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Why people are going bonkers over Sondra Radvanovsky

Robert Rowat

"You know, sleeping in your own bed and being in your own house, when you travel 10 or 11 months of the year, is priceless."

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is evidently relieved to be back home in Caledon, Ont. this month, coming down from a stellar year. She opened the Metropolitan Opera's season as Bellini's Norma, triumphing alongside Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Calleja; she returned to one of her most acclaimed roles (Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera) at l'Opéra national de Paris; and she shared the stage in Barcelona with Jonas Kaufmann in a Gran Teatre del Liceu production of Giordano's Andrea Chénier (more on this below.)

Radvanovsky says Canada is a wonderful place to live, halfway between the U.S. and Europe in its culture and way of life. "Although right now, I think that summer needs to come pretty soon," she's quick to add, laughing.

The jet-set lifestyle is exciting, but doesn't go to her head. "I'm just Sondra, you know. I'm not the big diva Sondra. My husband really keeps me down to earth and I think living here in Canada is very grounding for me, especially where we live, out in the middle of the forest. When we travel all over the world — downtown Paris, downtown London, loud and noisy — coming home, for me, and staring at the trees is very calming and helps keep me rooted in who I am, not just as a singer but as a person."

Being at home for a month might feel like a holiday from her busy life on the road, but Radvanovsky is actually hard at work. She's here to sing the title role in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena, opening April 28 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

"It's like a big family, and it's like coming home every time I'm singing here," she says of her longstanding relationship with the COC. "[General director] Alexander Neef, [artistic administrator] Roberto Mauro and I sit down at least once a year and say, 'OK, what are we going to do next?' We're trying to have me sing here once a year, and I think that is being accomplished. I really believe in the direction the COC is taking and I think that they're doing groundbreaking, quality productions and every year it seems like they're getting bigger-name singers to come sing here, and their productions are getting bigger-name directors and conductors. It's just growing unbelievably, and sold out every night."

It's no surprise Radvanovsky's presence is giving the COC box office a workout: she's one of the world's leading proponents of the serious operas by Bellini and Donizetti, which she has assimilated seamlessly into her repertoire of mainly Verdi roles.

What does she love about bel canto opera? "It's just so beautiful when done properly — fabulous music and storytelling, I think. It's also very difficult because of the vocal demands. But also acting-wise. When you're singing the same words five times in a row, as an actor you have to find some way to make those words different each time you sing them."

The role of Anna Bolena holds special rewards. "In the finale of Act 1, when she's singing, 'Giudici ad Anna!' — You're going to judge me? — and then she just goes off into the fireworks and it's thrilling."

Sondra Radvanovsky sings the title role in a 2012 Washington Opera production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena.

Radvanovsky sings the title role in a 2012 Washington Opera production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena. (Scott Suchman)

Another company with which Radvanovsky has built a solid relationship is Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu. "I call it my home away from home," she says. "They offered me Aïda and that was it, I was hooked from the first time I went and sang there. It's just the feeling that you get as a singer when you walk into a house and stand in front of an audience. You either get this electricity and you say, 'Yes, this is where I belong,' or you just say, 'No, this is not the right fit.' And Barcelona really is a perfect fit for me."

It's all about the Barcelona public, whom Radvanovsky praises for their passion. "They really have such a joy and a love for the music. They also will let you know if they don't like it, which is great, you know? You need to know if that was just an OK night, or if, wow, that was great. I love that passion for the arts, not just opera, but for all the arts. It's infectious and it makes you want to come back."

Since that Aïda in 2011, Radvanovsky has returned to the Liceu as Tosca, Norma and Pauline in a concert version of Donizetti's Poliuto. Most recenlty, she sang Maddalena in Andrea Chénier and something truly remarkable happened.

"As of opening night, the applause wouldn't stop after my aria ['La mamma morta']. The conductor and general director both agreed that because this is a verismo, through-composed opera — unlike bel canto where the action can stop — to stop the action would really take the momentum away from that scene. But by the fifth or sixth show, when you're getting five minutes of applause, I just said to the conductor, 'Don't you think it would be quicker if I just sang it again?' And he said, 'I can't deny giving you this, because they really want it, and they're going to keep yelling until you do it.'"

So Radvanovsky reprised the aria. "It was very emotional because, to hear 3,000 people screaming and standing up after the aria, it was quite overwhelming," she admits. To top things off, Radvanovsky's mother was in attendance, celebrating her 80th birthday. "Sometimes having a little cry gives you an emotional release, and you sing it even better the second time."

It marked the first time since the theatre reopened in 1999 that a woman has performed a bis at the Liceu, and it was captured on video:

No news yet what Radvanovsky's next role will be at the COC, but some notable upcoming performances include Leonore in Verdi's Il Trovatore (Opéra national de Paris), Verdi's Aïda (Metropolitan Opera), Puccini's Tosca (Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna Staatsoper) and Maddalena in Andrea Chénier (Royal Opera, Covent Garden).

She also gave us a scoop: "A certain opera house in Spain has been asking about Butterfly. I've always wanted to do it, but have been told, you know, at five feet nine and almost 50 years old, I don't look like a 16-year-old Japanese girl. But vocally, I would love to sing it. I've done the love duet and the aria in concert, but never the whole thing."

We can't wait for that. In the meantime, the Canadian Opera Company's production of Anna Bolena runs from April 28 to May 26. Details here.

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