On March 3, 2016, I attended superstar soprano Sondra Radvanovsky's interview at Opera America. Although she is primarily known as a "Verdian" soprano, this season she is taking on Donizetti's "three queens": Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux. This feat has never been done in a single season. Last year, I saw her in several productions at the Met, and this season, her Maria Stuarda was the highlight of my opera outings.
Sondra comes off, in a word - deep. She has a strong gaze, angular features, dark eyes, and a warm lushness about her, which doubtlessly stems from the musical life she lives. Her answers are honest and direct, but felt and conscientious. She is a kind of person who one feels could be your best friend.
She started her career at the Met after she won the Metropolitan Council Auditions at the age of 25, and despite attaining international success, says that she never expects a standing ovation, although she admits it does feel wonderful when these things do happen. She told us that an audience can really make or break a performance: if the house is full, if they're filming that night, it's electrifying onstage. The energy in the house feeds off of itself. When the house is less full, the performers on stage feel that too, and sometimes the performance can lag.
I was impressed to learn that apart from singing, Sondra was a flutist, and studied the instrument intensely during high school and junior high. She said that when it was time to choose a field of study for college, she literally flipped a coin to decide between the flute and voice. It was at this moment where she closed her eyes and said: "Thank God it came out the way it did."
In fact, her interest in the flute was so strong that when she attended CCM's (College Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati) summer program for two summers, she did voice one year and flute the other.
She studied voice with Charles Roe, who at the time, worked as a voice professor for USC. This led to her gaining a full scholarship to attend the school as a vocal major, where she studied for two years. She was a student at several different schools throughout this time in her life, including Chapman University: but she never finished her degree and says school just wasn't for her. When she was at Chapman, she was required to participate in three different choirs, but because her voice was so large (not the best thing for choir singing) she was told to stand in the back, move her mouth, and not sing. When a singing opportunity came up that conflicted with a choir competition, she was told that if she didn't go to the choir competition she would receive three F's. This was the end of her formal university experience.
But she was extremely focused and clearly intent on her goals. She knew her voice, due its large size, was suited for a stage as large as the Met and she recalls saying to herself: "I'm going to win the Metropolitan Council Auditions and sing at the Met before I turn 30." And that's exactly what happened. Nonetheless, she remarked that starting out in opera is challenging: "Is one ever ready for their first opera?" Also, she maintains that the large voice doesn't have a clear path, and she was very fortunate that people at the Met believed in her enough to support her start in the field.
She lived and breathed music 24/7, and gave up having any kind of social life to achieve her goals. After winning the National Council Auditions in 1995, she enrolled in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and attended rehearsals and a performance every night in order to experience good, bad, mediocre, and great singing. She said this kind of research paid off for her, because it gave her the information she needed to develop her own skills as a singing actress. That, combined with the excellent coaching and stage time she garnered from the program was pivotal in her training. Voice studies with the famed teacher, Ruth Falcon, who is known for her success with big voices, also readied Sondra for a career.
Sondra says she learns just by going and doing it. When she was 17, her teacher, Martial Singher, with whom she studied in Santa Barbara, told her she would become a Verdian soprano. She would drive three hours from LA to work with him, and some days, he'd make her drive all the way home if she hadn't prepared her music, instilling a serious work ethic in her. He told her to do one thing better than anyone else - to be the best at something. She says that this philosophy, combined with the question Do I really love this music? is what guides her in choosing repertoire and roles. Further, she says that the singers she admires most are the ones that have the voice for their passion: they look, sing, act, are the part. Because she speaks Italian and not German, she only chooses roles in Italian. She believes it is necessary to grasp the language as deeply as one can in order to do roles justice in performance. And her repertoire is very focused: Italian opera circa 1800-1900 (Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti).
But success didn't sink in until about five or six years ago when she finally took a moment to step back and reflect. During the interview, she got emotional and teary-eyed when she recalled how on her 35th birthday, Placido Domingo sang her "Happy Birthday." It was watching him sing opera on TV when she was a kid that inspired her to pursue this career, and there he actually was, singing to her, and she'd made it. She asked him: "Placido, this was my dream. Now what am I going to do?" He replied, "Well Sondra, you must go get another dream!" We all laughed at this heartfelt anecdote.
In 2002, Sondra had vocal surgery, and after that, acquired vocal agility that enabled her to take on coloratura, which positions her well for her Donizetti queens. Her coach, Tony Manoli, whom she says knows her voice even better than she does, told her she'd be able to do the coloratura, but that the learning process involved "lots of tears." Her big voice had never gotten used to moving in that way before, so there was a period of intense challenge. The biggest hurdle for her was trusting that when she wasn't singing at 120% she was still doing enough to fill the house. She remarked that for muscle memory to "take" one has to sing something 50 times correctly, and in slightly different ways each time. In other words, do it softly, loudly, from the top, from the bottom, etc. She explained that singers learn by feel and by listening, and that one has to learn to trust that the voice is in the right place. This makes a singer's practice time absolutely pivotal, and this is why one spends hours and hours in the practice room experimenting: "You are your own best coach." Before anything can really begin, the singer must have a solid technique, but she laments that in our present culture, everything is disposable, including singers. To combat this, she recommends that young singers build a real technical foundation so as not to be the hare that only sings for five years. She likes being the tortoise, and she hopes to continue singing for years to come.
Before Sondra took on the Donizetti queens at the Met, she performed them all separately in different cities. She did research on her predecessors, listening to recordings of the greats, paying attention to their phrasing, where they breathed, how they emphasized words, their dynamic choices, etc. And she still studies. But she says that after you've done all that research, you have to put it somewhere in the back of your mind and essentially forget about it in order to put your own stamp on a role. You have to be open to possibilities that lie in wait for you. For example, Norma didn't take shape for her as a character until she actually got on stage with it, for before that, she'd only sung it in concert.
Regarding singing, Sondra says bad habits creep in when you're compensating for something, like a 50 pound costume or singing when you're sick. This is why she emphasizes how important it is to take good care of yourself and have people around you who enable you. She owes much to great managers who she says helped shape her career and viewed her and her voice holistically: "As Maria Callas said, The voice is not an elevator."
When she has time, she even gives master classes and teaches privately, in order to share what she knows and help pass on the art for the future. She praised North American opera houses and singers, stating that Americans and Canadians possess a rigorous work ethic, especially regarding languages, for which the English speaking native must work harder than her European counterparts. She maintained that she will not be singing at the legendary La Scala ever again because of the theatre's low level of professionalism, adding: "If they don't want to be there, why should I?"
Towards the interview's end, Sondra noted that having a career is more than just singing: "You have to have a thick skin, be able to accept criticism, be very adaptable." She advised that when dealing with directors whose vision may seem unreasonable you try what they want you to do at least three times in earnest before you ask if perhaps it could be done a different way. In essence, you must be diplomatic! She added the bitterly humorous comment that one sometimes needs to be a psychiatrist to deal with some of the personalities in this business. Ultimately, to do this, you really have to love it. It's a lonely life. The incessant travel wears on personal relationships, and she's missed many birthdays, weddings, etc. She considers herself lucky that her husband is her business manager who can travel with her, but that even with this advantage, the grueling schedule and hard work can take a toll on the body and mind. This is why now she'll let herself have a glass of wine from time to time, to recharge, to unwind.
In her entire career, Radvanovsky has only done one comedy, Fledermaus, and it wasn't a good fit. So for now, she'll stick with tragedy: "I enjoy being miserable on stage."
This was a wonderful interview and I cannot thank Opera America enough for being the incredible resource it is. Thank you Marc Scorca, who interviewed Ms. Radvanovsky. You always ask all the right questions in just the right way. To see the interview in its entirety click on the Source link below. Enjoy!