American-born soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (now living in Canada) has been steadily gaining currency on the international opera scene as a star of the first rank. Subsequent to her participation in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Competition and Winners Concert in 1995, she has sung some 140 performances at America's foremost opera house. In the early years, she participated in the MET's young artist program and sang a variety of supporting roles, including a great many turns as the priestess in Verdi's Aida (the very definition of luxury casting). In more recent seasons, however, she has succeeded in starring roles such as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Roxane in Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac, and a host of Verdi heroines, including Violetta, Luisa Miller, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, Elvira in Ernani, Lina in Stiffelio, and perhaps her signature role, Leonora in Il Trovatore. These high-profile appearances at the MET, added to her growing international stature and the recent release of her first album of arias, all point to a singer entering her peak years and maturing into one of the finest Verdi sopranos of her generation.
I had a chance to speak with Radvanovsky by telephone shortly after the first in a 'mini-tour' of four operatic concerts she sang with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. After the premiere of their program in Toronto, they traveled to Montreal, Washington, DC, and New York's Carnegie Hall. I asked her to share her impressions of the opening concert: 'Well, we had a great time! It was basically my Toronto debut, well, my Canadian debut, in fact. I had sung there once previously, about three years ago as part of the 'Luminato Festival', but this was my first chance to be a featured artist. We were so well received, and it was great to feel such response and affection from the audience! There were also a lot of our friends there, and we just really had a fun time – it was a great night. Dmitri and I work very well together and we were playing around, like we normally do, and so yes, it was very fun.' When I mentioned that I would attend the final concert in Carnegie Hall (reviewed on MusicalCriticism.com here), Radvanovsky mentioned that aside from a single appearance with the New York City Gay Men's Chorus many years ago, this would mark her debut in Isaac Stern Auditorium. Certainly, the excited New York audience gave Radvanovsky and Hvorostovsky an affectionate reception that must have rivaled her experience in Toronto.
Radvanovsky's very first solo aria recording, 'Verdi Arias' on the Delos label, was released in the United States during the month of April. I asked her to share her feelings about the recording process and the finished product. 'Well, the project took a long time to develop, since it was actually postponed twice, due to family concerns on my end, and then the conductor's schedule. So when we finally got together last June in Moscow, it was in fact our third attempt to get the project completed. It was all a very new process for me, since I had never previously made any studio recordings. The only other time I had made a recording was Philip Glass' Civil Wars and on that occasion, I was in a studio, recording to a track; there was no orchestra present. So for me, the process was completely foreign, and I had no idea what to expect or how to sing for a microphone in a recording studio. In addition, the studio was in Moscow, so there was a language barrier with the entire orchestra speaking Russian, of course, so that was challenging too.'
When I asked if she had ever previously been to Moscow, Radvanovsky confirmed that she had in fact recorded an album of Verdi duets with Hvorostovsky, taken from a live concert. While this recording hasn't yet been released here in the US, I have received confirmation from the distributor that it should become available this coming autumn. 'That concert with Dmitri was actually done a year before my aria disc, and was the first time I had performed with Dmitri and the conductor [Constantine Orbelian]. So for my solo disc, I had the same conductor and the same orchestra [Philharmonia of Russia], which was great! But recording an album is a really intense process, I have to say. There are ten arias – ten big Verdi arias – that are taken from several of my signature roles. I really wanted to record a program that would showcase me in some of the repertoire I love most, and since this is my first album, I really wanted to show people what I'm good at. Like many singers, I hate listening to myself sing, because I don't really hear the beauty, I tend to focus on the imperfections. Prior to the sessions, I was worried a little bit about how my voice was going to record. I definitely feel that my voice needs a good amount of space in order to bloom and resonate – like a concert hall – and so, going in and standing about 10 inches from a microphone was concerning me. And I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome, I have to say!'
Knowing that recording sessions tend to be very compressed, I asked Radvanovsky how she coped with the need for retakes and if the process was comfortable for her. 'Well, yes, the timing was very compressed: we had five four-hour sessions in which to complete the entire recording. There were five sessions over seven days, and each session was absolutely packed with work from beginning to end. So it's a very intense process from a vocal standpoint. So for me, it was not only about making a great recording, but also about maintaining vocal health. You definitely want the last track to end up sounding as fresh as the first. You also want to save the final session for going back and doing editing: fixing this phrase and fixing that note, etc. Also, the recording sessions themselves were held at the end of June, which is, for me, the end of the main bulk of my opera season, so of course I was tired overall. The season prior was a very heavy season for me. Then, in the week prior to the sessions, I started in London, then traveled home to Toronto, then to Montreal for a concert, then to Moscow for the recording. So by the time I reached Moscow, my body was disoriented to say the least. So, I really learned that the key to successfully managing recording sessions is pacing myself, vocally. It is also a tremendous help to have someone present who you trust, who you know has a good ear and knows your voice.'
This last sentiment is very common among great singers, and I asked Radvanovsky who she trusts and what kinds of information they impart that she finds valuable and supportive. 'I was very lucky for this recording, because Gerald Martin Moore – a voice teacher in New York – was able to come to Moscow and act as a coach, and a teacher, and another set of ears. He told me so many things that I wasn't able to hear myself in my position behind the microphone: "you need more height on this" or "modify this vowel" or "step away from the microphone here" or "you don't need to sing so loud" and so forth. It was really great, and he was very helpful; I felt very fortunate to have him there. My husband was also present, and so he and Gerald sat in the sound studio and would give me the 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down.' Their feedback was invaluable. And I have to say, I think the end product turned out really well. I'm very happy with it.'
Apparently the public is also impressed, because preliminary reviews have been strong in the short time since the album was released in the US. I asked Radvanovsky if she had interest or plans to make any follow-up recordings. 'Yes, there has been talk of at least one more disc, either an all Puccini program, or perhaps a disc of bel canto arias.' I had wondered if she intended to explore the bel canto repertoire, since she had already sung Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia in the Canary Islands as well as in Washington, DC (sharing the role with Renée Fleming). While Radvanovsky is currently considered to be one of the preeminent Verdian sopranos, the bel canto repertoire requires a similarly strong vocal technique. In addition, while there seems to be a steady supply of sopranos who can manage the ever-popular Puccini roles, the bel canto repertoire is much less well served. So, casting my vote for a bel canto disc, I asked Radvanovsky to elaborate on her thoughts about the challenges of bel canto heroines. 'I have to say that I find the bel canto repertoire very similar to singing Verdi. I mean, Verdi was born out of bel canto, after all, especially the Verdi roles I sing most: Ernani, Trovatore, Luisa Miller, Traviata, etc. Now that I'm moving into some heavier Verdi roles – I'm taking on my very first Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and my first Aida this next season – the technique is indeed a little different. The later roles require a little more volume, a little more body, and a little rounder sound, but the earlier Verdi roles are just like singing bel canto. And I have to say, I really enjoy bel canto roles very much, and honestly, I didn't expect to! Frankly, when I was offered the first Lucrezia Borgia, I looked through the role and just felt there were far to many little notes – too much coloratura – it all looked too difficult. But breaking it down with my coach in NY – Anthony Minoli – I found that it truly fits me like a glove. Some people have been surprised as I've explored this repertoire because of the large size of my voice, but I do have the ability to scale back my sound as needed. And I really enjoy the flexibility inherent in the bel canto music: I can play with it a lot. And that creative part is really great.'
In fact, Radvanovsky brings up a very good point, which is that the great, tragic heroines of the bel canto period can (and should) be sung be a variety of voice types, as long as the technical requirements are satisfied sufficiently to do justice to the respective composers. When I mentioned that a number of the 'heavier' bel canto roles are either neglected (Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux are rarely performed these days) or ill-served (Norma seems to be staged with reasonable frequency, but rarely with a soprano who can do justice to the bel canto demands of the role), Radvanovsky expressed genuine enthusiasm for these iconic roles. 'I have contracts for all of these roles coming up in the next few years! I have contracts for all three queens [Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, and Anna Bolena] and for Norma as well. In fact, I have multiple contracts for all of them. I'm really excited about going in this direction vocally, though I must admit, it did take me awhile to really wrap my head around the idea. It took me some time to become convinced that I could really sing this repertoire and sing it very successfully. But the Lucrezia Borgia I did in Washington, DC was the answer to my own internal questions about this repertoire. You know, my question to myself was "Can I really sustain an entire evening of this type of vocal intensity?" And the answer was really, and overwhelming "Yes!" There are people who talk to me, and observe that I also sing Puccini, and I think the idea of combining these two very different repertoires can be a bit confusing. But, you know, back in the day, the same person who sang Maria Stuarda also sang Manon Lescaut and Il Trovatore, and it's only been in the most recent generation that the standard seems to have changed some, and we no longer have the same voices singing this breadth of repertoire. It's a shame, because I do think it should be a full-bodied voice like mine that sings all of this repertoire.'
I mentioned Virginia Zeani as an example of a Twentieth-Century singer who successfully combined Puccini, Verdi, and bel canto in her repertoire, and Radvanovsky immediately responded with Renata Scotto as another, more recent example. Certainly, Scotto is a tremendous role model, having sung such widely disparate roles as Donizetti's Lucia, Bellini's Giulietta, Verdi's Giselda, and Puccini's Butterfly with huge success and keeping them concurrently in her active repertoire. Radvanovsky was quick to elaborate on her own viewpoint as a singer: 'There's no reason why a singer should not be able to sing all these roles, and I will do them with my own voice. I won't try to bulk up my sound to sing the Puccini, nor will I try to brighten it or lighten it to sing the bel canto. I use my own voice and my own technique. Yes, there are some slight differences in the actual vocal approach, according to the needs of the composers, and the breath support must match the type of vocal lines required, but that's about the only change I'll need to make.'
'There's one track on the Verdi Album, from Il Corsaro ['Non so le tetre immagini'] that I think will really surprise people because it's very bel canto in style. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised to hear me singing in that style, because I haven't done it very often and so very few people have had the chance to hear it. I chose that aria specifically to represent the more bel canto side of Verdi, in contrast with his heavier pieces. I included the aria from Aida ['O patria mia'] because I'm actually debuting that role pretty soon. But generally, we were trying to favor somewhat, that dramatic coloratura type roles.'
I pointed out that the MET produced Verdi's early Attila this season, and its heroine Odabella seems like a perfect fit for Radvanovsky's combination of agility and vocal amplitude. 'You know, I'll probably consider that role fairly soon, but not yet. I consider her to be one of Verdi's "angry women" [laughs]. I put Odabella in the same category with Abigaille and Lady Macbeth. And right now, I'm still working on keeping my temper in check and controlling my emotions when I sing. In fact, my very first Tosca, which is coming up in just a couple weeks, I think will really help me with that. I'm working on making sure that the temperament of the role doesn't take over my body and vocal mechanism and cause me to tighten up. And the skills involved in keeping everything measured and in check, temperamentally, are the ones I need to have mastery over before I can think about roles like Lady Macbeth and Fanciulla and so forth.' When I mentioned that Radvanovsky might need some of those balancing skills for Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, she agreed immediately: 'When you're going into anything dramatic, the emotional part is a danger. I was a theater major in college, so for me, the drama is equally important to the vocal quality of any role. The audience pays for tickets, and I want them to be able to experience all aspects of the theater drama – not just the vocal qualities. So I have to really be sure I set [emotional] boundaries for myself that I don't step over, so that the vocal mechanism is not affected. And that separation is very difficult for a lot of singers.'
As a singer in her full vocal prime, Radvanovsky is in demand for a wide variety of roles, and therefore, each new season brings the opportunity for perhaps several role debuts. Since she mentioned her up-coming debut as Tosca, I asked her to describe her learning process when she commits to taking on new roles. 'Well, it's a long process! When I'm first offered a new role, I immediately talk to my agent, my teacher, and my coach in order to hear their opinions and insights, but at this stage, I know my voice very well, and it's pretty clear to me what I can and cannot sing. Of course, there are always the offers that push the envelope a bit – the Turandots and the Salomes and things like that. But it's important for any singer to know their voice. Now that I've turned 40, my voice has matured quite a bit – the bottom has gotten a bit richer and fuller – but it's the middle voice that's now really growing in and getting stronger, and that's what I need in order to sing things like Aida and Tosca. So, the first thing is to decide if a new role will be healthy. And it's important to remember that we're talking about a role on stage. It's one thing to sing through a role in the studio, but quite another to take a role on stage, with all the emotions and staging, and then of course to sing an entire run of performances. Once I decide that I'm capable of doing a good job in a role, and singing it in a healthy way, I then have to look at the calendar and see what will come before it, and what will come after. For example, I could never choose to sing a run of Lucrezia Borgia, and then follow it with a run of Tosca. For me, that would be vocal suicide and not reasonable. As an example, if you look at the schedule I have coming up, I'll sing the Tosca performances, and then go on to the Verdi Requiem, followed by Il Trovatore [in Verona], then Aida and finally Un ballo in maschera. So it's a great progression and should be very reasonable for my voice to encompass, because they're all similar in terms of their vocal demands.'
'Once we determine that it fits comfortably into my schedule, then, yes, I usually do go and listen to recordings – generally with the aim of listening to the orchestrations. I listen with the score in front of me, and I mark places where the orchestra gets really loud or there's a special concern vocally: difficult intervals or coloratura, for example. I will admit, that my favorite role model for listening is Maria Callas. If there is a recording available of her singing a role, that's where I will turn first. I find the unique timbre of her voice and the emotion she is able to convey are wonderful examples to follow. Also, in my opinion, Callas followed everything that's in the score: she sings the proper dynamics, she observes the proper breaths, and the pauses, the commas, the dots – everything! I think she showed incredible fidelity to the printed score. I also feel that my voice is very similar to hers – perhaps not the weight, but definitely the color. And then after a time, I stop listening, because I don't want to imitate anyone; I want to put my own personal stamp on a role and make it work best for me. Next, I translate the text, because I speak Italian fluently, and it's an excellent way for me to become very familiar with a libretto. If there is an important book written about the opera, I will definitely read it and try to get a sense of the history of the opera. Often, I will watch a DVD if I think there's a valuable one available. I will also talk to people about their impressions of the character. For example, while I was in Paris for Don Carlo recently, I spoke with Luc Bondy about Tosca and the MET's production which I will be singing next January. I'll also speak with other singers like Renata Scotto or Diana Soviero to get their impressions and advice about particular pitfalls of the role and so forth. It's also great to speak with these other singers to get a sense of the traditions attached to specific roles, you know, like optional high notes in Il Trovatore or ornamentation in Lucrezia Borgia. These details all need to be worked out. Time management is a big issue!'
'Finally, I take the score to my coach and my teacher and we start working on it. Depending on exactly when I accepted the engagement, and what my schedule looks like, the 'learning' part can start anywhere from six months (at the least) to two or three years prior to the actual debut. With something like Tosca, I think I probably started learning it at about age 21, since it has been a dream role for me and I've always wanted to sing it.'
Every singer has a list of 'dream roles'. Sometimes they're modest and achievable, and other times they are purely fantasy. After Radvanovsky's marvelous segue concerning the role of Tosca, I asked her what other roles fit into this category for her. I was barely able to finish the question before she responded emphatically: 'Norma! For sure, I've always wanted to sing Norma and have been waiting for the right time to do so. And then someday, when I grow up [laughs] I'd like to sing Turandot as well. It's hard to say when that might be, but probably when I'm much closer to 50 or after.'
Since she is most certainly entering her prime years and her career seems to be rolling forward at top speed, I wondered how Radvanovsky copes with feedback from fans and critics. She maintains a regularly updated page on Facebook that indicates an interest in staying in touch with her fans. This is obviously a newer phenomenon among singers since so-called 'social networking' in cyberspace has so recently and rapidly expanded through sites such as Facebook and Twitter. 'I think a solid fan base is one of the most important aspects of a career in singing. Opera lovers are the ones who buy the tickets and create the demand for the artistry I work so hard at. In effect, the fans pay my salary, so I do think they're a very important part of the equation. I realize there are many singers who don't enjoy interacting with fans, but for me, it's a great joy. That's my role in what I do! I want to touch the audience and transport them to another place where they can forget all the worries of daily life and just concentrate and be there with me for that journey that we take together. Frankly, I'm honored that so many people are moved and touched by my singing. It's nice to be famous and so forth, but I have always insisted that my goal as an artist is to touch people and keep the art form of opera alive, because I am so passionate about it. And I truly love singing.'
'Plus, I do think it's a lot of fun hearing what people have to say. Things like "Oh, I didn't like your hair that way" or "I didn't like your dress" or "I loved the way you sang that" or "Oh! You tried something new". I appreciate all of that feedback – partly because I can't sit in the audience and look at and listen to myself perform, but also because the interaction is just fun. You know, it's all part of this strange and miraculous career. I try to be thankful for every part of it – I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity. I know a lot of singers who try to control every aspect of their lives and careers, and I don't bother with that. I think if something is meant to happen, then it will happen. I really live my life to the best of my ability. I'm very fortunate, in that my husband travels with me and I have a great life! I have a wonderful group of friends and a terrific family and that, to me, is just as important as singing. They all nourish me and fulfill me in different ways, and so I do feel well-rounded and balanced. Plus, I'm surrounded by an incredible support system: they do all the work. All I have to do is learn the music and get up on stage and sing! [Laughs] I truly can't complain about a thing.'
Radvanovsky is currently singing in Tosca with the Denver Opera in Colorado. Her disc of Verdi arias on the Delos label is available in the US since mid April and will be released world-wide shortly. To keep up with her engagements or send her your feedback, visit her on Facebook.
Photos: First two copyright by First Chair Promotion; third by Cory Weaver; fourth by Nigel Dickson.
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