My first time hearing Leah Hawkins sing was at The Metropolitan Opera as Strawberry Woman in Porgy and Bess in 2021 (a show-stopping performance). Often on the road but based in New York City, she is now back home for a role debut and her first lead role at The Met – Musetta in La bohème.
I was eager to reach out to Leah to hear about her experience in this production and get to know her off-stage. We talked about her current gig, life on the road, and life off the clock. (And she made me laugh so, so much.)
This production of La bohème is being presented by an enormous, star-studded cast with lots of covers throughout its seven-week run. Leah is sharing the role of Musetta with Sylvia D’Eramo and Latonia Moore. (What a trio!)
Due to the multi-cast nature of this production, rehearsal time is very limited – actually, her first time performing this role on the stage at The Met will be during her first performance tomorrow night, Thursday, May 11 (with additional performances to follow on May 17 and 20).
“I'm excited. There's no time to overthink. That's sort of what I love about it. I did one jump in at The Met last season. I've done Act 2 of Aida with orchestra, staging with no orchestra, time and no time on stage, and the beauty of those kinds of things is that you have no time to overthink – you just have to do it. You're hyper-focused. And you don't even have time to really be nervous because you have a job to do, a story to tell – and there's a part of me that really loves it.”
One of Leah’s biggest highlights from this rehearsal process is her one rehearsal with the kids in the show. She was practicing lifts for the first time, and the kids could tell she was nervous and were cheering her on!
“The energy they brought to that room was so beautiful, so special, and so supportive. And that kind of energy, that kind of excitement, it forces you to get out of your own way. It forces you to just do the thing because you wanna make them happy – you wanna make them proud.”
In addition to adding lifts to her movement repertoire, Leah is also debuting another skill in this role: jumping on tables. Musetta is very different from other characters she has performed: “In the beginning, I sort of freaked out about just freeing myself to be a free spirit. I was like, I've never been lifted before. What is this? I hate this. I really had to get out of my head – the character wouldn't care about being lifted, the character would think nothing of it.”
She summarized: “So it's been a challenge, but also a blessing. I needed this to sort of get out of my own way, and like, take that freedom to some of those other ladies that I have sung and will sing.”
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to perform a character, and channel whatever part of you is necessary to best realize that. But until this conversation with Leah, I never really thought much about how much the performer can learn and grow from the written character.
She shared: “Every role actually does that for me. I find pieces of these characters that make me deal with parts of myself that maybe I haven't dealt with, or I've tucked away in some way. I appreciate it a lot.”
Following up on this, I was curious if Leah had a pre-show routine to help get in the zone: “I pulled away from the pre-performance tradition thing because sometimes I can be spooky and I don't want to have that attached to performing, like, if I don't eat 3 grapes and drink 8 ounces of water I can't sing.”
Instead: “Usually I have a good cry, a good grateful cry like, Oh, wow! I get to make music. That usually happens before every performance, before every opening night I have at least one grateful cry.”
Never, ever underestimate the power of a good cry.
Oftentimes, she’ll also listen to Florence Quivar’s spiritual album. She’s one of her favorite voices, and this album taught her how to sing everything.
When asked what she likes to do outside of work, Leah said…work. Well, sort of – she loves to travel, which is something that comes with her job as an opera singer, so she loves that about her work.
“I just love exploring new places and meeting new people, and when I travel alone, I meet all kinds of people. I usually meet very quirky people. I just attract them. I think I have a kind energy, and people are just like I'm gonna tell you my life story.”
Leah was also quick to admit that she loves “trash TV”, and as I revealed myself as a fellow fan, Leah continued: “90 Day Fiancé is my JAM!”
After we bonded over our shared (excellent) taste in television, I was curious if Leah had a go-to ‘first thing’ for every new city she is in. She always buys candles or incense to burn, and goes for a walk around the neighborhood:
“And this is the spooky part of me. I figure if I'm alone, and I wear bright colors in this new place, if I go missing, they'll say oh yeah, I saw a lady in hot pink at 8 o'clock last night, so you feel like they can identify me, you know? It's clear that I was there.”
Funnily enough: “I didn't even realize I was doing it until someone pointed out that I was doing it. It’s subconscious. And yeah, now, I'm making a point to go out in a bright color, so that people know I was there.”
While she’s home in NYC, she switches roles and loves people-watching at various spots around the city. Besides pure entertainment: “The things you can pick up on humans are really good for character study. Just watch humans be humans. It's like, really something I love to do. I think that's why I like traveling and different human energies. I'm like, huh! That's interesting. That's a choice!”
Leah also loves going places where she hears different languages being spoken around her. She has her go-to spots that the people who know, will know – but wants to explore New York more.
For someone like Leah, personal connection is her goal with performing – I felt it with her show-stopping performance at The Met in 2021, and I’m excited to experience it again when I go see her perform Musetta.
“Why get up there if we're gonna be in our heads, or thinking about ourselves? There's no point, cause that's not what art is about. It's not about that. And you can tell when people get up there, and it's about them. That's the point for me – connecting with and reaching people.”