Verdi and all that jazz

Having started out as a jazz singer in New York City, soprano Leah Crocetto’s approach to opera is "a little bit out of the box."

Leah Crocetto 370 (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Leah Crocetto 370
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Leah Crocetto certainly has the right genes for her craft. The twenty-something soprano singer hails from an Italian-American family, and will proudly show off her familial and musical heritage when she stars in the Israeli Opera’s production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller which last week began a run of a dozen performances, ending on January 19.
Crocetto is alternating in the lead role with Romanian- born soprano Aurelia Florian, with Daniel Oren on the conductor’s podium and the Israeli Opera Chorus, under chorus master Eithan Schmeisser, and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion providing consummate vocal and instrumental support.
The revival director for the current production is veteran Deutsche Oper Berlin assistant and revival director Gerlinde Pelkowski.
Crocetto brings a varied, if not disparate, personal and professional backdrop to her work.
“I come from a large Italian family, so I grew up listening to a lot of opera, but also to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack. Those guys were great storytellers,” she says. The latter was a somewhat notorious, motley and wild and wooly late 1950s-1960s bunch of entertainers and actors which also included the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. Inspiration was also on hand from very close quarters.
“My dad was one of the biggest musical influences on my life, and he exposed me to all different kinds of music, like soul and gospel. I’ve listened to it all, from Bob Dylan to Earth Wind & Fire.”
With that lead-in to her operatic career, it comes as little surprise to hear that Crocetto chalked up time in very different areas of the arts before getting to grips with works by Verdi et al.
“I don’t have a degree in music, I have a degree in acting, and before I became an opera singer I was a jazz singer singing in clubs in New York City, so my approach [to opera] is a little bit different to a lot of people’s,” she says.
That can lead to some misunderstandings, and some extra work by all parties involved to arrive at a happy modus operandi.
“It can sometimes be frustrating to some, because I don’t necessarily approach an opera in the same way as someone who has conservatory training. It is a little bit out of the box, and it can take a little longer if a director doesn’t understand me.”
Then again, there are all-round benefits to be had from Crocetto’s educational path.
“Sometimes it coincides with what the director wants from the theater world, because that is my world, and which is the way I approach my performances.”
This is Crocetto’s debut as Luisa Miller, and she says he is delighted to have landed the role and also to perform in an opera by Verdi. The composer was born in October 1813 and the operatic world has lined up all sorts of events to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.
“There are so many voices of Verdi, depending on the era,” the soprano observes. “What draws me to Luisa Miller is the way the chords are structured. The finale just pulls on your heartstrings in just the right way. There is also so much drama in the notes, and the way Verdi has orchestrated it. I think that is the beauty of Verdi.”
For Crocetto the raw material she will work on over the next couple of weeks is of the highest quality and most emotive kind.
“[Opera diva] Maria Callas said: ‘All the drama you need is in the music.’ For me, that’s just it. As long as I follow what Verdi says I need to do, vocally I’ll be OK, and dramatically the audience will get it.”
Crocetto brings all her artistic baggage to her work on the stage, which also means she occasionally introduces some seemingly extraneous elements to her singing, even if opera purists may not approve.
According to the soprano, performing classical material does not preclude utilizing other items in her professional arsenal, including form her jazzy background.
“I am always tempted to improvise,” she confesses.
“Some roles allow that. I just did Rossini this summer and there’s a lot of ornamentation to be done in Rossini, and there’s actually some in Verdi too, but not as much. In coloratura [soprano opera singing which incorporates elaborate ornamentation] there is a lot of vibrato, and give and take, in the phrases.”
That, says Crocetto, offers her a certain degree of leeway in how she can use vocal phrasing.
“You might cluster five or six notes a little quicker and then give back the rhythm that you’ve taken in the next beat. As long as the voice and the orchestra end in the same place, it’s okay. I think that’s the beauty of bel canto [operatic style of singing] – it’s all about the voice. Anyway, I never stray too far, beyond what is acceptable in opera.”
Jazz singers often talk about trying to achieve a certain instrumental quality, while some instrumentalists aim to find some vocal texture to their playing.
That’s a sentiment with which Crocetto identifies.
“I played trumpet for a couple of years when I was younger, so I always liked [iconic jazz trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis, but I always try to make my voice sound like a violin because it is the closest instrument to the voice. As a singer, you want to give the impression of never breathing, and I love the way that can happen.”
Although she has not been on the global opera circuit for too long, Crocetto has already taken on some pretty demanding roles, and come through with flying colors.
“I just sang Desdemona [in Verdi’s Otello] at Teatro Le Fenice [in Venice]. Singing the role of Desdemona in the opera house where it premiered, that was a little scary.”
Crocetto is evidently fully primed for her Israel Opera debut.
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and