck in the past. It it almost makes me sick, I have to say.

NT: Starting so young in a demanding discipline like opera is a great challenge, some kids suffer because they feel they lost part of their childhood or adolescence. ... How was your experience?

NS: There was a big portion of my childhood where I didn’t have any friends at school because the kids didn’t understand, you know, my love for opera, specifically opera. They thought you know, that’s for old people, how boring, that’s so weird.

When we had special things at school like a talent show or a chance to have a solo in the choir, or whatever, normally, I would be the one to do the solo or I would win an award, so I did feel very much when I was a child I was isolated a little bit from the other kids.

NT: Was family support important in coping with bullying and that feeling of loneliness?

NS: There was a time I went to my mother and I said: ‘I don’t know if I want to sing anymore because I have no friends.’ And my mom told me, ‘This too shall pass, it will go away, [but] your love for music will never go away. ... The future will give you a better outcome.'

NT: Films like "Whiplash," among many others, have cemented the idea that mistreatment is a characteristic of certain musical environments. Have you experienced a similar situation?

NS: My hair is naturally curly, really curly. And I did have a voice teacher once, she’s no longer living, but I had a voice teacher who said to me that I should straighten my hair because I looked too ethnic, like I looked too brown, like a brown person. And it’s why now, I mean so many years later, I still straighten my hair. ... It left a lasting impression on me.

NT: But we really want to see you with the curls.

NS: I should. ... That’s my natural state, that’s how I was born and I should never be ashamed of that, ever. No one should.

NT: Have you ever felt discriminated against for being Hispanic?

NS: I never felt it to be a problem. I have been discriminated against before. And I will say a lot of that happened during the era of Trump.

Once I was at a gym in New York City. And it’s funny because at the gym at that time, that moment, there was like a news segment on the TV about Trump, and it was before he was elected president.

I was actively using a machine and I got off just for a few seconds to go back on. And this white woman kind of like pushed me to the side. ... I said: ‘Excuse me, I’m using this, I'm still I’m not done but I will be done soon.’ And she said, ‘You can wait your turn, Consuela.’... I was like, ‘What did you call me? What?’ And she’s like: ‘Oh, you heard me. I’m using it now.’

So I was really upset and I went downstairs and I spoke to the gym's receptionist and told them. And it was funny, it ended in a positive way, because the woman, the receptionist, she’s Black and she said: ‘Oh, you’re Latina? Oh, I thought you were Black’ ... We were laughing, and she told me, ‘Ma’am, you have no idea how much I suffer from this.’... It gave me a moment of ‘Yeah, I’m so sorry, I can only imagine.’

NT: What message can you give to young Latinas who may also want to venture into opera, but perhaps do not have full support or are criticized, like what happened to you?

NS: Life, no matter what it brings to you, is always a gift. And we have to live in this present time that we have.

I think if you keep working hard and you have the dedication and most importantly the love for something ... it will come eventually.

And it could come in a way you weren’t expecting. If it’s not that you’re performing for an audience, it could be that you’re working for an opera house or you’re helping another young singer or you become a voice teacher or you have some influence in the art form. And sometimes, it can actually make you happier.

It actually adds more to your life than takes away. So I think being open-minded, not giving up hope and continuing the love for this art form, is the best thing you can do.

A previous version of this article was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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