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Adriana Zabala reflects on the lasting impact of Nadia Boulanger

In the upcoming LunART Festival this summer, the production of Nadia: An Exploration of the Life of Nadia Boulanger, midwife to 20th century music by Mina Fisher, is one of the many works of art that the Madison community will be able to see. This is a play about Nadia Boulanger, the famous French music educator. Adriana Zabala is excited to bring Nadia to Madison.

“Everyone gets something quite beautiful and meaningful from this piece,” Zabala said. “The surprise I think about it is that it resonates as a human story. Then on top of that, you really learn something. But the piece is not didactic. It is not a lecture in the guise of a play. It's a play. It's a play about a person. And you learn a lot about that because of her fascinating experiences and her fascinating perspective.”

Photo by Aaron Huff

Zabala’s musical journey started young. She explained that she had memories of music in her household when she was two or three years old while looking at her parents' records in her home. There were vinyls from Bach Cantatas to Louis Armstrong and so much more.

“I remember sitting there, seemingly in my memory, seeing those album covers… What I know now is that they [her parents] had great taste. They had everything. And it wasn't just one genre. And it wasn't just one period. So my musical awakening was simply in the family and what my parents kind of valued listening to.”

While she played a couple of instruments like the piano or dabbled in percussion, she always loved singing the most. She fully committed herself to singing around 14 or 15 years old.

“My sister started to take voice lessons when she was maybe 15,” Zabala said. “I was 10, and her teacher asked, I was sitting in the other room during her lesson, and she said, ‘Hey, I need some harmony on this song that you're singing at school next week. Does your sister sing?’ And my sister was like, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Bring her over here.’ The teacher showed me the harmony line with my sister, and I was able to pick it up immediately. And I could sing with her immediately, and have been ever since.”

Zabala is now a professor at Yale for vocal performance of opera. At first, she was unsure about becoming a teacher because she wanted to start and grow a family. However, she now loves her teaching profession.

Photo by Dan Norman

“I went into academia about 15 years ago,” Zabala said. “I was in the midst of pretty constant performing.”

As for performing in Madison, Zabala is excited to come back to this city once again.

“Madison has been very good to me,” Zabala said. “I've had a really beautiful relationship with the opera company, with the symphony, with university, and with my colleagues there. I've given a masterclass there, and I know many students and colleagues who have taught there, who go there. So I love Madison, and I've been going there for years and years.”

Zabala always felt a connection to Nadia and knows the Madison community will as well. When she performs this play, she thinks about how grateful she is for Boulanger’s lessons.

“To me personally, it's endless. As an artist, as a woman, as a professor, as a mentor. It all feeds itself because those aspects of my personality and my life drew me to her when I was around 19. I wrote a paper about her in my undergraduate years. So I've known about her for a long time.”

Boulanger has taught Zabala timeless lessons and she carries a lot of what she has learned from Boulanger throughout her life everyday.

Photo by Aaron Huff

“She was one of the first major figures who clarified for me the marriage of passion, not ambition, but passion and compulsion to art and discipline, the building of skills,” Zabala said. “This is the challenge for a lot of artists.”

Boulanger faced many challenges throughout her career yet she always persisted, which Zabala continually admires. She also puts emphasis on the values that these lessons hold for society today.

“Her story allows me to do that,” Zabala said. “It's not just my presumption, but much, much of our modern Western culture saw its infancy in that time and place. So I think it's a fascinating soil to kind of plant your feet in. Feel those kinds of roots. Again, I think this is encompassed in the idea of hope and that is visiting a story where there's so many things that could have derailed her. And she kept looking at what was right in front of her and going for it.”

Looking at society as a whole and music’s effect, Zabala said that encapsulating this concept is quite difficult for anyone to do in a way that connects to everyone.

“I believe that art and music has the most potential of maybe anything to have us understand what it is to be human, what it is to exist. I also believe it has the most power to allow and to inspire empathy.”


We are always on the lookout for interesting and talented women artists!


Article by Ava Wojnowski

Ava Wojnowski is an intern with LunART. She is majoring in journalism and Spanish and is excited to bring her passion for writing to LunART. Outside of school, Wojnowski loves to spend time outside and also loves to listen to music. She played the viola from 4th to 12th grade, so music has always been a part of her life.

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