Praised by The New York Times for her “radiant” and “handsomely resonant voice,” soprano Nicole Heaston has appeared with opera companies throughout the world, including The Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera, Semperoper Dresden, and the Glyndebourne Festival in England. At Spoleto Festival USA in 2023, Heaston takes on the title role of Vanessa in Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti’s psychological opera.
Ahead of Heaston’s arrival in Charleston this spring, we caught up with the award-winning singer, avid scrap-booker, and mom of two. Below, meet Nicole Heaston.
Tell us your story: How did you get your start singing opera?
I grew up in Chicago. My mother was a classically trained pianist, and my father was an attorney. My mother wanted me to play piano, and though I was pretty horrible at that, my piano teacher told my mother that I would sing along with the melodies when I was playing and suggested I start in a choir. So, my mother put me in the Chicago’s Children’s Choir—I think it’s called Voices United today. For me—it was like I found my tribe. I was a second alto, sang some of the gospel solos. But once I got into high school, my high school teacher gave me the best advice. She said, “One, you’re a soprano. And two, you’re an opera singer.” I was a bit shocked, like: “No, Black people don’t sing opera.” And she turned me around to see the wall behind her with pictures of Leontyne Price and William Warfield hanging and she said, “Those are Black opera singers. You’re an opera singer.”
I started training and won some competitions—enough to buy myself a car my senior year. It was then that I decided to forget pre-law and see if a singing career would work out. I just fell in love with singing opera. I loved getting dressed up and becoming someone else. From there, I went to University of Akron for my undergraduate degree and then Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for my master’s. When I graduated, I got into the Houston Opera Studio, and from that point on, my professional career took off. I’m based in Houston now and have been here since 1995—I’m pretty much a Houstonian at this point.
Tell us about Vanessa. Have you sung this role before?
This is my first time singing Vanessa. And actually: I love her. I think she is out of her mind. Sometimes, when I’m going through some of her lines I just think, wow, this lady is just so extra. She’s as crazy as a bag of cats! She is so self-involved, but it’s not about herself—she only thinks of Anatol, the man she longs for. But even that is only in connection to how it makes her feel about herself.
This is a role that really requires a certain level of maturity to sing. Sure, a young singer could probably sing all the notes—but you have to know what it’s like to have gotten a bit older, when you may not be as tight or as beautiful as you once were. But you’re still trying to recapture that youth and trying to recapture it through the love of a man. I find her absolutely intriguing, and I love it.
How do you get into character? Any backstage rituals?
Well, before performances I always do the same thing: I pray right before I go onstage, asking God to give me the strength to connect with the audience, offering the information and the characterization that they are meant to see.
But now in the run-up to rehearsals, I’m working on the role Vanessa with my vocal coach. I bring my own personality and my interpretation of the character, but I know that’ll change the minute I arrive in Charleston and finally sing with Anatol and Erica. Acting is reacting. Regardless of how much I plan to play a line one way, if I get something back from a fellow singer that doesn’t fit, I must react to how they’re playing the scene. The dynamic changes, which is something I love. Opera is such a collaborative art. When you’re with the conductor, the director, and your fellow artists, your ideas meld into something else. It grows and changes. It’s a journey to make a character come to life.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I love scrapbooking! I also love to mentor young singers, especially because I feel that when I was a young singer, there wasn’t enough mentoring. It was kind of like you were thrown to the wolves. Like, this is the career—good luck! But you’re left with so many questions: How do you have children and get married? Can you do these things with a career? It can’t always be about one’s voice.
What do you want people to know about this opera?
It is so beautiful and accessible. I think people often think about opera and say, “I don’t understand what’s going on. It’s in another language. It doesn’t make any sense to me.” And even though there are usually surtitles, with this opera, it’s in English! It’s an American opera. And it’s about topics we can all relate to: love, loss, and wanting something that can’t be yours. And there’s a family dynamic between Vanessa and her niece Erica, who she loves dearly but is so wrapped up in her own ego that she can’t see Erica’s pain. That’s relatable. This is really a female-centered opera. There’s also Vanessa’s mother, who can clearly see that Vanessa is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, yet she gravitates more to Erica, too. It’s a gem of an opera yet not performed very often—which is surprising to me because the music is just so exquisite. So if you have a chance to come see this Vanessa, don’t miss out.