In the last half of the 1990s, American soprano Nicole Heaston rapidly emerged as one of the most engaging and promising new stars in the operatic world.
She was brought up in Chicago, in a musical family. Her mother was a trained concert pianist who worked as a school music teacher, while Heaston's father went to law school. While Heaston showed musical awareness and singing talent, she did not have a strong interest in opera singing; her favorite acts as a teenager were Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire. But, as a teenager, she won an NAACP music competition, and decided to try classical music.
At that point, she had a career-shaping encounter with a visiting group of singers from the University of Akron (Ohio), who visited Heaston's high school in Chicago with their director, Edward Maclary. He listened to some of the students at the high school sing and invited Heaston to come to Akron to audition. "First, I was like, you know, I've never heard of Akron!" Heaston has said. But, not only did she impress the voice faculty there, she found that she liked the personality and teaching style of Dr. Mary Schiller and decided to attend the college.
Dr. Schiller, for her part, says Heaston was "one of the three most promising students" that she found in 29 years of voice teaching. Heaston won a Tuesday Musical Club Scholarship, and after graduating, went on to take a graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She was then invited to join the Houston Opera Studio, the apprenticeship program of Houston Grand Opera. Her success there led to her debut there as Juliette in Gounod's opera. She also sang Pamina and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.
The 1996 - 1997 season was a wonder year for Heaston. She sang in Handel's Messiah with the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, MI, under conductor Marc Minkowski, who cast her as soprano soloist and on-screen, in a film based on the famous oratorio. Minkowski also quickly engaged her to sing in Gluck's Armide and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, in performances in France and on CD on the prestigious Archiv label. In the same year, Houston gave her a plum assignment: the world premiere of the new opera Jackie O by Michael Daugherty, in which she portrayed former U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a performance that was recorded the same year on Decca's Argo label. Also in 1997, she made her European operatic stage debut, as Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Montpellier, France.
She has gone on to win several major awards and to sing in leading international opera houses, including San Francisco, Dallas, the Flanders Opera, the Washington Opera, and Wolf Trap Opera. Some of her roles include: Saint Settlement in Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, Drusilla in Incoronazione di Poppea, Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, and Adina in L'Elisir d'amore.
In 2000, she won the ARIA (Awards Recognizing Individual Artistry) grant. This is one of the most prestigious awards in American music, as one does not compete for it: The 15,000 dollar prize is a surprise grant given to one of a list of the most promising new singers, nominated by conductors, directors, established singers, and others. She has also won two Richard Tucker Awards (the Jacobson Study Grand and a Career Grant) and several other major honors. She was scheduled to appear on a March 28, 2001, national broadcast of the New York City Opera production of La Bohème.