On Wednesday, May 4, soprano Nadine Sierra spoke at Barnard College, where she was joined in conversation by Columbia professor Deborah Paredez. Events Editor Ava Slocum attended their discussion about Sierra’s life, career, and titular role in the Metropolitan Opera’s new modern setting of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Since its opening less than a month ago, the Met’s new Lucia di Lammermoor production has been making headlines for its reimagined approach to the classic opera. Starring soprano Nadine Sierra, joined by Columbia’s Deborah Paredez at a talk at Barnard last Wednesday, brings years of experience with major operatic roles and a deep love of music’s representative power to the Met’s new staging, which highlights the modern sensibilities of Donizetti’s best-known work.

Sierra, 33, grew up in Florida, in a part of Fort Lauderdale where, she said, opera was not something that people really talked about. Her mother is Portuguese, and Sierra credits her mother’s European heritage with sparking her interest in opera. She started voice lessons at a young age, and singing made her feel like she “was swimming in the right kind of waters, the water meant for me.”

Opera is a poignant part of Sierra’s family history. Her grandmother in Portugal had dreams of becoming an opera singer herself, but never got the chance because performing was not considered a suitable occupation for a woman. Sierra said that her own awareness of the limitations placed on her grandmother makes her even more grateful for the opportunities she has had that allow her to be where she is today.

Headlining the Met’s new Lucia di Lammermoor marks a turning point in Sierra’s already-impressive career, which has included such roles as Gilda in Rigoletto at the Met and Violetta Valéry in La Traviata and Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore at opera houses around the world. The Met’s new production of Donizetti’s bel canto Lucia di Lammermoor—an opera based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor that premiered in Naples in 1835—shifts the story from 17th-century Scotland to the present-day American Rust Belt. According to Sierra, many of the opera’s concerns about violence, familial conflict, and the subordination and subjugation of women fit in all too well with modern American issues, and the new staging pays homage to the original story while exploring the opera’s relevance in our current time.

Lucia di Lammermoor’s plot hinges on the conflict between the titular Lucia and her brother Enrico, who forces Lucia to marry the wealthy Arturo despite her love for Edgardo, a political rival to the family. On their wedding night, Lucia stabs Arturo to death and goes insane, singing the gorgeously eerie aria of the famous mad scene that forms the opera’s gut-wrenching climax. The Met’s new production by director Simon Stone, set in an impoverished industrial American town, highlights the misogynistic structures and lack of power that is inherent to Lucia’s situation even in our present day. Sierra, reflecting on Stone’s updated setting, said, “There’s still oppression going on for young women who are not in a financial situation where they can determine their choices and journey in life, instead having to lean on men.”

In the opera, Lucia’s sole sense of comfort in her chaotic family circumstances is her secret relationship with Edgardo, whom she plans to marry. Sierra pointed out that even Lucia’s hope of salvation lies in her connection to a man, forcing her character to remain dependent on men as she tries to escape her life with her domineering brother. “I see Lucia as being a victim of emotional abuse for sure,” Sierra said, “kind of living in a prison created by her own family.” Enrico insists that Lucia must marry Arturo to save their family from financial ruin; however, helping her family in this way puts her in a new kind of prison where “her only way out” is still Edgardo, a male figure. To Sierra, it’s hardly surprising that homicide is Lucia’s reaction to her forced marriage, since her family situation has put her in a place from which she feels there is no escape.

As part of the presentation, Paredez played some clips from Sierra’s dress rehearsal performance, including the mad scene with its harrowing image of Lucia in a wedding dress dripping with blood. Regarding Lucia’s choice to murder Arturo, Sierra asked whether Lucia’s actions in this scene really constitute insanity. “Is that madness?” she asked the lecture audience. “I don’t know if it’s crazy. It’s desperation, and having enough of being controlled in your life emotionally, and now physically,” with regard to Lucia’s forced marriage to a man she barely knows.

Along with its modern setting, the new production allows for a deep look into Lucia’s psyche with its extensive use of video footage. Director Simon Stone, who has a background in film, made the choice to have two camera people follow Lucia onstage for much of the opera, projecting live footage onto a screen above the stage to provide small glimpses into her character’s internal life even in scenes where she is not physically present. After Sierra and Paredez’s talk last week, I was lucky enough to see Lucia di Lammermoor myself this last Tuesday night (as a reward for myself after finishing my last final of the semester!). I thought the video element was fascinating; it gave those of us in the audience little close-ups of Lucia’s memories and scenes from her imagination, as well as snapshots into her hiding from her brother upstairs in her room, doing her makeup in the mirror, and sneaking away to meet Edgardo at his job at the local QuickMart.

During Lucia’s Act I aria when she describes her vision of the ghost of a young woman murdered by her lover, the video’s projected image of the ghost covered in blood was a startling representation of the show’s themes about violence and exploitation of women, and it made me tear up a little as I sat there in the audience. Later, the projection of Lucia’s imagined images of a happy life with Edgardo during the horror and chaos of her Act III mad scene was equally emotionally affecting, and a powerful complement to Sierra’s virtuosic tackling of the highly demanding melodic lines and colouratura sections of Lucia’s aria “Il dolce suono” (“The sweet sound”). Even Sierra’s less famously show-stopping moments were impactful—her anguished line, “Why is no one listening to me?” during Donizetti’s celebrated sextet in the tumultuous wedding scene added depth to her interpretation of Lucia as a young woman who just wants to be heard.

Paredez, who is currently working on a book about American divas and their impact on her own life, commented on Sierra’s kinship with such sopranos as Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas who have famously sung the role of Lucia in past decades of the Met’s history. As opposed to the sexist connotation of a diva as a petulant, temperamental woman performer, Sierra said that she thinks of “a real diva” as “someone who should inspire people for the betterment of not just themselves but the art form they want to be associated with.” She described herself as a “servant to the music,” explaining that it’s not about her but the operas themselves and the roles that she has the privilege and the joy of singing.

Besides the Columbia and Barnard students, much of Sierra and Paredez’s lecture audience was made up of voice students from the Manhattan School of Music. (The cluster sitting next to me all watched the clips of Sierra’s singing with studious intent as if trying to memorize precisely how her mouth moved and how she sang her vowels.) In response to a student’s question about how she stays confident in her singing and herself, Sierra gave the advice to not compare yourself to other people, as difficult as that can be, but to practice being happy for others’ successes since the good karma will bring good things to you as well. Practicing singing, Sierra said, is, for her, a way of “obsessing over something that I already love.” Her love for singing and the power of music and opera is evident in the dedication, introspection, and joy that she brings to her role giving voice to the voiceless Lucia.

Lucia di Lammermoor is running until May 21—would highly, highly recommend going if you are able! I was lucky enough to get a $25 rush ticket, which the Met makes available to buy on their website on the day of each performance.

Paredez (left) and Sierra (right) watch a clip of Sierra onstage via Ava Slocum