It has been said that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
For the past 12 years since winning the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, lyric soprano Nicole Cabell has reflected the very embodiment of that well-known proverb. “It’s hard to think what some of the biggest highlights have been for me in the past 12 years,” a humble Cabell says in a phone interview from Nantes, France, where she was performing a familiar role: Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. “Cardiff is probably one of the best competitions available to singers, and after that experience, things got crazy for me. I was introduced to opera houses and was working right away.”
These days, Cabell remains one of the most in-demand singers in opera houses and concert halls throughout the world, earning accolades from both critics and colleagues and winning both the ears and hearts of audiences.
Enjoying what has been an enviable music career as a highly sought-after soloist, the Decca recording artist has graced some of the classical music world’s most prominent stages, from the Lyric Opera of Chicago—where she was a young artist with the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center (formerly the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists)—to the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra National de Paris, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera, New Orleans Opera, Atlanta Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Minnesota Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Michigan Opera Theatre, Washington National Opera, Washington Concert Opera, and Carnegie Hall, among countless others.
She has put her stamp on such roles as Mimì and Musetta in La bohème, Violetta in La traviata, Adina in L’elisir d’amore, Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Léïla in Les pêcheurs de perles, Medora in Il corsaro, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, Micaëla in Carmen, Ilia in Idomeneo, and the title role in Alcina.
Cabell also has appeared alongside some of the most celebrated orchestras dotting the globe, including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, and Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra.
Her concert repertoire has included a vast array, from Orff’s Carmina Burana to Mozart’s Requiem; Mahler’s Symphonies No. 2, No. 4, and No. 8; Poulenc’s Gloria; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9; Tippett’s A Child of Our Time; Previn’s Honey and Rue; and Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Additionally, Cabell has been highlighted at a variety of annual music festivals, from Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival to the Ravinia Festival, the Brevard Music Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, and the Oregon Bach Festival as well as having presented solo recitals in major cities throughout the United States and abroad. All the while, she has retained a down-to-earth and approachable persona, as well as a carefully crafted yet casual approach to music making in her artistic pursuits.
Cabell made her home in Chicago recently, adding perhaps the largest role of all to her illustrious singing career as a voice teacher at DePaul University. “I think the next big challenge of my life will be continuing to have freedom as a full-time singer while learning how to be the best teacher I can possibly be for my students,” Cabell says. “It’s a challenge I’m very excited about.”
An Early Penchant for Making Music
Born (1977) and raised in California, Cabell—who is of African American, Korean, and Caucasian decent—discovered her natural ability to carry a tune by accident. “I played the flute in my junior high school band,” she recalls. “There was no orchestra or any other outlet but the marching band as an accessory to the sports programs. I learned pretty quickly that really wasn’t for me. I quit after a week.”
The experience, however, had whet Cabell’s appetite for making music. And, despite early aspirations to become a fiction writer—she was a voracious reader and adored adventure and fantasy novels—she and her parents looked for other opportunities for her to continue on her musical journey. “One day, I was just humming around the house,” Cabell says. “My mom heard me and thought it was a good sound.”
Thinking at first that she might be better suited for the likes of Broadway musicals, Cabell joined her school’s chamber choir. “I was very shy and suffered from stage fright, but within about a month and a half, I had opened my mouth,” she says, with a laugh.
Cabell would go on to pursue private vocal studies with Linda Brice and Vincent Sorisio, finding early encouragement through competitions like the National Association of Teachers of Singing before studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. But soon, and unexpectedly, she came face to face with the notion that she might have what it takes to become a successful singer in the classical realm.
“At first I was hesitant to commit entirely to opera,” Cabell says. “I attended the Eastman School of Music with the hope of exploring jazz on the side, but I didn’t really have a chance to do that with my busy schedule.” As she continued her studies, it became clearer and clearer that the opera world was beckoning through further encouragement from the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
She briefly attended the prestigious Juilliard School. It wasn’t long, however, before Cabell was invited to join the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, where she honed her craft for three years. There, she was mentored by such operatic luminaries as director Richard Pearlman, soprano and Director of Vocal Studies Gianna Rolandi, and legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. “I was very lucky,” Cabell says. “I’ve had teachers and mentors who have been so wonderful to me. They made me love it.”
From Chicago to Cardiff and Beyond
After having completed her studies as a young artist at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Cabell went on to compete in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2005. A well-known and highly regarded competition for both singers of opera and art song, the event saw its beginnings in 1983 as a commemoration to the opening of St. David’s Hall, in Cardiff, Wales. Taking place every two years, it recognizes selected singers who represent their respective countries from throughout the world. The competition is judged by a panel of singers, musicians, and music professionals.
After winning the competition, what followed was a whirlwind start to what has become an exhilarating career for Cabell. That same year, she created her first professional recordings with Decca, including Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and the critically acclaimed solo recital album, Soprano, which featured a collection of Italian, French, and English arias. The latter received the Georg Solti Prize Orphée d’Or 2007 by the Académie du Disque Lyrique and Gramophone magazine’s Editor’s Choice.
She also made her London debut in Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms. “Working with Sir Andrew Davis is definitely one of the highlights of my career,” says Cabell, who continues to collaborate with Davis. He conducted The Merry Widow featuring Cabell at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in December 2015. Additional debuts were received at the Royal Opera House and Deutsche Oper Berlin.
By 2007, she was presenting her first solo recital at St. John’s Smith Square in London and had added Santa Fe Opera, Washington National Opera, and Queen Elizabeth Hall to her performance venue roster. She also made a return to her old stomping grounds at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Then, in 2008, Cabell made her Metropolitan Opera debut, singing the role of Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. “It’s a large hall for my voice, but I’m comfortable in the house, and it is such an honor to perform there,” Cabell says.
In addition to her many operatic, concert, and recital appearances, Cabell also has since recorded the title role in Donizetti’s Imelda de’ Lambertazzi and has appeared as Musetta in a filmed version of Puccini’s La bohème, alongside fellow opera stars Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. It debuted on PBS in 2009.
Laying such a firm foundation so early in her singing career came with challenges when it came to carving out a unique artistic niche, Cabell says. And she found audience reception to be different around the world. “It all happened very fast for me,” she says. “But I think that as I have settled into my career, I have learned to chill out a lot more. I’ve walked less of a tight rope and taken on less of a ‘straitjacket approach’ to making music. I have become more focused on playing with music than I have been with creating music that is perfect.
“That’s the one thing I might go back and tell my younger self as a singer,” she continues. “It can be a challenge because there are purists out there, especially in Baroque music, who are so obsessed with the score. The score is a good template. It’s where you should start. But music comes alive when you play with the colors and the phrasing or add a different vocal edge to it. That’s what I’m always trying to discover now. It’s still a struggle for me sometimes to do this, but as an artist it’s nice to experience that kind of freedom. It comes with time and experience. As a young singer, you just have to have faith in where you’re at and be where you are—and know that you have a role in this world beyond your work.”
A Return to the Windy City
After a dozen years crafting a career that has taken her all over the world and established her among today’s leading opera singers, the 39-year-old soprano recently joined the faculty at DePaul University as a voice teacher, making her home in the Midwestern city along the shores of Lake Michigan that served as her training ground.
“Chicago has a fabulous energy and is a great city to live in,” Cabell says. “Even since I first came to Chicago, I knew I wanted to live there. I’m a California girl, but Chicago has always felt like the place where I belong . . . the performances, the shopping, the food, the culture, the kindness of the people. It can be a harder city to get your start, so that’s why a lot of singers move to the East Coast. As a fresh young singer, you can do a lot of singing all the time in a lot of different places and get your name out a lot faster if you live someplace like New York City. But Chicago is a centralized location for me as a performer and teacher.”
Cabell’s sentiments for Chicago are echoed in how she feels about DePaul University as well. She warmly regards both as her “home.” “I’ve been really lucky with DePaul,” Cabell says. “I’ve been able to teach lessons and masterclasses on the side throughout my career, but I reached a point where I really craved having students of my own. Teaching is something you have to want to do and love to do. There is a great responsibility in helping young singers build their voice at such a pivotal time in their educational growth and development.
“It’s a fine balance to maintain a full-time singing career with teaching,” she continues, “but DePaul really wants me out there, actively performing so that I can report back. I can use my experience to help educate singers, letting them know what’s happening in the performance world and how to figure out the best thing to do to prepare for a successful career. And it’s very important for me to do right by them.”
Continuing on as a performing artist, the fruits of Cabell’s labor are perhaps sweeter now than ever before.
“I’m at a place now where I don’t worry as much or feel as much pressure,” Cabell says. “Early in my career, I had a bucket list. But that has been the beauty of a fast career, and I’m very grateful for that. It hasn’t been all rosy, but now that I’ve had an opportunity to cross so many things off of that list, I can enjoy my time onstage a little more. I still work my butt off, but I don’t feel like I have to take certain roles, certain engagements, or sing in certain houses because I need them to get my name out there or to establish my legacy. Everything I do now is extra for me and is fun.”
That said, Cabell says she foresees herself singing well into the future and looks forward to what exciting new challenges will continue to await her as she educates the next generation of opera singers. She also says she’s interested in learning more about the correlation between singing and using tools such as Alexander Technique, yoga, and other holistic methods.
“You never know what direction your career is going to take you, but I continue to take each opportunity as it comes,” Cabell says. “I hope to excel at teaching as best I can. I can see myself doing that until the very end, when I’m old and gray. I’ll be one of those little old ladies, poking people in the belly with my cane, reminding them to breathe.”