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Seen and Heard Interview

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky
talks about Verdi and working with Plácido Domingo. Interview by Bruce Hodges


Fresh from triumphs in Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani and Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera, Sondra Radvanovsky is currently appearing in three sold-out performances of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, which has never been presented at the Met. In May 2006, the production will then appear at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, which co-produced it. Recently I had the opportunity to have a cup of coffee with Sondra near Lincoln Center, where we discussed how her dreams have come true.

“Plácido Domingo is the reason I became an opera singer, since I saw him on TV when I was 11 years old, singing Tosca. I said to my mom, “I want to do that,” and she said, “OK honey, that’s nice,” and I started taking voice lessons at 11 – all because of Plácido Domingo.”

Before Cyrano de Bergerac, she had never sung a leading role with him, primarily because of the age difference, but from a very early age, to share the stage with Plácido was her dream. Then one day about two years ago, he called saying, “Sondra, we really want you for the part [i.e., Roxane].” She talked to her manager, and gracefully bowed out of some previous engagements, which she hastens to add that she doesn’t generally do, but after profuse apologies everyone was “very understanding.”

After receiving the score, she looked at it, and first thought, “This is not great music!” and then, “What did I get myself into? It’s a very transparent orchestration, not like Verdi oom-pa-pa – more like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, like 1940s or 1950s film music. When I finally heard the orchestra, I thought, this is glorious.” Composer Franco Alfano wrote two versions, in French and Italian, but Sondra prefers the former version, which is the one the Met is doing.

But Cyrano comes on the heels of two more roles at the Met, Duchess Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, and Elisabetta in Don Carlo. For the last six months or so, she has been the epitome of the workaholic opera star. Following her success in Vespri, she got a call to replace Barbara Frittoli, who had canceled about three weeks before rehearsals for Don Carlo began. Radvanovsky was in Houston singing Il Trovatore, when her manager phoned saying, “Sondra, that time you had set aside to learn Cyrano…you’re completely free to do Don Carlo.” Never mind that Radvanovsky had never done the five-act version and would have to learn the first act, and never mind that she had purposely set aside a month-and-a-half in her schedule to work on the role of Roxane for the Alfano premiere. So she flew directly from Houston to New York, “with all my warm summer clothes,” and plunged into rehearsals with coaching from her teacher, Ruth Falcon.

She loves the last act, but also rolls her eyes at the opera’s extreme length: “It’s almost five hours! Everybody knows what happens to Don Carlo – they’re such Verdi aficionados – and they know what happens. By the end people are leaving, and I’m dying by the end of the night – just praying I’ll get through it, let alone make artistic nuances.”

I ask her how it feels to be spoken about in the same breath as Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, and Zinka Milanov. “You know, Newsday wrote after the I Vespri Siciliani, “one of the greats of the year,” and there was a huge picture of me, and it was very surreal. You work for this all your life and then you finally get recognition, and you say, ‘Somebody pinch me – that couldn’t be my picture.’ Every reviewer almost invariably compares me to Maria Callas...the voice, the acting. And it’s very flattering, since she’s my idol, as is Price.

Born in Berwyn, Illinois, Radvanovsky moved to Richmond, Indiana at age eleven, when her father was transferred.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere – like really in the middle of nowhere, with lots of cows. We moved from there to California, where I went to college: first to the University of Southern California, then to UCLA as a drama major – no opera! Then I studied privately with Martial Singher at the University of Santa Barbara, right before he passed away. Then I won the Met competition in 1995 – I said I was going to do it until I won it, and I don’t know what I was thinking of, singing an aria from Aida at 25. My teacher at the time was misguiding me a little bit, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me, not only because it was the Met, but also because I found my teacher now, with whom I’ve been almost eleven years. They gave me the first tree to the left, then the second tree to the right, and eventually I became the person standing in front of the tree!”

Sondra adores Verdi, and I ask her about some of his heavier orchestrations, such as Don Carlo, and if she ever worries about her voice, since she’s still relatively young. She comments on one of Verdi’s signatures – the big scenes in Luisa Miller, Aida and I Vespri Siciliani, where the soprano has to soar over everyone else – noting that he places the soprano a bit higher in the mix, and comments on the extreme range needed by Verdi sopranos, taxed in both the top and the bottom ranges.

“Even more in I Vespri Siciliani, I had to go all the way up, and all the way down. These roles demand so much, and you have to be able to ride above, because if you blend in it’s not exciting. But the key is not to push, because the minute you start pushing your voice, you can do vocal damage, and I think it’s a problem nowadays. I don’t know whether the problem is with teachers, or with singers. My teacher is so great – she’s very conservative in helping me choose roles, and she says if you can’t be heard over the ensemble without pushing, then you’re not doing it right. She always says you have to use your breath, your air, and because the common reaction is to just push through it and that actually makes your voice smaller, than if you just let it flow. And that’s why I don’t do Aida yet, or Ballo, or Forza del Destino, because I still have to push a bit too much to get over the orchestra. So, until then, take it easy and do Don Carlo!”

Acting is a high priority for Sondra, and she wishes other singers would follow suit.

“If I’m bored, I can only imagine that other people are, and I think the key in this day and age is that acting, is not only about stage directions, it’s a conversation. I have to listen to what the other person is saying to me, react to it, and then speak my reaction. And so many people don’t do that. It’s like a one-sided conversation. You don’t want to hear me talk all the time; I want to hear your thoughts. It’s common sense! Just because it’s in Italian or Russian or whatever, do your work, learn what they’re saying to you, and if you can’t…sorry! Go do something else!


“If there’s a scene that I’m not in, I don’t always know word-for-word what is happening, so for example in the scene with the Grand Inquisitor, it was interesting to watch and go, Oh, that’s what they’re saying, since it’s still a fairly new role for me. Something like Cyrano is going to be great with the subtitles, too, since it’s so conversational.”

Cyrano de Bergerac
is rarely done, and will not only be a Met premiere, but the North American one as well. Radvanovsky was fortunate to be able to shuffle her schedule. While in Paris, working with Francesca Zambello on a new production of Il Trovatore with Roberto Alagna, Zambello mentioned the role of Roxane. Although Sondra had never heard of the opera, and was immersed in three other engagements, Zambello asked her to just look at the score, and then added: Well you know Plácido Domingo is Cyrano.

“There’s not really a recording out, but there is a DVD with Roberto Alagna, which is fabulous. So I got into working on it, and said to Plácido, I absolutely love it and he said, ‘You know what? I didn’t really like it, but I really love it now!’ It’s going along so well. I think people don’t know what to expect. They’re going to come opening night and going to be blown away visually, as well as aurally. I really think it’s going to be the surprise hit of the season, and you can quote me on that. It’s not because of me or Plácido – it’s the piece as a whole. It’s really beautiful to look at – very verismo – like you and me talking, having a whole conversation, and it’s very touching. At the end, if there’s a dry eye in the house, I’ll be surprised.”

“The opera is grueling for Cyrano, for sure. For me? It’s more about the clothes [she laughs]: six costume changes. Three wigs, six pairs of shoes, but well worth it. They’re the most gorgeous costumes I’ve ever worn, really, and they were made for me, so they fit to a ‘T.’

“It’s a new opera, and Plácido is doing it for the first time – we’re all doing it for the first time. I think they wanted to try it out, since it’s not standard repertoire. But it’s coming back next year for six more performances, with essentially the same cast. And after that we go right from the Met to Covent Garden [conducted by Mark Elder], since it’s a co-production with them.”

“Marco Armiliato is conducting it here, and he is beyond fabulous. He knows it backwards! He can sing everybody’s lines, and when you hear it you’ll understand what that means. He is really great. Bring your Kleenex! Plácido in the last act, with his nose…he is very convincing. He is such an actor, besides being such a singer. It is such a great role for him, as it is for me. Like you said about Don Carlo, I really get to act in this, and it’s such joy because I really love acting – I really do. People should be prepared to be blown away. There’s not much to say about it because nobody knows it. There’s no big aria, although I have the closest thing to one. The action never stops. It’s fast-moving, really fast-paced. And bring the Kleenex.”

Even at this relatively early stage in her career, she draws comparisons to Callas:

“I always say to people, I’d like to be the first Sondra, instead of the second Maria, you know? It’s a bit overwhelming, since every time you walk out onstage there’s a level that you have to keep your performance at, and I’m sure it drives my husband crazy at this point, since he travels with me, and he says, Sondra, you’re so tough on yourself, and I say, Well if I’m not, someone else will be. Five years ago it would have been easier. People would say, Sondra’s young, she’s up and coming, but when you’re Renée Fleming or Bryn Terfel or Plácido, people expect that level of excellence all the time. The pressure is extremely great, I have to say, especially being young. And I think, when is it ever going to be good enough for me, or for them? And then I think, they’re coming just to hear us, to hear the music, and if I can do justice to it, that’s all I can hope for. If I do my very best that day – we’re only human, right? As with Maria, and Tebaldi, and all of them, they had their good days and their bad days, and people still have a tendency to put them on a pedestal. That’s what they expect singers nowadays to try to attain – that – and it’s tough. That’s why I don’t read reviews. I have four or five people around me whom I really trust to tell me when I was off, and when I was good, and what to work on and what to fix. To everyone else I say, Thank you, thank you, thank you, and it goes into the memory banks, because if you don’t you can drive yourself crazy.”

I mention that I get annoyed when people say there are no good singers any more. If they really believe that, they’re missing out on a lot of today’s great voices.

“There are a lot of great singers out there today. I can name ten singers that I’d hear anywhere in the world, and twenty more that I’d want to hear, too. And I’m sorry, in the time of Tebaldi, she was not the best actress, you know! If people were really to take her performances and put them on the stage today, I think they would be very underwhelmed. It’s just like that favorite memory of your father or your mother when you were a kid: you idolize them, you worship them, you put the memories in that special place, but when you really think back, was your father all that perfect? Was your mother all that perfect? Mm, I don’t think so. And we all have our faults, you know? There are so many good singers out there today – and not just singers but actors and actresses, and that to me is just as important, if not more. The willingness to sacrifice vocal beauty for the drama – that’s more important to me.”

In addition to Plácido, she admires Bryn Terfel immensely, as well as Diana Soviero, who taught her not only about singing but also about stage deportment, and Renata Scotto, whom she considers the ultimate singing actress. She calls Susan Graham “fabulous,” and loves Dolora Zajick, as well as her Don Carlo co-stars, Ferruccio Furlanetto, whom she considers one of today’s most underrated singers, René Pape, and Roberto Alagna.

When I ask about the role she would most like to do, she immediately answers, “Norma, Norma, Norma, Norma and Norma,” in five amusing inflections, lest anyone mistake her priorities, and after that, Tosca.

“As you can tell, I love acting onstage. I loved doing La Traviata, vocally and dramatically, as well as Eugene Onegin, which was my European debut in Cologne, since Tatiana makes such a big journey from little girl to grownup. And Leonora in Il Trovatore has a special place in my heart because I’ve done it so much. It’s really been my role, and each time I do it I find something new, which is maybe a bit surprising. I’ve done it with everybody, everywhere – you name it! But I’d have to say this Cyrano is right up there.”

Her favorite recordings are Tosca with Callas and Delmonico, Callas’ Anna Bolena, and Leontyne Price’s La Forza del Destino with Sherrill Milnes – and [mock surprise] Plácido Domingo. She grew up listening to Price, whose Verdi Heroines was her first opera CD, and she went through two copies, after the first one got scratched from overuse. Then she got Callas’ Tosca, and wore it out, too. I ask what’s in her CD player at home right now.

“I’ve seen my CD player at home four days in the last six months [laughs]. I love Harry Connick, Jr. I love listening to Beethoven symphonies. I have a CD changer that holds 32 CDs, so I put all of them in there and it shuffles them up. Love the Beethoven piano sonatas, and Tchaikovsky, other symphonic music, Rachmaninov piano concertos – I love the Russian stuff. But you know, the thing is, I don’t listen to much music, because it’s weird. It’s going to sound like I’m crazy but, there’s always music going on in my head! I can’t shut it off! I’ll sit in a movie theatre with my husband, and he’ll say, Honey, would you be quiet, and I’ll say, What’s wrong? and he’ll say, You’re humming again! You’re kinda ruining it for me! and I’m like, I’m sooo sorry. So it’s hard to turn that off and enjoy other music. I love Robbie Williams, you know, the more popular stuff. I love American Idol – I’m totally hooked on it, as is my husband – we watch it every week. [BH confides that he watches it, too.] You have to watch some trash TV! I think Bo Bice is pretty amazing, but Anthony Federov has to go, I’m sorry. [And as of today, her wish has been granted.] But it’s interesting to see, and I think Simon Cowell is right on, being in the music business. You can’t be nice to these people or else they’ll keep their hopes up, you know?”

“So I listen to that, and to other kinds of popular music. My husband likes more hard rock. He likes jazz, and we go to jazz clubs in our free time. We went to the Rose Theatre in the new Time Warner Center, but it’s hard to find free time to do these things. My husband is my business manager, and he travels with me, does my bills and travel arrangements. He has a musical background (choir school) and a business degree (worked at Hewlett-Packard) and one day he said, “This is stupid – we never see each other!” We’ve been married three-and- a-half years now, and he’s traveled with me for three of those, which is so important.”

“We have a nice house – a nice life outside of Toronto, in Oakville, on the same street as Michael Schade who does a lot here at the Met. It’s right off Lake Ontario, just four houses away from the water. I miss my home!! I’ll be there in two-and-a-half weeks, after I sing at the Met’s tribute to Renata Tebaldi on May 23 at Alice Tully Hall.”

Getting playful, or maybe just a bit silly, I ask her to imagine herself as a tenor for a night, and what role it might be, and whom she would choose as her leading lady.

“It would have to be some lovey-dovey role, since I’d want to be making out with the soprano! It would have to be Maria Callas, obviously, so I’d probably have to go for Tosca...and make out with her a little bit [she laughs]. Cyrano would be good, too. You know, and make out with...me! That would be bizarre…”

Her future plans include her debut at Covent Garden in May 2006, followed by Stiffelio the season afterward. She wants to eventually sing every Verdi opera, including Abigaille (in Nabucco) someday, when she’s older. I conclude by marveling once again at Domingo’s realistic acting.

“Cyrano dies at the end, and Plácido falls to the floor, and the way he does it, you think, he’s how old? Doing this? If I am half as good as he is at his age, I will be a very lucky lady, because he is an institution. “Plácido Domingo Inc.” is the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed. He flies off, runs two opera companies, sings, conducts, and always has a smile on his face. He greets everyone, signs autographs, and I’ve never heard him complain. We started rehearsals for Cyrano on my birthday (April 11). The stagehands bought me a chocolate birthday cake, and Plácido sang Happy Birthday to me, sitting next to me with his arm on the back of my chair, and I thought, you know, I could die a happy woman right now.”



For more information: http://www.sondraradvanovsky.com

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