She reaches down to rummage in her purse, pulls out a tissue, turns her head and blows.
“Very attractive,” she says with a smile. “I’m allergic to Charleston.”
Cabell, a 28-year-old California native, will make her debut at the Spoleto Festival USA this week as Juliette in the 1867 opera “Romeo et Juliette” by French romantic composer Charles Gounod. The festival is one of many callers Cabell has received since last summer, when she was named the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in what is considered a top vocal competition. Cabell, who now lives in Chicago, was one of 24 finalists.
She knows how important the prize is, but she can joke about it.“It sounds kind of like a wrestling title,” she says with a laugh.“You should get a big belt if you win it.”
Landing at the top of the operatic heap isn’t something Cabell ever expected; she didn’t even know she could sing until she was 15. As a child, she was most interested in writing, pursing it with a passion even at a young age. Her mother encouraged her to take music lessons to be well-rounded, so she started studying flute at 12.
“It was opposite of writing —going from something that you do alone to being a performer,” Cabell says.
And she didn’t take to the performance part: “I’d shake — my whole body would shake.”
Still, she kept at it, until prompted by her mother again.
“I was singing around the house and my mother said I sounded good,” Cabell recalls. “She encouraged me to look around for a choir to sing in.”
Turns out a local chamber choir was holding auditions the next day, so she tried out and became part of the group. At 15, she started doing musical theater, mostly musical revues. A big fan of pop music, Cabell grew up listening to ’60s and ’70s sounds, thanks to her mom, “a former hippie.” She was a fan of ’80s music by The Police and Sade, and ’90s grunge.
“I love Pearl Jam,” Cabell said.
Deciding that she should continue singing, she went to a vocal teacher. “After a few weeks, she said, ‘I think you should study with my teachers,’” Cabell says. For the next two years, Cabell studied opera, a form she’d had no exposure to or experience with. She graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in 2001 and was accepted into the graduate program at the Juilliard School.
“I was there for three days — well, actually two days,” Cabell says.
As soon as she started, the Lyric Opera of Chicago offered her a three-year residency at its center for young singers.
“When Nicole first got up to sing in my class, after three notes I knew she had it,” Lyric Opera center director Richard Pearlman told The Chicago Tribune last year. “The sound of her voice was so distinctive, the musicianship was at such an Olympian level, you couldn’t keep your eyes off her.”
Others sing her praises, but Cabell is very un-diva-like. She notes that she selected works to perform at the Singer of the World competition that “weren’t too taxing.”
Opera seemed to her to be an “unattainable, complicated thing.”
She mentions more than once that she was “afraid of forgetting the words.”
She was shocked she won the competition.
“At first I just didn’t want to make a fool of myself,” she said.
The heady praise she has received hasn’t gone to her head.
“I’m being very cautious in investing too much in reviews,” Cabell says. “You can’t take it too seriously.”
The closest she comes to bragging is talking about her first day in Charleston.
”I thought the first rehearsal was May 2, but it was May 1,” she says. “As soon as I got here, we had to sing the whole opera. If I can get off a plane, deal with allergies and sing that, I can do this.”
By Jeffrey Day
Photo Credit: Renee Ittner McManus
Talent gets spotted at Spoleto
The next bright young thing often shines first at festival.
One of the strongest legacies of the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is the discovery of new talent.
This tradition started in 1958, when composer Gian Carlo Menotti began the festival in Italy, and it continued when the American festival started in 1977.
Early Spoleto discoveries were soprano Kathleen Battle, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and opera sensation Jessye Norman.
The new singer all eyes are on this year is Nicole Cabell, in the role of Juliet.
By JEFFREY DAY
Kansas City Star