In the early 1990s, Nicole Cabell dropped out of her high-school marching band and went looking for something more. She found it, mixed among her mother’s album collection of Broadway standards, Joni Mitchell, and the Doors: a cassette tape of the opera great Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing "Vissi d’arte" from Puccini’s Tosca. Not knowing Italian, she interpreted the lyrics phonetically and mustered up the courage to imitate Te Kanawa’s performance for her family. It made an impression.

Fast-forward a dozen or so years. Cabell is now one of the most exciting lyric sopranos to grace the world’s concert halls. In 2005, the Ventura, California, native beat out aspirants from 24 other countries in the prestigious (and nerve-racking) Cardiff Singer of the World competition, which is broadcast to millions of BBC viewers. "Once I got onstage, it was like I was going off to war," says Cabell, who still admits to the occasional case of stage fright. "I had to learn opera late in life. I trained a lot."

That training came courtesy of good teachers. After her Tosca discovery—a little bittersweet, since Cabell later concluded that the dramatic screamer was a poor fit for her warm soprano—she found a vocal instructor who gave her a housecleaning job in exchange for a discount on lessons. From there, Cabell attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, followed by Juilliard—for three days. "They gave me my T-shirt and my mug," jokes Cabell before explaining how she changed her mind and accepted a residency with the Ryan Opera Center, a top young artist program affiliated with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "Why pay for what I could get here for free?" she says.

Cabell, now 30, still retains a home in Lake View even as she pursues international opportunities: a scene-stealing turn as the coquettish Musetta in an upcoming film version of La Bohème, a second album on Decca Records, and, in December, her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Here in Chicago, in October, she stars with that media darling Nathan Gunn in the Lyric Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. "Her potential is limitless," says Gianna Rolandi, director of the Ryan Opera Center. She then offers one of the ultimate compliments a singer can hope for: "You know it’s Nicole the minute she opens her mouth."            

Photography: Taylor Castle Photographer’s assistants: Branden Balentine, Maxfield Hegedus Hair and Makeup: Hillary Fenton for artists Wardrobe styling: Issac King for Ford Models Dress and Shoes: Bloomingdale’s Bracelet: Claire’s Boutique Stylist Assistant: Remy Martin