Features

Sweet Sound of Success

American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has Norma and Tosca on her Met calendar this season — and there's a Donizetti triple crown in her future. F. PAUL DRISCOLL talks with a singer who is proud to be called a diva.

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Photograbed by James Salzano in New York
Makeup and hair by Affan Malik / clothes styled by Carlton Jones / dress by Angel Sanchez; twelve-foot pearls by Tamsen Z
© James Salzano 2013
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As Amelia in David Alden's Met staging of Un Ballo in Maschera, 2012
© Beatriz Schiller 2013
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Portrait: James Salzano / dress: Badgley Mischka; jewelry: Tamsen Z
© James Salzano 2013

How does a diva define the word "diva"? American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, whose calendar this season includes prima donna roles by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, sits quietly in the offices of OPERA NEWSand takes a short pause before answering, her hands folded in her lap and her tone matter-of-fact. "Right. Nowadays, everybody gets called a diva. Or calls themselves a diva. Beyoncé is a diva, right? The term used to have negative connotations — a diva was someone who threw fits, stomped out of rehearsals, had all these demands. But that's not acceptable in this day and age. 

"People who throw hissy fits get replaced. That's understood. I choose to take the positive route — I believe that the ladies who sing these big roles are women who have worked hard to get where we are, we are accomplished at what we do, and we are at the top of our game. We earned the right to be called 'diva' because of all the work we've done. I'm honored to be called a diva. I am. I work hard for that. I work very hard, I love what I do, and I am intensely passionate about it. If that's being a diva, I am fine with it. But I refuse to be something that I'm not, or behave in such a way that creates an aura of me being untouchable. That's not me."

In person, Sondra Radvanovsky is friendly, self-possessed, unfailingly professional — and profoundly un-diva-ish. Director Francesca Zambello, a friend and colleague of Radvanovsky's for more than fifteen years, believes that the soprano's down-to-earth manner is a key part of her success as a performer. "Sondra maintains a great balance," says Zambello, whose collaborations with Radvanovsky include Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met and Covent Garden. "In her life offstage, she is just so warm and real and basic and loves not to be thinking 'opera' all the time. But when she gets to work, it's like this other animal comes out, this wild creature. She's unbridled. She's able to throw her emotions on the table and allow you to work on them with her."

Now in her early forties, Radvanovsky has genuine star status: in the past decade, she has emerged as the Verdi soprano of choice at the world's leading opera houses, with solid successes in Il TrovatoreI Vespri Siciliani (in both the French and Italian versions), Stiffelio, ErnaniLuisa MillerDon Carlo, Aida and Un Ballo in Maschera in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, Toronto, London and Milan. The list of her signature roles now includes Tosca — "a blast! I just love nailing those high Cs in Act II" — and she is currently embarked on a multi-season assumption of Donizetti's three Tudor queens, with her role debut as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux scheduled for next April in Toronto. After a very brief blip in her relationship with the Met — at the time of her last OPERA NEWS interview, in October 2008, Radvanovsky had no pending Met contracts, a situation that was remedied before the article was published four months later — she has emerged as one of the most valuable and valued singers at the company. Three times tapped for the prestigious job of hosting the Met's international Live in HD presentations, Radvanovsky now has onstage commitments in place at the Met through 2017–18. Among her upcoming Met projects are a new Roberto Devereux, staged by David McVicar, and revivals of Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena.

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Anna Bolena at Washington National Opera, 2012, with Sonia Ganassi (Giovanna Seymour)
© Scott Suchman/WNO 2013

Radvanovsky's voice anchors brilliant, firm top notes with a luscious, dark-tinged mid-range — a combination that the soprano herself hears as a reflection of her half-Czech, half-Danish heritage. ("The Danish from my mother's side is where I get that Birgit Nilsson cut at the top of my voice.") Her progress has been steady, but her success was not always unquestioned. She began her Met career as a member of the company's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program after a win in the 1995 National Council Auditions. Tall, striking and somewhat coltish onstage, with an ear-catching quick vibrato to her sound, Radvanovsky was assigned a good measure of small parts (Countess Ceprano, the Aida Priestess) and seconda donna roles (Micaela, Musetta, Gutrune) but left little indication that she was a major artist in the making — except to those with very sharp ears. Plácido Domingo, who sang Stiffelio when Radvanovsky was cast as Dorotea in the Met's 1998 revival of the opera, now says, "At once, you knew that this was an exciting voice, with lots of emotion behind the sound, but absolutely musical. The way she has developed has been amazing — she has technique and sings with beauty. For Verdi, she is now the soprano for Cast A or Cast Super-A, wherever you are doing these operas. In Verdi sopranos, that second octave has to have color as well as power. If the soprano has the right extension, you can tell this in the A, the B-flat — the voice expands but keeps its character. That is Sondra." In the Met's 2010 Stiffelio revival, Radvanovsky was promoted to the leading role of Lina, and Domingo conducted. 

Radvanovsky is disarmingly frank about the bumps in her path to being accepted as a Verdian: "My voice was a bit of an enigma for many people when I came into the Lindemann Program. I was twenty-six years old when I won the National Council Auditions — singing 'Ritorna vincitor' and 'Ebben? ne andrò lontana.' I mean, what silly person does that? I don't know what I was thinking, other than 'Get a load of me. I'm good, I'm good.' No wonder that James Levine was not so keen on me back then. As it was, my path was one that was not 'normal,' quote-unquote. At first the Met took me into the Young Artists Program only for one year, because they weren't sure that I had, quote-unquote, 'it.' Now, looking back, I don't blame them. Not a bit. I had a teacher in Los Angeles that had me singing Wagner, Aida, and so on. And after the National Council win I was offered a full run of Aida by another theater, believe it or not. When Jonathan Friend called me and said, 'We'd like to invite you into the Young Artists Program.' I said, 'Jonathan, I don't know — I just was offered Aida, you know, and I think I'm ready for my career.' [Laughs] Can you believe it? Very sophomoric. That's the only word I can think of now. So, luckily, Jonathan convinced me that the Young Artists Program was the way to go. Thank God. That is all I can say — thank God. So, my first year in the program, I tried to sing Mozart, and I was strangulating myself. Ruth Falcon, who at that time was my voice teacher, said, 'How about we try this? Let's try Verdi instead. Early Verdi. How about she works on Trovatore?' Fine. So we started working on Trovatore, not knowing that that truly was going to be where I fit." (At the Met's invitation, Radvanovsky completed the Lindemann Program's customary three-year term.)

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As Lina in the Met's Stiffelio, 2010
© Beth Bergman 2013

"Big voices like mine — Dolora [Zajick] will say the same thing — we need time to cook. The voice doesn't come in like a soubrette or a lyric soprano. The bottom of my voice was the very first thing to come in, when I was sixteen, so I started as a mezzo. The top came in when I was studying in California with Martial Singher, who was the very first one who said, 'I think you're going to be a Verdi soprano, but you're not ready yet,' when I was twenty-one or twenty-two. He gave me a recording of Leontyne Price singing Verdi arias, and I wept. I said, 'I have to do this. I have to do this. That is my calling.' I still get all verklempt thinking of Leontyne singing the Otellothe 'Ave Maria.' So, fast-forward now. I started working on Trovatore with Ruth, and it really felt right. That's all I can say. Absolutely right. So, in 1999, I sang my very first Trovatore on the Met stage. Now was I ready to go on then and sing Ballo? No way. 'Cause the voice still had to fill in and get organized.

"I still don't believe I'm a full-on dramatic Verdi soprano. I would call myself a baby spinto. I have a large voice, but the core of my voice is still spintolina — not huge like Zinka Milanov or Renata Tebaldi. Not yet. I'm still growing into that. The core of my voice is still smaller than theirs, more like a Leontyne. I'm still learning about my technique and still learning about how to sing at forty-four. It's crazy. I've had quite a ride vocally. I talk very openly about having a polyp on one of my vocal cords taken off — how many years ago now? Good God. In 2003, I had it taken off, and that really changed my life and my singing. It was apparently something I had since I was a child. I learned to sing with it, then I had to learn how to sing without it. Physically, the recovery was about six months. A good six months. But mentally, it took me a very long time to adjust."

In 2006, Radvanovsky was Leonora in the premiere of David McVicar's staging of Il Trovatore at Lyric Opera of Chicago. She gave a fine performance, elegantly phrased and tellingly acted — but she was, on some levels, dissatisfied with herself. With each successive incarnation of the McVicar Trovatore — at the Met in spring 2009, at San Francisco Opera the following autumn, at the Met revival in 2011 — Radvanovsky's work grew more assured; her acting became subtler and more truthful and her singing more expansive. No details were obviously changed, but in five years Radvanovsky's Leonora had grown from a fine performance into a deep and distinguished one.

When this observation is shared with her, Radvanovsky smiles and nods. "[The McVicar Trovatore] production has followed me — or I grew up with it, in a way. When I first did it in Chicago, it still felt very much like a post-surgery process, because I was still very conscious of 'Is this note right? Am I singing right?' — second-guessing myself, which is what I did for several years after the surgery. That takes away from your artistic freedom as an actress, because that extra brainpower that I had to use thinking about technique, I really couldn't give to the character. Does that make sense? So each time I did it, I sang with more vocal freedom, which gave more freedom to Leonora. With David McVicar's help, I really found a way to relax and just let it be organic. And that production is where I learned that less is more, in a way. And I'm glad you saw that. That makes me happy."

Radvanovsky, who was born in Berwyn, Illinois, now lives near Toronto with her husband, Duncan Lear, but says that "for about ten months of the year, home is my three suitcases." She visits New York regularly to work with her coach, Anthony Manoli. "It's not like I'm playing a violin, which is not going to change, except with humidity or whatever. But the human voice, unfortunately and fortunately, is wrapped up in our emotions, in our day-to-day life, in how I feel physically, how my life is going, my private life, my personal life, my professional life.

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As Norma in Oviedo, Spain in 2011
© carlospictures 2013

"When I first sang Norma [in Oviedo, Spain, in 2011], the big thing was not the notes and the music — it was the history. There's such heaviness involved in this role, you know? When you sing Norma, everyone is lined up behind you — Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Giuditta Pasta, blah-blah-blah. Anybody who was a diva sang Norma. And whatever I did, I was going to be compared to one of them in the past. 

"So, I'm standing on the stage starting to sing 'Casta diva,' and it was really, truly an out-of-body experience. [Chuckles] It was the culmination of everything I'd done in my career — it all led up to that one moment. It truly felt like that. Not just me as a singer but me as a person, me as an actor. Everything was in that moment of me standing there onstage singing 'Casta diva.' It was hard just to stay focused — part of me was saying, 'Wait, hold on, Sondra. Don't think about all of that. Stay in the moment and sing.' 

"Structurally, Norma is a lot like early Verdi. In Trovatore, for example, I walk in, I sing about four notes, and then I sing 'Tacea la notte.' Luisa Milleryou come in, and you sing your first big piece right away — almost every Verdi opera that I do, I come in, and boom, hello! Big number. Vespri is like that, too. And that is not an easy aria, that first aria in Vespri. In one sense, I get the worst of it over at the beginning in Norma. Because 'Casta diva,' the one tune everybody waits for, is tightrope singing — it sits right in my passaggio, and I am weaving in and out of the passaggio. If you're not warmed up properly, or if you're not in the right position, the pitch will go off — that just throws you off for the whole night. So you really have to be warmed up. That is the key, I believe, to singing Norma — just be ready. Because once you start, you're going. You're on, you're on, you're on. In this production that we did [in Oviedo], I was always on the stage for some reason or another — observing, doing. Learning how to pace is something that I've really studied in the past five years — that not only the vocal arc but the dramatic arc of a piece is so important. So important. Because if you peak too soon, you lose the interest of the audience, and they go somewhere else. They shift their focus. So, you really need to be working with someone — a vocal coach, a vocal teacher, a great director — who can help guide you and map these roles out. And learn to trust yourself.

"I'm learning the fingerprint, I would call it, of that style. Now that I've worked on Maria Stuardaafter working on Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, I've become familiar with the vocal writing, the crescendo, the decrescendo — which Donizetti does a lot. You know, the pulling of the vocal line — like taffy-pulling. There is so much of that in Donizetti. And the long lines, the long lines in 'Al dolce guidami' — [Gasps]. Singing on just the thin edge of your cords — just that little filigree of sound that Donizetti loved. He really liked the dynamic range, I find, especially in Anna Bolenawhere Anna has these big outbursts, and then you get to the last act and sing 'Al dolce guidami' on just a fine thread of voice. That's fun. And it's different from Rossini, different from Verdi. It's Donizetti. Bellini is similar, but the Bellini that I've done, the Norma, has just a little more gravitas to it. There's just a little more weight to the singing — more in the vein of Anna Bolena, because Anna Bolena is a little more dramatic than, say, Stuarda. And Roberto Devereux is just crazy. Crazy, crazy.

"With Donizetti, I feel as if I am stretched to my extent. You know, everything was challenged in me, singing Anna Bolena. It is a very long, intense night. If I do my job properly, at the end of the night after singing Anna BolenaI need to walk out of the theater and go home and go to bed. I can't put a sentence together, because it is so — it is not just vocally demanding but emotionally draining.

"I love that." spacer 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2