Ventura Music Festival brings soprano back to her roots

Times Staff Writer

The auditorium at Nicole Cabell's old high school is a little more modest than her usual haunts.

Last month, the 30-year-old soprano performed at Royal Albert Hall in London. In a couple of weeks, she'll sing at Tivoli in Copenhagen.

Tonight, she plays Ventura High School, headlining the final show of the 10-day Ventura Music Festival.

Tall and elegant, Cabell has won some of opera's most prestigious awards. Last year, she triggered a gush of superlatives from the music critics of Berlin, racing there from France on three hours of sleep to stand in for a diva who had fallen ill.

In Ventura, a place aggressively promoting itself as an arts haven, Cabell has received the hometown hero treatment. Last week, she was given the key to the city. With appropriately operatic bravado, Councilman Neal Andrews told her, "It's really the key to our heart."

Popping throat lozenges and antibiotics to stave off laryngitis, Cabell worried festival organizers by giving a master class for music students on Wednesday night.

The next day, she took the stage before 800 students at her alma mater, answering questions and serenading them with Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro." After everyone else settled down, two teenage boys remained standing, cheering wildly for an encore.

Cabell was the most famous Ventura High graduate that most of them had never heard of, but they listened raptly.

"I'm kind of overwhelmed," she said, surveying the room where she had long ago sung a medley of show tunes. "Everyone needs to do this, to return to the place they started."

Cabell grew up in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. When she was a teenager, she cleaned her voice teachers' studio for a discount on lessons. Now she owns a condominium in Chicago but travels the world -- still mostly flying coach -- nine months a year, collecting mostly first-class reviews.

In 2005, she was named the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, beating out hundreds of other up-and-comers. Eight million viewers tuned into what is promoted as opera's most important competition, and even more savored the finalists' glittering outfits on such blogs as BBC's Frockwatch. "Take it slowly," opera legend Joan Sutherland advised Cabell in giving her the crystal trophy. "Don't let people rush you."

It took a while for Cabell to find her musical chops. When she was growing up, she said, the schools didn't offer much music. She was in a chamber choir for about six months. She tried playing flute in the marching band, but soon quit. "You had to walk around in these funny hats," she said.

One day, her mother Terri heard her trilling along with an opera CD and urged her into voice training. Linda Brice, her teacher, was stunned from the start.

"From that moment, I realized she had everything a professional opera singer would require," recalled Brice, who now runs a voice studio in Portland, Ore. "She had an incredibly beautiful voice, she was musically expressive, she was intelligent."

At the high school Thursday, Brice was sitting in the front row, beaming. Her ex-husband and studio partner Vincent Sorisio was at Cabell's side, accompanying her on piano. They had taken Cabell under their wing when she was a teenager, even giving a concert for the family when Clarence Cabell, Nicole's father, died suddenly at 46.

After attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., on a full scholarship, Cabell plunged into a world strikingly different than the one she had studied.

"I used to want to be a big star," she said, "but that has nothing to do with the quality of performance. It's how you look, what you wear, the scandals, the affairs, what you say to the press."

The fabled fat lady no longer sings. In 2004, London's Royal Opera fired renowned soprano Deborah Voigt because she could not squeeze into a tight dress for "Ariadne auf Naxos," a Strauss opera. Her subsequent gastric-bypass surgery was the talk of the opera world.

"Everyone has personal trainers," Cabell said. "In Europe, opera singers are all over the tabloids. You have to be accessible and sexy. You have to be a pop star."

Noted for her stormy temperament, Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu told a British men's magazine that, unlike her colleagues, she avoids working out. "I get my gymnastic exercise unpacking luggage -- and making love," she said.

It was Gheorghiu who Cabell subbed for in Berlin, playing Juliette in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette."

Two weeks later, Cabell starred at the same opera house in Mozart's "Idomeneo."

The production, which featured a scene with the severed head of Muhammad, was mounted under tight security, with metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Many critics have raved over Cabell's exotic good looks -- she's of Korean, black and white descent -- and strained for metaphors to describe her voice. The Times of London called it "liquid gold," the New York Times "a silken lasso."

A few reviewers have complained that she isn't expressive enough, but she claims to shrug off the naysayers.

"A teacher told me not to worry about it," she said. "At any opera, 25% of the people will love you, 25% will hate you and the rest will be asleep," she said.


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