She’s one of the most celebrated sopranos of our time, possessor of a fabulous voice with stunning technique, in demand in all the great opera houses of the world — Paris, London, Vienna, the Met, you name it. She’s certainly at the top of her game. Yet, Sondra Radvanovsky is a self-professed homebody.
“Yes, I’m a real homebody!” she said when I interviewed her way back in March 2010, at the time of her COC debut in the title role of Aïda. “I just love sitting at home and having friends over – it’s such a simple joy. We have a new house we bought in September, and I haven’t seen the flowers grow yet. We have ten acres, trees, a pond. I love going into the garden. We live right by the forks of the Credit. We can walk down there right by the river. Canada is breathtaking — this area is spectacular, and the people are so nice.”
In anticipation of her upcoming recital at Koerner Hall, I recently interviewed her at her home on the outskirts of Caledon, about an hour by car west of the GTA. To get there, you drive up a narrow, secluded path, at the end of which sits her home, nestled in the woods. Looking at the idyllic setting, I understand what she meant by wanting to be home. It’s the ideal spot — nice and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of Toronto — for a busy international artist to recharge her batteries in between gigs.
She had just arrived home from San Francisco Opera where she wowed audiences as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, one of her signature roles. Looking relaxed and mellow, we settled down in her living room for a conversation. Speaking with disarming candor, she talked about her upcoming recital, her voice, her career and her life. At the end of my visit, I was given a glimpse of her music room, with framed photos on top of her piano, and her many honours, including the most recent, a framed document naming her Honorary Fellow of the Royal Conservatory of Music. There were even two bottles of red wine named after her – how cool is that!
Originally from Berwyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Radvanovsky is married to Canadian Duncan Lear and has made Canada her home for a dozen years. Now a dual citizen, she feels comfortable and at home in True North Country. Not only is Canada her physical home, it’s also her artistic home — of course, we share her with the rest of the opera world! You see, two years ago at the opening night reception of the COC Norma, General Director Alexander Neef made a point of saying that he wants Sondra to consider the Canadian Opera Company her home theatre.
Since then, I’ve heard rumours that the COC has grand plans for the soprano in future seasons. To be sure, it was one of the questions I had for her. Opera companies hate to be scooped, so it cannot be made public at this point, except that indeed she will sing with the Company in the next few seasons. Even though she’s not on the COC stage this season, we can look forward to her Koerner Hall recital.
First thing first — we in Toronto are very excited about your upcoming recital, “From Bel Canto to Verismo.” I couldn’t find any information about your program. Can you tell us what you are singing?
That’s because I haven’t given the program to them yet. It’s songs and arias from early Bel Canto to Verismo, and the last thing on the program is completely new!
Bel Canto and Verismo are two very different musical styles; how do you meld them together?
The reason for the recital is that I want to show that one was born of the other — Bel Canto really is baby Verismo, especially with roles like Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Because she’s so dramatic…
Oh yes, I remember your COC Elisabetta well. Especially the last act of the ageing Queen, you were so believable. Some bel canto singers just stand and sing, but that’s not you.
No, that’s not me. It’s also because of my theatre background. I was a theatre major at USC and UCLA. I sang the Three Queens, and now I’ve just done Maddalena in Andrea Chenier. I thought why not show vocally the progression from early Italian Baroque — I sang Vivaldi’s “Sposa son disprezzata” — to Bellini, then to Verdi, and to Puccini. You can hear from the music the one thread that runs through it, and that’s the beautiful vocal line. That’s what I want to show in this recital. People ask me how I can sing both Andrea Chenier and Anna Bolena, or Norma….
You don’t sing them very close together, do you?
Well, I did! I came right from Chenier in Barcelona to Anna Bolena here at the COC.
Do you need to make some vocal adjustments to go from one to the other?
Yes, now looking back at it, I can say it was slightly foolish to go right from Chenier, a non-High C opera, to Bolena right away. I’m not going to say I modify my technique, but I have to “re-registrate” the voice because Maddalena is such a low role. You have to let it relax into a different position, as opposed to Bel Canto where you have to keep it in a very narrow, tight position; you have to be very focused; it’s like walking on a tight wire.
In Bolena you have lots of coloratura, but in Maddalena you don’t have any.
Yes, but it sure is a joy to sing — I really love it!
Even though the focus, and the pressure, is on the tenor…
Yes, but it’s easy for the soprano to walk away with the show (big smile)!
Maddalena has only one aria, Chenier has four!
I know! But mine is the better aria [laughs]. I want to sing it for a long time.
You’ve been singing for a long time — is it like twenty-five years?
I won the Met Auditions in 1995 — I had just turned 25. I will be 50 next April [mock wailing]! I made my professional debut singing Mimi when I was 21, in a small professional opera company. That means it’s 2 years short of 30 years.
I have to say you’re sounding better than ever. And I want to thank you for talking to me when I was writing my article on vocal issues a few years ago. You and one other singer were the only two willing to talk…
Well, I’m in a position that I’ve proven myself. I don’t have to say: ‘I had vocal surgery and I’m not singing as well now.’ I think I’m singing better because of it. I hope with each passing year I’m singing better. But I keep working on my voice and my technique, a lot of singers don’t.
You work with Anthony Manoli?
Yes, he’s wonderful; he understands my voice. There are some conductors I work with, like Riccardo Frizza. He’s one of those old-fashioned conductors, like those in the olden days when they coached the singers, not so much the voice teachers. The conductors were the ones who helped with the style. That’s Riccardo in a nutshell – he really understands the Bel Canto style. He has taught me so much about the vocal line, the vocal style of singing this repertoire. I have done Norma and Roberto Devereux with him.
I don’t mean to be a devil’s advocate, but there are people who say verismo can be vulgar, at least acting-wise, or even vocally, as some people use a lot of chest voice. What’s your response to that?
I think chest used judiciously and wisely is great – it makes an effect. Like in Devereux, this time I used a lot more chest in those moments. There’s a reason why it’s written like that. I’ll say it’s the same with high piani, if one overuses it, it becomes an affectation. If you use it as an effect for vocal and dramatic reasons, it’s thrilling and exciting. That’s why “A te la mala Pasqua,” [in Cavalleria rusticana] or “Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” [in Tosca], you have to use chest voice. You’re just not going to sing it in a nice lovely ringing head voice! That’s how it’s written and that’s why it’s exciting. If you want beautiful singing, okay go to Bel Canto. It’s the style of the music, and I don’t find it vulgar; when done with a good actor and actress, it’s thrilling. Working with Jonas Kaufmann on Chenier was really thrilling because he’s a singing actor. Doing Tosca with Bryn Terfel is exciting because he’s an amazing actor, impetuous, off-the-cuff, every day it’s different.
Speaking of Verismo — will you ever sing Santuzza? Or Gioconda? Or have you done it?
No, I haven’t, but I’d love to. I think it will probably come when I give up the Three Queens. In my head, I have a plan of how things will go.
Bel Canto fans would hate to see you give up the Three Queens. Do you plan to sing them for at least another five years?
I’d love to. I am doing a new compressed version of it, the final scenes of all three in a concert — in Chicago, Berlin, Paris, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and more keep being added as people find out about it.
Time for me to make travel plans! I remember two years ago at the reception after your COC Norma, Alexander Neef made a point of saying that he hopes you’ll consider the COC your home theatre…
It is! We’ll be here every year, in four different operas. I’m not singing at the COC this season, so this recital is good, as I want to have something here this year. And maybe we’ll work on doing something out in Vancouver too.
Well, this is incredibly exciting news. We hope to hear you for many more years to come, and toi toi toi for the Koerner Recital.
From Bel Canto to Verismo
Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano; Anthony Manoli, piano. November 24, 8 p.m., Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W. $55-$125. See here for all the details.