Operawire Q & A
Sondra Radvanovsky on Screaming Divas, Favorite Roles & the Future
“People are craving music and all the healing, soothing, and bonding elements it provides.”
American-Canadian soprano superstar Sondra Radvanovsky was in Rio de Janeiro on March 13, 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in full force. Radvanovsky was slated to perform at the Theatro Municipal, but the performance ended up being canceled. Faced with a highly uncertain situation, the fearless soprano headed home and encountered self-isolation upon arrival. As humanity was heading into a dark pit, Radvanovsky did not give up on her greatest love and passion – music.
Radvanovsky is regarded as one of the greatest living sopranos. Her gigantic voice, theatrical prowess, and vast repertoire have made her a fixture at the world’s greatest opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera House, Royal Opera House, Opéra National de Paris, Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Canadian Opera Company and Lyric Opera of Chicago, among others.
OperaWire had a chance to speak with Radvanovsky in anticipation of her performance at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, and subsequent performances in “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Teatro Real de Madrid.
OperaWire: Let me begin by asking, how are you?
Sondra Radvanovsky: Honestly, it truly depends on the day that you ask me, as I am sure most other people would agree. As an artist, what we do is living heightened emotions out on stage during every opera or performance that we do. And, in many ways, our lives are like singing an opera at the moment; extreme highs and extreme lows. I have stopped reading the news, because I found it was causing me such agitation as well as depression – I couldn’t sing for the first few months of the pandemic because of this sense of utter despair. That said, I truly do feel like we are at a tipping point and that, with vigilance, we could get back to performing live hopefully in the next few months. It most likely won’t look the same as before the pandemic, but people are craving music and all the healing, soothing, and bonding elements it provides. How many memories do we have associated to a specific song or piece of music that we hear?
OW: The last few months have brought grief and misery to the world as the COVID-19 pandemic struck in full force. How did you deal with the situation?
SR: Quite frankly, I don’t think that I dealt with it at all. I feel like I was so immersed in it that I had no way out. Most living human beings haven’t dealt with anything on this scale of devastation and it didn’t come with a handbook of how to deal with all of this. We have lost so many artists, friends, and so many people worldwide to this as well as having so many friends who are still dealing with the effects of this virus. But I feel that, slowly, I am coming out of this terrible fog and am able to see my way forward. But, this virus is real and must not be thought of as anything else.
OW: In April you partnered with Keri Alkema for the series “Screaming Divas.” What was your motive for this project?
SR: Keri and I have been best friends for quite a few years now – yeah, I know, two sopranos being friends is kind of like Tebaldi and Callas saying that they loved each other! But, honestly, we have been there for each other through so many huge life experiences and supported each other, mostly through laughter… oh, and gin too. So, when the world started shutting down, we both were in touch with each other almost every day seeing how each other was doing, etc. There were many tears, but mostly laughter, during these times. And we both one day said, “I wonder if everyone else is feeling what we are feeling at the moment?” So, we started this idea of just reaching out and talking to our friends in the business and seeing how they were doing and, well, having a drink while we did. And, you know the amazing thing? All of our friends said that they felt better after we chatted. But, the name…. We decided on Screaming Divas because, well, we always have our mouths open when we sing and, well, isn’t singing modified speaking or screaming?
OW: Let’s shift gears and talk about your beginnings. How did you know that you wanted to be an opera singer?
SR: Oh, I feel I have told this story a million and one times already. My mother bought me a record player when I was quite young – 5 or 6 years old. I started singing along with my first record, Karen Carpenter, and then a few years later, started harmonizing with her. My mother, being so supportive and intuitive, asked me if I wanted to sing in our church choir and I jumped at the thought. Fast forward to my church choir director a few years later telling my mother that she felt I was given a gift with my singing voice and that I should consider taking voice lessons. Problem was, I hadn’t heard opera until the magical day when I was 11 years old and saw Placido Domingo on the television with a broadcast of “Tosca.” That was it, I was hooked and pointed to the TV and said to my mother, “I want to do that!” And that day started my passion for all things opera and I truly haven’t looked back since then.
OW: How do you prepare for new roles?
SR: Preparing for new roles is a very personal thing and differs so greatly from singer to singer. Some singers, not me, can learn music very quickly. Others, well, we have to spend a bit more time on it. I think I learned very early on that repetition was the way for me to memorize not only the words and music, but for my throat to develop muscle memory. I also found that I memorized things more quickly when I added movement to that learning process; be it sitting in a rocking chair or walking to the tempo. I try and give myself at least 6 months to learn a new role, but, given how hectic our schedules used to be, sometimes that wasn’t possible. But, most of the time, I set aside time to just work on the music here at home because I also found that I couldn’t do two operas at once, such as singing one opera while learning another. Also, there are many layers to learning an opera; being able to speak the words, knowing what you are saying after translating the text, being able to sing the notes, and then, finally, having muscle memory learn how it feels in your body and voice with the memorization of the role. Exhausting!
OW: Tosca is one of your signature roles. How do you shift between the immense set of emotions in order to portray Tosca credibly onstage?
SR: When I was younger, I started out as a theater major at UCLA, which I found out was invaluable. We learned about the emotional line which, if stepped over, actually takes away from the dramatic impact of the acting and singing. Now, I am not saying that you have to be as cool as a cucumber to play Tosca, but you have to pick and choose which moments you are going to allow yourself to feel the drama, but always aware of never stepping over that line. Also, Tosca is every soprano in that, she is an opera singer herself with all the idiosyncrasies that go with it too! Another aspect of Tosca, for me, is that there are a few moments in the opera where you just have to think only about singing. Those huge, dramatic moments – mostly in the Second Act – where the orchestra is wailing away and you have to think about support. But, honestly, I love singing Tosca and dreamed about it from the very first moment I heard the opera at 11 years old. It truly felt like a part of my psyche and that her blood ran through my veins because I thought about her and the music so much growing up.
OW: Verdi’s heroines Aida, Amelia, and Leonora also belong to your extensive repertoire. These three women share the emotions of pervasive sorrow. How do you explore such an emotion onstage, both vocally and dramatically?
SR: Sorrow is something that has been a huge part of my life from an early age. I found my father dead at our home in California when I was 17 years old. I remember once, while singing a rehearsal at The Metropolitan Opera, James Levine said, “Sondra, you have an innate sob in your voice.” So, sadness comes naturally to me. As an artist, you use these emotions and draw from them to make the characters more human. I do feel that there is always a part of me in every character that I portray. It is what makes opera so exciting.
OW: You have also sung lots of Donizetti roles throughout your career especially the Three Queens. What connects Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Elisabetta?
SR: I think that there is a bond amongst these women that is so strong and that is that all these women were strong women. When singing the Three Tudor Queens, I really found that portraying these wonderful women who were real women in our world history was the most exciting part of these operas. The story that they all shared was nobility, power, and love, or lack thereof… all aspects of every modern-day woman. And Donizetti was just so brilliant in portraying these emotions in his music, especially, for me, in Devereux. Queen Elisabeth I was such a powerful woman but lacked one thing in her life, love, and her music showed what happens to a person who was never truly loved – anger and resentment. But, honestly, love seems to me the thread that runs through all of their lives and stories.
OW: Your last performance before the lockdown was actually a big role debut. You did Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Who is Lisa to you?
SR: This question actually brought a tear to my eye. This seemed almost like a whole lifetime ago now. Lisa is such a rich and troubled character. In the production that we did, she, along with Ghermann, were on the spectrum and just “got” each other from the moment they met. With all the Slavic blood in me, I was so drawn to the dark and brooding aspects in this opera. It seems like no one is ever happy in it. But, somehow, Lisa and Ghermann find a brief moment of happiness within all the doom and gloom…. quickly fleeting. But Ghermann is a victim of society and greed and Lisa just, like Tatiana in Onegin, wanted to be loved.
OW: Which of the characters that you have portrayed so far is most similar to you? Which are most different, and why?
SR: I would say that, of all the characters I have played, Tatiana in “Onegin,” Tosca, and Musetta or Amelia in “Ballo” are most like me. My whole life after my father died, I was searching for that father figure and that unconditional love. The ones completely unlike me are Rusalka and Leonora in “Trovatore.” Both are women in love with the idea of love which is something that, to my practical mind, is unrealistic and unobtainable.
OW: You returned to the stage on Sept. 3, with a concert at the Teatro Colón de A Coruña. What was the feeling of being on stage after a six-month hiatus?
SR: It was absolutely thrilling! To perform for a live audience is something that you cannot compare to digital content. The visceral feeling of the human voice hitting you square in the chest is just amazing and one of the reasons why I became a singer. Of course, there were a few moments of trepidation; will my voice be able to handle singing 6 arias, 3 duets, and 2 trios after not singing a full opera for 6 months? But, we are like professional athletes and our muscles remember what we trained all those years for and it felt amazing and the audience felt that too.
OW: On Sept. 27, 2020, you will also perform with tenor Piotr Beczała at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. What excites you about this performance?
SR: Piotr is a wonderful person and colleague. He is always smiling, kind, generous with his talent and time and such an elegant, amazing singer. Being on stage with him is always a joy and feels like home to me. And Barcelona holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. The passion of the Spanish audiences always overwhelms me because they feel music with such joy and energy. So it is like getting a huge hug from the public every time you step on stage in Barcelona, and we give them a huge hug back with our voices! That is what I have missed these past 6 months – the energy and passion from the audience and the breathless anticipation in that moment just before the music starts. I cannot wait!
OW: What are your expectations for the future, both artistically and in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
SR: This is a very difficult question and there are so many factors that could change the future trajectory of opera; a vaccine for the virus, government funding for both the opera companies as well as the artists, musicians, and employees, gaining the trust back of the audiences, and the list goes on and on. That said, I feel that the future of opera needed to change and has needed to change for quite a while and it took a worldwide pandemic for our business to realize that this change had to happen. In my opinion, for opera to move forward, we need to embrace change and modernize how we experience opera. The digital platform of our business is here to stay and we all need to learn how to enhance opera using this medium; be it online concerts, voice lessons, digital graphics as sets, etc. Also, I feel that the future of opera lies in the hands of the younger generation. We have to reach out to them in a way that they can relate to, and online digital content is their medium for sure. Artistically, I feel that the sky is the limit at the moment. We have a wealth of amazing, young singers who just need the opportunity to perform, either on stage or online, and they just need a place for this to happen. It is thrilling for me to see how people are being so creative right now and I am sure that we are going to see and hear some amazing things happen once we can get back on stage.