La Regina: Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky

Lisa Houston on August 31, 2018
Sondra Radvanovsky

“You will be a singer. It’s up to you how great a singer you’re going to be.”

Those were the words of renowned teacher Martial Singher to a young Sondra Radvanovsky. For a soprano who has now sung in all the world’s major opera houses, it would seem she made the choice to be a very great singer indeed. The soprano has been referred to as operatic royalty, especially since her triumph in 2015–2016 at the Metropolitan Opera, singing three Donizetti operas sometimes called the Tudor trilogy. Critics raved at her portrayals of the queens in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, the last of which will be a crown jewel of sorts in San Francisco Opera’s season opening weekend.

Radvanovsky, speaking in a phone interview between rehearsals at the opera house in San Francisco, is excited to play Elizabeth, her favorite of three.

We’re playing her a little different here than I did at the Met. The final scene, that was the last straw. You see the life falling out of her because she realizes, ‘I had no choice, I had to be queen.’ You see her questioning, ‘What was my life about?’ Elizabeth was bigger than life. To be a woman playing a strong woman is so rare. All these operatic characters we play are in love, pining away for someone, but this character is someone from history, so important, who could make men tremble. And vocally, it’s such a tight opera. There’s not one note in this opera that shouldn’t be there. It’s written so well, and the progression of the character, you can see her breaking down as the opera goes on. It’s sometimes modified screaming, because she’s at the end of her rope. To see this strong woman fall apart because of love, an unrequited love, that is so fun to play.

Radvanovsky will be the first one to tell you she can’t cook, but the celebrated artist seems to have found the recipe for a life that works for her, and her voice, which defies categorization the same way Radvanovsky does. A native of Illinois who has chosen to make her home in rural Ontario, she presents an undeniably glamorous persona complimented by a down home demeanor.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux | Credit: Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company

Radvanovsky can be said to have laid claim to the bel canto repertoire as she has for the Verdi heroines, for which she has long been best known. But her career has not been entirely smooth sailing. Though not a dramatic soprano, per se, her sound more than fills the huge houses that have been her artistic homes. In addition to hitting her stride a bit later, as many large voices do, Radvanovsky had the additional challenge of navigating an injury to her vocal cords from a childhood illness requiring intubation, which later caused a polyp requiring surgical removal in 2002.

“It takes a long time to come back from vocal surgery, if done properly. I couldn’t speak for two months. And then after that it’s slow the first day back. Three days of humming, and lip trills. It took me a whole month to ramp back up to singing.”

Radvanovsky has spoken openly about having surgery, which she feels is often unfairly and inaccurately stigmatizing for singers. Reworking her technique around the new, unencumbered cord was no easy task, but the rewards have been tremendous.

I had to relearn how to sing. When you have a node on your vocal cord you have to put more air through to make them phonate. And then when I didn’t have that impediment, I realized ‘oh, I don’t need to do that. And then you second guess yourself. If you have a cold, or are getting your period, or your vocal cords aren’t as pristine as you think they should be, you think, ‘oh, did I hurt them again?’ And then a day came when I didn’t think about it any more and it became fun. ‘Oh, let’s see just how high and soft I can sing,’ and ‘let’s see how long a phrase I can spin out!’ It’s like a whole new toy was given to me.

But beautiful singing is not Radvanovsky’s only artistic priority.

Opera never was a hundred percent about singing for me,” said the singer, who studied acting at U.C.L.A. “I was always trying to find that balance between acting and singing. Of course, when you’re a young singer you have to concentrate more on the singing, so you have less brain power that you can give to the acting side of it. But as I became more and more secure in my technique, I felt like I could hone the acting skills more and more. Having worked with great directors who understand operatic acting — and there is such a thing— like David McVicar, like Stephen Lawless here, they really help me hone my craft. I learn so much from them.

Perhaps it is this commitment to dramatic interpretation that inspired critic Anthony Tommasini to call her “a true inheritor to the Callas approach.”

Sondra Radvanovsky in recital with pianist Anthony Manoli | Credit: Craig Mathew/LA Opera

Radvanovsky includes watching and listening to Callas as among her most significant operatic impressions, and also cites interviews with the diva as helpful to her in understanding the importance of maintaining boundaries around one’s private life. Radvanovsky even goes so far as to give her public person a name, dubbing her “Sandy Singer.” As opposed to the true Sondra.

“As artists, our lives are lived in public. The one thing I have control of is my private life. People don’t know much about my private life. The person you see onstage, even right now, because I am still controlling how much information I give you, there are certain things that are private and should be private. After I was burned by someone very close to me, you learn to be careful who you let into your life. Sondra is not bubbly and happy all the time. Sondra has had a lot of trauma and sadness and emotional loss in her life that people don’t know about.”

What is known about Radvanovsky is that she has a very serious work ethic, and a comprehensive dedication to preparation, which is something she learned early, all those years ago, in one of her lessons with Martial Singher. Or rather, from one of the lessons that wasn’t.

“I was living in southern California, in Laguna Beach, and drove three hours twice a week to Santa Barbara for voice lessons. I came one day unprepared to a voice lesson. And he said, ‘you just drove three hours, and I’m going to make you turn around and go right back home. Don’t waste my time. You’re going to learn this: don’t waste anybody’s time in this business by being unprepared.’ I learned a lot from that man. He taught me not to come 100 percent prepared, but 150 percent prepared.”

These high standards give her an affinity with longtime collaborator Riccardo Frizza, who will conduct her in Devereux here, and who guided her Normas in New York and Chicago.

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Bellini’s Norma at The Metropolitan Opera | Credit: Paola Kudacki/The Metropolitan Opera

“Riccardo is not only a great friend and an amazing conductor, he’s just a wonderful person. He has such a great energy that he brings in front of the orchestra. He makes you want to do better and sing better.”

 It’s very rare but he’s one of those people who understands the singing voice. There are conductors, and operatic conductors. He’s there for you. He can hear if you’re struggling, or if you’re having a good day and you want to sit on that high note for a long time. He’s one of the few who really gets my voice, because, as you said, my voice is hard to categorize. He knows if I’m going to flub a note two notes before I flub the note. He’ll come offstage and say, ‘I knew you were going to do that because of x, y, and zed.’ And the orchestra really appreciates him because he’s such a great musician, so meticulous. He doesn’t accept less than perfect, and I like that. I’m the same way myself. I know when I’m standing onstage and he’s in the pit, he’s 150 percent there for me. And for all the singers. He doesn’t talk down to us. We have one of the young artists here who is going to make his debut as Nottingham, and Riccardo has been so supportive of him, which doesn’t always happen in this business.

Anthony Manoli and Sondra Radvanovsky

Offstage, Radvanovsky relies upon longtime vocal coach Anthony Manoli, whom she says has been “a great guru” for her. “I have a great team,” she says, meaning Manoli, her manager, Jonathan Letts of CSAM in Berlin, her mother, and especially her husband, Duncan Lear, who travels with her and works as her business manager. “My husband has the largest shoulders in the world. I sing. He does everything else. The team does everything else. Everyone knows if you want a quick answer, you email Duncan, you don’t email me. I have all the pressure of singing at the Metropolitan Opera, or singing a new role, or singing for the first time with Jonas Kaufmann. But I thrive in that kind of situation. I like a challenge.”

Spending life on the road 10, or even 11 months a year is not easy. But Radvanovsky says she and Lear make it work. “There’s no point in being married and being away from each other 11 months a year. That’s not a marriage, in my book. He’s my rock, my everything. Yes, we give up one income, his income, for him to be with me, but it’s worth it. I have my best friend with me, always.”

Despite Radvanovsky’s stature in the business, in this declining era for the classical recording industry, she is not currently under contract as a recording artist. The listening public has been blessed with a Verdi solo album and an album of duets with her friend, the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, both done in Russia for the Delos label.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky | Credit: Pavel Vaan and Leonid Semenyuk

Meanwhile, bootlegs abound. “It’s brought more pressure on us as singers because we know that every performance, some portion of it, if not all of it, is being recorded, either video or audio, because it’s up on Youtube the next day, and even if it’s only up for a few hours, it’s been downloaded. It’s a good and a bad thing. Our career is being documented.”

Of Hvorostovsky, she said,

“It truly was one of the most beautiful voices, if not the most beautiful voice that I ever heard live. What an amazing artist and what an amazing person. And to have been able to collaborate with him so much, mostly in Trovatore, but also Ballo in maschera, and to have sung in Russia with him, for him to have opened those doors for me. He was a very private person. It seemed like he wasn’t, because he was so gregarious, funny, loving and caring, but he was. His wife will tell you the same the thing. So to be allowed into that private world of his was quite an honor. He will be greatly, greatly missed.”

When I asked Radvanovsky for her most moving memories in the theater, either as audience or performer, she stayed true to her drama-oriented background, speaking mostly about theatrical intensity.

“Thomas Allen doing Don Giovanni in L.A. It was the silence. He was walking around Zerlina, he wasn’t even singing. The look on his face, the whole performance, the acting, I was enthralled. Another was me onstage with Bryn Terfel, the first Tosca I did with him, at La Scala. It was the energy he brought to Scarpia. In the second act, he came behind me and he sniffed my neck, and I got shivers down my back.”

She also recalls being directed by William Friedkin in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. “I sang “Senza mamma” completely still. He was the one who taught me that stillness is more powerful than being frenetic. He leaned into me at the dress rehearsal and whispered into my ear, ‘Think of your father.’ I lost my father at 17. That’s one that I carry with me, stillness is more powerful than being frenetic onstage. Those are moments I will write about in my book.”

So what does Radvanovsky do for an encore, after the encore?

Being home is the reward. People ask, ‘where do you go on vacation?’ Home. It’s our sanctuary. When you’re an opera singer at the level I’m at, and my colleagues are at, you’re always in big cities, right downtown, with all the noise and people. To go home in the middle of 20 acres, with the frogs, the deer, the wild turkeys, and having the friends come over that you never get to see, having that time is precious. It’s gold. Home is the only place you can let your guard down, wear pajamas 24 hours a day, not leave the house, not have your grey hairs covered. I have a gym downstairs. It’s our way of charging our batteries. We kind of have a rule that we don’t go from one set of performances to the next set of performances without going home for a few days to rejuvenate. It’s like your iPhone: When the battery gets depleted, you have to plug it back in. We figured that out. My husband will tell me, and my manager, when I’m frazzled and need to slow it down. I’m very lucky, but the flip side is you’re always under the microscope. There’s no job where you can cruise.

Asked how she feels about kicking off another demanding, high profile season, she says, “Bring it on!” An answer that seems equal parts “Sandy-Singer” and authentic Sondra.