Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky calls her onstage personality “Sandy Singer.” Sandy Singer has to be “on,” she says. She has to be an athlete with the strength and endurance to support her tremendous voice. She has to sustain the weighty emotions of her characters (imagine storming around as an angry queen for three hours, as she did in Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux).Offstage, she is Sondra — someone more reserved, private, grounded in her faith. Before every performance, Radvanovsky prays to her father, who died when she was 17. She asks him to help her — “not to hit it out of the ballpark or anything, but to just do the very best I can do today.” It can be hard to face the grand expectations that come with her level of achievement. So aiming for “the very best I can do today” is a way of managing those expectations in her own mind. Throughout her 30-year career, she has been a regular star at the Metropolitan Opera and other top opera houses. She has defined for her generation the character of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and other protagonists of classic operas. “My father never really got to hear me sing onstage professionally,” she says. She recalls his reaction at her first solo, when she was 8 years old.
At her church in Indiana, where she grew up, the choir leaders had spotted her talent early and nurtured it. Her father was the head usher, and he was walking down the aisle with the offertory plate, beaming at his little girl as she stood in the pulpit ready to unleash her already powerful voice. But she forgot the words. Instead of the solemn lyrics of He Shall Feed His Flock, a curse word escaped her lips. It was clearly audible to the whole congregation. “My father dropped the offertory plate full of all these coins, ching, ching, ching, ching,” she says. The sound of the coins bouncing on the floor rang out amidst the shocked silence. Her mother slinked down in her seat. It was a holy mess. Radvanovsky’s father was Czech. He spoke Czech with his parents, and Radvanovsky could understand much of it, but her father never encouraged her to speak it. “You’re American, you should speak English,” he would tell her. She found the language to be a mouthful anyway. “Some of these words in Czech, you have five consonants and one vowel,” she says. But she has mastered the art of making that mouthful sound beautiful while also performing all the technical feats of opera singing. She will star in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Rusalka in the fall. It’s by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), who was one of her father’s favourite composers.
‘Tell my love that I miss him’
Rusalka’s aria Song to the Moon is Radvanovsky’s favourite aria ever. That’s significant praise from someone who has practically performed them all. She explains what it’s about, that Rusalka is saying to the moon, “Tell my love that I miss him and carry my love to him, and tell him not to stay too far away.” As Radvanovsky plays Rusalka singing to her prince, she will also be singing this song to her father, she says.