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Idaho rising star Madison Leonard reveals the secret to opera (the soprano always dies) and more

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Madison Leonard performing in Romeo et Juliette. - SCOTT SUCHMAN PHOTO
  • Scott Suchman photo
  • Madison Leonard performing in Romeo et Juliette.

As a middle child growing up in North Idaho, performing seemed an ideal way to get some attention for Madison Leonard.

Piano and cello lessons followed, as did singing in a fifth-grade musical called Phantom of the Cafeteria and a variety of roles for Lake City Playhouse, Christian Youth Theater and any school program that offered a shot at the spotlight.

"I was Sandy in Grease when I was a freshman in high school," Leonard recalls of her days at Coeur d'Alene High School. "That was a little scandal, a freshman getting a lead role! There were some icy stares going down the hallway that week."

Leonard landed a scholarship to Pepperdine University, where a mentor steered the now-26-year-old toward opera. Her stirring soprano has since led to national recognition and gigs, winning the Metropolitan National Council Auditions this summer and performing with the National Symphony Orchestra, among others. She got married a few months ago to fellow singer Shea Owens, and the couple recently moved to Switzerland. This fall, Leonard will audition for several European opera companies before returning to the states this winter to perform in Seattle Opera's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs and Carmen.

This weekend, Leonard comes home to the Inland Northwest to perform in the Inland Northwest Opera's production of The Marriage of Figaro in Spokane. I sat down with Leonard to ask her some utterly silly questions that showcase my lack of opera knowledge, and she was totally game. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:

INLANDER: I'm trying to imagine life as a college student when you're surrounded by theater kids.

Madison Leonard: It's amazing. Wonderful. I highly recommend it. You will not find a more fun, more spontaneous, colorful group of people. There's also a lot of crying. It was a blast.

If you had to choose one opera for us novices to start with, without it being The Marriage of Figaro, what would it be?

La Boheme is stunning music and a familiar story, because that's what Rent is based on. It's kind of one of those quintessential tragic operas. (Kicks into a dramatic voice.) There's beautiful love, but you know it can't last because someone's going to die. Hint, hint: It's the soprano.

Is it always the soprano?

Pretty much. I swear it's always the soprano, and it's usually because she has tuberculosis. You hear (cough, cough) and you're like, "Uh oh, she's going down."

The Marriage of Figaro is a sequel to The Barber of Seville. What's your favorite movie sequel?

The first thing that comes to mind, because I'm a product of the '90s, is Father of the Bride. I feel like the sequel is equally good, if not better, and that doesn't happen very often. I would actually say the same about the opera, too. The Barber of Seville is super fun, but The Marriage of Figaro has even more relationships and funny moments.

Are there certain foods that singers should avoid eating before performing with their fellow actors?

Yes! Those things are the regular offenders — onions, garlic — but I will say not all singers avoid or care about avoiding those things. And a lot of singers still drink a lot of coffee. The good ones will pop a mint after. Actually, one of my buddies here is brushing his teeth in between, which is the next step.

You don't have a Wikipedia page. If I were to start one after this interview, what would you want on it first?

I have been able to use the Idaho thing as pretty unique among opera singers. Most people, when I tell people I'm from Idaho, it's like total shock. Not even a response. So if I could be "Idaho's Diva," I'd be OK with that.

What would people be surprised to find in your iTunes?

Not a lot of opera, actually. I have a lot of jazz. Funk. Stevie Wonder. Definitely things from before I was born.

What makes you immediately turn off the radio if it comes on?

My siblings give me a lot of crap for this, but basically 95 percent of pop music. I will not be found listening to the radio, essentially ever. I try not to be some vocal snob, but it's hard for me to listen to really bad singing. It's my job, so I just have a hard time respecting people making millions of dollars a year on their throat when they're not trained. Great music, great singing, I'm there for it.

Have you ever gone to karaoke and just tore it up, brought down the house?

I haven't really. I used to go and I'd put in Aretha Franklin or something, and people would be like, "OK, I guess that's fine." I should give it another shot.

If you were a rapper, what would you want your rap name to be?

Well my Instagram handle is Mad Dog. But that's also our secretary of defense, so that might be a little confusing. If Mad Dog wasn't taken, maybe that.

What would someone have to do to see the real Mad Dog in you?

I can be easily fired up in political debates. That's my family's forte. Not emotionally, they're not attacking, but they like to debate. Or cutting me off in traffic. I'm not that much of a road rage person, but yeah. ♦

dann@inlander.com

The Marriage of Figaro • Fri, Sept. 21 at 7:30 pm and Sun, Sept. 23 at 2 pm • $17-$80 • Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • foxtheaterspokane.org • 624-1200

The original print version of this article was headlined "Drama Queen"