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.
Radvanovsky pauses in our interview to process the emotion, not only for her father, but also for her mother’s failing health.
Rusalka recalls not only her Czech heritage on her father’s side, but also her Danish heritage on her mother’s side. Though the opera was written by a Czech composer, the story is quintessentially Danish. “It really encompasses who I am,” Radvanovsky says.
It is the story of The Little Mermaid by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. An iconic mermaid statue in Copenhagen’s harbour is a testament to the prominent place this story has in Danish culture. Radvanovsky’s maternal grandmother often read the story to her as a child.
The power to mesmerize, to cleanse the soul
Radvanovsky grew up in a family that loved music, especially classical. It was a televised opera performance she saw when she was 11 years old that set her mind on opera.
Radvanovsky asked her mother, “What is that? Can I do that?”
“I was fortunate to find my purpose in life at a very young age,” she says. Throughout the interview, her answers flow forth with ease; she’s well accustomed to media interviews, and her nature is easygoing. Yet she has to pause and consider how to articulate her purpose as an opera singer.
She was entranced by Plácido Domingo’s performance in Tosca. A New York Times review of that performance attests to its power: “Mr. Domingo’s singing … could only be described as downright thrilling. … The sheer sound sets the ears to tingling.”
“I want to touch someone’s soul when I’m performing,” she says. “They forget their worries and their cares in life, and we can just let them live in the moment with us. … Music cleanses a person’s soul and their being.”
She experienced that power of opera when she watched Domingo on the television in 1980. And in 2005, it was Domingo again who helped her see this power and purpose in singing.
She was playing Sister Angelica in Puccini’s Il Trittico at the Los Angeles Opera, where Domingo is the general manager. She performed a scene in which an agonized Sister Angelica contemplates suicide, but regrets it and repents. She has a vision of her dead son — an illegitimate child whom she held only briefly after his birth before they were separated — and of the Virgin Mary, who forgives and soothes her.
When Radvanovsky left the stage, she found Domingo bawling, she says, and he continued crying for a long time afterwards. “That was really a moment for me that I’ll never forget,” she says. “If I can touch him that much, then I guess I’m doing okay.” A reviewer at the time also attested that there was a good amount of “sniffling and sobbing in the audience.”
Gravitas and comic relief
The emotions of opera can be hard on the actors. One of the most difficult roles Radvanovsky has had to play was Manon in the opera Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House in London.
Manon is a young woman who becomes the mistress of an elderly gentleman in exchange for the riches he can offer. “Basically, she becomes a prostitute for this man, all the while realizing she made a mistake,” Radvanovsky says.
Radvanovsky describes some of the scenes she acted as pornographic. The 18th-century novel upon which the opera is based was controversial and banned in France upon publication. “With a bunch of men [in the front] rows watching me, I truly felt like a woman who was being paid for and bought and ogled,” she says. “I came home every night and just started crying and said to my husband, ‘I feel so cheap and useless.’”
This was just a year before the #MeToo movement gained traction on social media, highlighting the issue of sexual mistreatment of women. Sondra feels her performance resonated with what a lot of women have experienced and were starting to open up about at the time.
There are also times of comic lightness onstage, sometimes unintentional. Radvanovsky has encountered multiple blunders in her years of live theatre, much like that first solo that caused her father to scatter offertory coins all over the church floor.
One time, a costar of hers got stuck in an elevator trying to get to the stage. When she didn’t show up, Radvanovsky turned one way to sing the costar’s line, then turned back the other way to sing her own lines.
“I think faith and spirituality is important, especially in the business we’re in, which is so transient,” she says. “Being onstage, it’s so easy to get caught up in the glitz and the glamour of it and forget about your roots and stay grounded in who you are as a person.”
And her husband, Duncan Lear, is also there to pull her down to Earth if she starts to fly too high, she says. Their home in Caledon, Ontario, is close to the Canadian Opera Company’s Four Seasons Centre. Radvanovsky considers it her home venue, and it’s one of her favourites — another reason this fall’s production of Rusalka will be close to her heart.
Another time, during a dramatic scene in which Radvanovsky’s character was supposed to stab another character, the knife prop flew out of her hand (she’d been wearing gloves made of synthetic fabric that made her hands sweat). Luckily she and her intended stabee were able to improvise. They both dashed for the knife to struggle for control, adding an extra touch of drama.
Through the ups and downs of her roles, Radvanovsky says her spirituality and belief in a higher power keep her grounded. That’s what reminds her who she truly is and makes sure Sandy Singer doesn’t overpower Sondra.