Sondra Radvanovsky: Exclusive Interview: June 1, 2010
Russia Philharmonia, Sondra Radvanovsky
Rel. 27 Apr 2010
On Thursday, April 29, 2010, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with celebrated American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, then in the midst of her first run as Tosca in a production of Puccini’s masterpiece with Opera Colorado. This follows the recent release of her first solo CD, on the Delos label, featuring a great collection of Verdi arias. Ms. Radvanovsky has been universally praised as among the greatest Verdi sopranos singing today, particularly for her role as Leonora in Il Trovatore. In this delightful and wide-ranging conversation, Ms. Radvanovsky discusses preparing for her dream-role as Tosca, the making of her recent Verdi CD, her playful singing partnership with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and much more – including some brilliant advice for young singers. Don’t miss this great interview!
“Many young singers today are listening to recordings and trying to copy them; but that doesn’t make an individual, unique voice. I’ve never tried to copy anyone; instead I tried to find my own, unique voice, and hopefully I’ve succeeded – that I don’t sound like anyone else; that I sound like me.”
– Sondra Radvanovsky
Nolan Gasser: This must be an exciting time in your career; you have a terrific new album out of Verdi arias and you’re also inhabiting for the first time a role that you’ve been anticipating for some 30 years – that of Puccini’s Tosca. Naturally, we’ll want to talk about both of these, but let’s start with the latter – your appearance this week in Opera Colorado’s production of Tosca; so, how is this long-anticipated experience for you going so far?
Sondra Radvanovsky: It’s been great, I have to say – it’s all that I expected, and more! As you said, I’ve waited thirty years to sing this role; and though, of course, I couldn’t have sung it at eleven years old, I really did wanted to sing Tosca from the moment I saw Eva Marton and Plácido Domingo perform it on TV. It’s just so overwhelming – I think that was the word for me, it’s overwhelming to inhabit this character that I have felt such a great passion for. Because singing Puccini is not like singing Verdi: there’s much more passion, and the music is so much fuller in many different ways. So, to have that freedom, and to sing this music, has been just exhilarating!
NG: Well, I’m glad that we have a chance to speak while you’re still in the midst of it. I saw the very nice review in the Denver Post, complimenting all three leads – you, most especially, but also Antonello Palombi as Mario and Greer Grimsley so aptly named for Scarpia. How has the chemistry been with these two rivals for your affection – it certainly has to be just right for the drama to reach its full potential?
SR: It sure does, and I have to say it’s been great – especially with Greer and myself; we’ve had so much fun playing off of each other, because he is such a great actor as well as a fabulous singer; and I always really look forward to Act 2…
NG: Right, when you get to really have it out with him [culminating in Tosca’s killing of Scarpia].
SR: Yes, it’s almost like playing onstage, and each night is different depending on how we’re feeling. Tomorrow night is our third show, so I’m looking forward to seeing what we’re going to do differently. I love singing actors like that, where we can really play off each other; José Cura is another great acting partner; we had great chemistry onstage when we did [Verdi’s] Stiffelio. It makes it exciting for me, as an artist – but also for the audience too – when it’s not one of those singers who pre-determine everything, thinking “on this beat I’m going to stand here, raise my right arm, and shake it at God.” It’s much more intense and exciting when it’s “real” and in the moment, as live theater should be.
NG: Yes, it’s definitely something the audience feels – almost like at a jazz concert, there needs to be an element of improvisation; as you say, it can’t be marked at every turn, because we want to feel that moment of passion within the singer that perhaps didn’t exist in the previous performance.
SR: Absolutely. We are breathing, living human beings; so of course, we’re going to be somewhat different every day – and we can bring that element onto the stage. That’s what I really love about Puccini and the verismo: that I can bring my own personal baggage onto the stage, and air it before the entire audience [laughs].
NG: It’s an amazing thing about opera, that in the best sense it can combine this wonderful vocal talent, but also great acting skill – it’s a unique expression for an artist.
Now you’ve talked about your keen anticipation in singing this role of Tosca – as you mentioned, since you first heard it broadcast with Eva Marton, when you were eleven. You’ve also noted that you actually started preparing explicitly for the role some three years ago – in part to develop your own perceptions on her character, which I’m sure is developing as you’re singing it. Can you talk about this preparation process: what conclusions you’ve come to about Tosca to make her your own, and how the process here has differed from other roles you’ve prepared for – for example, in Verdi operas?
SR: I think the difference between Puccini and a lot of Verdi operas is that the verismo [literally “realism”; a literary and operatic approach of the late 19th / early 20th century that emphasized realistic, even sordid, depictions of contemporary life] style is closer to our present-day human emotions, because they’re very immediate; whatever Tosca feels is right there in the moment – whereas as with Verdi, you have these arias where the action stops; you have the character’s personal monologue, it’s their personal inner feelings that you’re sharing, like with “D’amor sull’ali rosee” and “Tace la notte” [both from Il Trovatore] that are more of an inner conversation. Whereas with “Vissi d’arte” [from Tosca] – yes, it’s an aria, but it’s really a prayer; and the action doesn’t stop, because she’s praying to God in that moment – and Scarpia can listen to it or not, depending on the production. So, that for me is really the big difference in the performance of the two – in that I don’t have to have this inner dialogue as much, it’s just what I’m feeling at the moment. And that leads to a different acting style for me as well – it’s more real in a way.
And then, how did I prepare for this? Well, of course, vocally first –that’s why I waited until I was 40 years old to sing it, because it is just such a demanding role vocally, with such a large orchestra.
NG: A larger, and considerably more active orchestra than one finds in Verdi.
SR: Yes, exactly – and with all the vocal doubling you get with this opera especially; plus, all these outbursts that Tosca makes: it’s so easy to shout or scream them instead of sing them lyrically. I guess I go back to the “old school” ways, in that Puccini wrote the notes, so he wants you sing them, and not scream them; and, of course, you listen to Maria Callas, and she sings the whole thing very lyrically. So that, for me, was really the basis, the starting point of it all: the singing, and without too much temperament, which can be a problem with all the Puccini roles: Manon Lescaut, Suor Angelica, and of course Tosca. Of course, you have to have temperament to sing these roles, but temperament can sometimes take over, and when that happens, you’re done vocally!
So, I had to learn how to pace myself – that was the next thing: learning the pacing of the role. As both my teacher and my coach said to me, it’s one thing to stand and sing “Vissi d’arte,” in a concert, but when you do the role on stage, you’re screaming your head off for 15 minutes before; and so then you have to stop and just go: “Phew! Breathe in; breathe out; okay… [singing] Vissi d’arte.” And I found that out the first time we read through it, realizing, “Wow that’s hard!”
NG: I can imagine – a transformation vocally and theatrically from what precedes it.
SR: Exactly, so pacing was another thing I had to work on; and, of course, the next step is actually reading the play, and learning about the character – though I already knew the character, basically: I covered Diana Soviero as Tosca when I was 21 years old – which was the stupidest idea that the opera company ever had [laughs]! But I got to watch and learn from one of the greatest, with Diana singing the role, and she now teaches me voice; so we have a great connection. We talk about the character, and try to develop a real personality – for I think the real pitfall that so many singers fall into with this role, is to make her such a diva.
And I don’t think that’s right: in Act 1, she’s young, and she’s in love; it’s cute and it’s funny – “Ma falle gli occhi neri!” [“But let her eyes be black”: her threatening line to Cavaradossi] – yes, it’s someone in love that’s telling him, “Watch out, or you’ll lose me”; but not in a diva way. So I’m trying to bring in a lot of that aspect – playfulness and youthfulness – as opposed to the “grande dame” that so many people play her as. And I personally think that this works: because then if she starts out youthful, by the end of Act 3 – after some really bad days – she’s grown, and she realizes that her only option is to kill herself, which a good Catholic girl would never do!
In all, it’s been a real journey for me, a real adventure, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
NG: It sounds as if you’ve found that path to inhabiting the role properly: to get past the notes and into the character itself; for there’s clearly a fine line between singing expressively and being mannered – which is obviously something you’ve tried to avoid.
Some time back, I interviewed [lyric soprano] Danielle de Niese, while she was singing her own dream-role of Susana in [Mozart’s] Le nozze di Figaro at the Met. She noted how in preparing for the part, she went back to the original Beaumarchais play and translated it word for word. Did you similarly go back to the original Tosca play by [Victorien] Sardou – and dive into it in order to better understand the character?
SR: Absolutely. But at the same time, it oftentimes doesn’t quite transfer because the people in the audience haven’t read the play. So, it more helps me in my mind to build the character. And, of course, Puccini told us all we need to know – it’s all there in the score; everything that he wanted to tell us: in the music, in the text, in his stage directions…
NG: Yes, a composer would naturally alter the character to make it work as an opera, as opposed to a play; in addition, there were some interesting tensions between Sardou and Puccini [Sardou had earlier dismissed Puccini as an opera composer], so he may even have willfully changed things.
So, let’s move to that other Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read descriptions of you as being some sort of a rare creature: a “true Verdian soprano,” or lines like “the top incarnation of a Verdi soprano today.”
NG: Yes, this must be gratifying to hear – and maybe a bit unnerving as well. Of course, I’ve seen various critics’ descriptions about what this might entail – great energy and richness of tone, a strong vibrato, etc. So, I’m wondering if you can give us your own sense of what qualities you think make for a great Verdi soprano – maybe some of the essential traits that you’ve discerned and tried to emulate from your own heroes growing up?
SR: Sure… so, what makes a great Verdi soprano?
NG: Yes, in twenty words or less…
SR: [laughs] Right. Okay… Technique! I would have to say that technique is really the most important thing, because Verdi – like Bellini and Donizetti, his predecessors in the bel canto school – requires a technique that enables you to sing high and low, loud and soft, all within one aria. And the range can be incredible, as in Trovatore or Vespri Siciliani, where I can sing a high E-natural and then have an immediate run down to a low F# – I mean, that’s unheard of, but that’s what Verdi demands.
NG: Yes, that’s nearly two octaves – pretty amazing.
SR: Yes, it’s crazy, really! So, just on the vocal aspect, it’s the pure difficulty of singing Verdi; and you have to be able to sing very high and soft; and then low and loud, and also low and soft – I mean, everything! And not a lot of people nowadays have taken the time, to really hone their technique for such singing – not just sopranos, but all voices. And I think that’s really why the true “Verdi voice” is such a rarity these days.
In fact, I don’t think the teachers are out there as much these days who understand and demand this requirement, and so people are not being taught the proper technique to sing this music. It’s not so much that the voices themselves are not out there that are capable of singing this repertoire – I think they are. But it takes a lot of time; and so many singers nowadays just want an instant career, and don’t want to take the time needed to really master their technique.
NG: Well, one certainly does read a fair amount about the “dearth of great Verdi singers” these days, and I see that you are in agreement with that sentiment.
SR: Yes, I am, and I think it’s a shame. I myself invested a lot of time, and I’m very lucky because I was in the Young Artist Program at the Met for three years – so, first off, I had the financial support, as well as the emotional support, to take the time to hone my craft – and was able to watch the best singers in the world, doing what I wanted to do. I could sit there an analyze everything I saw, and say, “Yes, this worked for me,” or “This I didn’t like,” and to learn not only the good habits, but also the bad ones – noting to myself, “Okay, Sondra, don’t do that.”
I had those three years of freedom, really, to work on my technique – and that for me was the greatest gift. For example, I had the time to work on Trovatore; over three years to truly learn a role, and to work on it with everyone from Renata Scotto, to Mirelli Freni, to Maestro [James] Levine, … and to have everybody give me his or her opinions about Verdi. So, on that aspect I’m very lucky; and that’s what I think Verdi really needs: to work on his music diligently with a conductor. But the old traditions haven’t been passed on. In the olden days, the conductor would work with the singer every day, talk about the music, and talk about the character. But that really doesn’t happen as much any more.
Also, in Verdi, I really think there’s an innate throb in his music; there’s no other way that I can describe it.
NG: Yes, that’s a great word.
SR: It’s like a heartbeat, a palpitation that you feel in all of his music – whether it’s fast or slow, it’s always there. And you have to have that; you have to be able to play with it. It always comes back to what Verdi wanted, that give and take and the legato lines, and it’s not easy; maybe some people make it sound easy, but it isn’t if you really do justice to what Verdi wrote – like Radames’ first aria in Aida [“Celeste Aida”]: it calls for a high Bb, sung piano; who does that nowadays?
So, Verdi writes everything in the score, just like Puccini – but doing what he wanted, that’s another thing!
NG: Well, I’m glad I asked the question, I think you’ve given a wonderful primer for all of the young opera singers out there – with great advice for them to take the time to hone their craft in a way that they may not think is necessary to have a good career.
SR: Yes, and finding your own voice is so critical. I gave a master class here yesterday for the Young Artists, and I tell them to go back and listen to all the good opera recordings: listen to the modern-day singers, listen to the old ones; find the people that you really admire and that you relate to, and ask yourself why you admire them, and why you relate to them. I told them to really take the recording apart, but then make the music your own – don’t duplicate them.
Because I think that’s a big problem: many young singers today are listening to recordings and trying to copy them; but that doesn’t make an individual, unique voice. I’ve never tried to copy anyone; instead I tried to find my own, unique voice, and hopefully I’ve succeeded – that I don’t sound like anyone else; that I sound like me.
NG: Yes, indeed you do! At the same time, I think it’s a natural tendency for young artists – as well as young composers – to have their heroes, and at first to emulate them; but if they’re going to have a career, and make a name for themselves, and really do something creative, they have to find their own voice.
SR: Absolutely. Renée Fleming has a very unique voice that is all her own, and that’s why I think she is so famous and where she is now – because she really took the time to hone her own voice; and I admire that.
NG: It’s almost a little surprising that you would say that young singers are not getting the kind of training they should. I mean it’s not like Verdi is absent on opera schedules! Given how popular his operas are, one would think that the entire opera education industry would be rallying around what’s needed for these roles.
Okay, moving on – though staying with Verdi – let’s talk about your new album on Delos.
NG: This is a wonderfully rich collection of Verdi arias – including a couple sung by Leonora from Il Trovatore – which has become a signature role for you; it’s not for nothing that you start with “Tace la note”, which caused the audience to rise in jubilation when I heard you sing it in San Francisco last fall.
SR: Wow - great!
NG: Now, your album also features the Russia Philharmonia and conductor Constantine Oberlian, who himself has worked quite a bit with another well-known partner of yours –baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. So, how exactly did the project of this album formulate? I can imagine it was a long time in preparation, at least in your mind’s eye.
SR: Well, I met Constantine when I first sang with Dmitri in a concert at the Moscow Conservatory – which was three years ago in June; a certain famous soprano canceled at the last minute [Angela Gheorghiu]. Dmitri had always wanted to sing with me – he heard me sing Trovatore at the Met years ago, and happily loved my voice, and I loved his. So, at the last minute, I came in and we did this concert with Constantine and the Philharmonic, and we actually have a CD of that coming out shortly …
NG: Yes, I’m aware – later this year, right?
SR: Yes, it’s a live recording. Anyway, that’s when I first met Constantine and he said, “I would love to do a CD with you.” Of course, life got in the way a little bit, my mother-in-law was ill, and then she passed away while we were supposed to record it, so it kept getting pushed back. But we recorded it last summer in Moscow, and it was the first time I recorded a solo CD, so I was really excited because I had wanted to do a CD for such a long time. People bugged me and bugged me, “When are you going to do a CD?” Well, you know, do you have any money hanging around?
NG: Yes, money and time, that’s all we need.
SR: [laughs] Exactly, and trying to find that time is really difficult. Luckily, Constantine persisted, and we got it done – and I’m really happy with it, I have to say! It was tough going back and forth, choosing which Verdi repertoire I was going to sing – and we went more for the lyrical, lighter Verdi as opposed to La forza del destino; well, “O patria mià” is on the disc, but it’s not “Ritorna vincitor” [both from Aida].
NG: So, it really was a collaboration between you and Constantine to make the selections?
SR: Yes, along with my manager and my coach; we all tried to think, “Okay, what would best show off my voice?” Because we wanted something to really show people: this is where I am; this is what I’m doing right now. And we put a few surprises in there as well – things I haven’t sung before, like “O patria mia” and the Il cosaro aria [“Non so le tetre immagini”], which I’ve never done in public before – but will soon.
NG: Actually, my next question was about some of the content of the album. There are roles that you’ve done before, like Elvira from Ernani [“Ernani! Ernani, involami”], and Elena from I Vespri siciliani [“Arrigo! Ah, parli a un core: and “Mercè, dilette amiche (bolero)”]; but also there is “O patria mia” [from Aida], which you sing beautifully, with that glorious high A at the end – and which requires that technique you were talking about; it’s not easy to sing so high, beautifully, and pianissimo! I read that Aida is among the roles you’ll be taking on soon; is something scheduled?
SR: Yes, I’m doing my very first Aida: it opens next season in Toronto. So, I get to stay at home and sing a new role; and it’ll be my debut in Toronto, followed right after that by my very first Un ballo in maschero in Chicago.
NG: Wow – so, all kinds of new things are happening for you. I do want to come back to future engagements in the opera world – including an upcoming Met performance; but first, I wanted to chat a bit about the recent short concert tour, which just preceded the Tosca run – with your buddy, Dmitri [Hvorostovsky]. I’ve gotten quite a kick out of reading about your close, sometimes practical-joke laden friendship – I love that great picture that was featured in the New York Magazine article called, “Daffy Divas” – with you two staring at each other, with mouths wide open …
SR: Yeah, that’s actually the back cover of our duet CD.
NG: It’s a great picture. It seems as if this tour – which culminating in a very well-reviewed performance at Carnegie Hall – was a great success, as well as a lot of fun.
SR: Oh, yes, we have fun singing together. Since we did that concert in Moscow three years ago, we’ve done Trovatore after Trovatore after Trovatore – at the Met, in San Francisco, in London; and we’re doing it again this summer in the Arena di Verona; and then next April we have the hi-def broadcast from the Met in the movie theaters. So, it’s a lot of fun, and I think because we’re both Slavic, our voices really blend well together. And he’s just a great guy – he really is – and it’s a joy to be onstage with him.
NG: Yes, it seems that way, and that you both admire each other. It must have really been a thrill for you: to have admired him for so long, and then he comes back stage after one of your performances [at the Met, of Il Trovatore], and the next thing you know, you’re singing together on a regular basis.
SR: You know, it’s really one of those “pinch yourself” kind of moments; he’s the most famous baritone in the world right now, in my opinion.
NG: Yes, indeed – and he’s your bud!
SR: And he’s my bud, exactly – it’s quite amazing, really.
NG: I read one article that made the point of how nice, and how rare it is to have a vocal recital with a full orchestra – which especially in this economy must have been great for everyone involved. There’s clearly a parallel in this setting with your solo aria album, when you’re performing these theatrical high-points and climaxes, but separated from the drama onstage. Can you talk a bit about how these differing settings affect the way that you approach the music, and the text, and the overall performance?
SR: I love to do these recitals with orchestras – which is, like you said, a real treat, because you get so much more support in these big halls from singing with an orchestra as opposed to just piano; you feel more comfortable and at ease – because it’s really like singing an opera. Sometimes it’s a little more difficult because the orchestra is behind you, and so there’s more sound coming at you. But when I excerpt an aria from an opera in a concert setting, I try to bring the whole character into what I’m singing at that moment; I try to convey how the character is feeling at that moment, and not just sing a pretty aria – because, if they want to hear a pretty aria, they can just put a recording on.
NG: Although they can’t be live with you if they put the recording on.
SR: That’s true, but I think that when people come to see live theater, it’s because of the whole package – and not just for opera productions, but at recitals too. They want to have the visual as well as the aural experiences; so that for me is very important. People pay a lot of money for these concerts – and especially in this time, with the economy the way it is; so, I want to give them their money’s worth, and I think Dmitri feels the same.
NG: So you try to really inhabit the role and make it a little vignette, as excerpted from the opera – and from the drama – itself.
SR: Absolutely, just to give them a little glimpse of the character, even if it is, as with “Ernani involami” [from Ernani], a very happy moment – because she’s never happy in the opera, except in this aria; it’s the one brief moment that she’s happy.
NG: Is that tough to go from one role to another, from Elvira to Leonora, and back again – transitioning in between applause?
SR: Yes, it’s a challenge, but I like challenges. I think if you’re not challenged, then you kind of go to rot, so you have to constantly challenge yourself; and that’s why I’m taking on these new roles and doing new things – because it would be very easy for me to sing the same roles over and over again, since I have enough in my repertoire now that I could do that. But I like the new challenges; maybe I’m masochistic [laughs].
NG: Well it’s certainly necessary to keep growing as an artist, and to keep our career – and ourselves – inspired; because even when we’re doing something that everybody loves, if we keep doing it without giving ourselves new challenges, we start to stagnate.
Now, the duet concert that was recorded in Moscow a few years back – the one that’s coming out as a CD this fall – was the first time that you two sang together; now that you two are so close, and have so much experience, I wonder: are you talking about doing another recording, perhaps in a studio setting?
SR: You know what? That’s not come up – and I think it’s a shame; but it’s probably because both of our schedules are so crazy right now. I know that Constantine Orberlian has discussed my doing another solo CD, maybe an all-Puccini album. But I’ve also got a Verdi CD Part 2 in me, and probably a Part 3, and still enough repertoire left over [laughs].
NG: Of course! But I think it would be so interesting, as your relationship grows, to see how that this experience has affected the kind of interplay you have together, the blending of your voices, and so forth.
SR: Yes, we’ll definitely see, and I’ll bring it up with Constantine.
NG: Terrific – so, a few more questions. First, you mentioned the upcoming simulcast, the HD filming of Trovatore; do you think this will have any impact on how you perform, to have this camera so close to you?
SR: Well, I’ll put it to you this way: I’m going to be putting my face cream on for the next three months to get rid of all my wrinkles [laughs]. But seriously, I think that the people in the theater have paid a lot of money to be there, and I’m not going to change my performance onstage to accommodate all the people that have bought a movie theater ticket – because I want them to get the true experience. If I make an ugly face when I sing, I’m sorry, but that’s what’s real; and I think that was what Peter Gelb [General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera] intended for these hi-def productions – to show what real opera is like.
NG: Yes, and I think that the people who attend these screenings in the theaters are generally savvy, and frequently go to live opera performances as well. Of course, it’s also expanding the audience, which is so critical; it’s the kind of things that David Gockley [General Director of San Francisco Opera] is doing – to have free simulcasts at Pac-Bell Park before some 20,000 people, to introduce opera to a wider audience. At the same time, I think the audience does want you to be “in the moment”, odd faces and all, and to not think about the camera.
SR: I’ve actually met the woman who is going to direct the filming, and she said, “We’re going to try to get the best angles.” And I said, “Do what you need to do”. It’s live theater, and I’m sure that people in the movie theaters understand that – and that’s what makes it exciting too. But sure, there’s a lot of pressure on me for that day, and I’ve not experienced it yet, so I’m really looking forward to it, and to being interviewed in the middle of it, and all of that.
NG: Right, all of the behind-the-scenes extras.
SR: Yes, I mean, it’s not like a normal performance, because there’s going to be more pressure, for sure; but luckily, it’s a role that I’ve done over a hundred times, so I can really kind of push the play button and just go with it.
NG: Next, you mentioned some other roles coming up; of course, we know how Tosca was a long-standing goal for you; but another role you’ve mentioned – which is likewise a goal for any soprano of your caliber, is Norma. Have any offers come up, and are you feeling yourself ready for this pinnacle role, as you’ve called it?
SR: In fact, yes – I have about four contracts for it over the next few years.
NG: Wow – congratulations!
SR: Thanks. Yes, my first one is going to be in Spain, in 2012; and then a few other houses in North America after that. I’ve started working on it already, because it’s another one, like Tosca, has so much history attached to it; and I want to try to break some of the tradition that’s attached to the role – it’s just a lady singing opera. And yes, it’s beautiful opera, but sometimes that tradition gets in the way.
And I have my first Tosca at the Met coming up in January and February – the Luc Bondy production. Then I am doing [Donizetti’s] The Three Queens in the future, all three of them!
NG: Plus a little Norma, Aida, and Un ballo thrown in for good measure… – it’s a happy problem to have such a wealth of great roles to sing.
SR: Yes, I feel so blessed and honored – and hopefully I’m doing justice to the music; I certainly love what I do, so I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.
NG: I enjoyed reading about the advice that you received from one of your voice teachers, Martial Singher – to be sure to sing “never louder than lovely” – as something that’s helped you through your career. So now that you’re hitting your stride, any quick sage advice you can offer to young, budding sopranos reading this?
SR: I think the biggest thing for me, and especially for young sopranos, is to find your own voice and to use your own voice. Find what makes you special and unique – and don’t be afraid, as I said yesterday to all these kids in the Master Class: “Don’t be afraid to speak up and say ‘No’ if it’s not the right thing for you.” Find your voice, and use your own voice. So many young kids are afraid to say, “No, I don’t sing Rossini”, or “No, I don’t sing Wagner.” Many young singers are being forced to sing things that they shouldn’t, or that they don’t want to – just because they need the money, or because they’re in a Young Artist Program. I was very lucky that I was never forced to sing something I didn’t want to sing, or that I shouldn’t sing; and so that would be my advice: find your own voice and use it!
NG: Yes, stand up for what you really believe.
SR: Absolutely! And that’s why I think I’m still singing, and I still have a fresh voice and good technique – because I did learn to say “No”, even when I needed the money [laughs]. But to have been able to say “No”, and think level-headedly, I had – and still have – a great network of people. And I tell that to the young singers too, “Don’t listen to everyone’s advice, just listen to the handful of people that you really trust; and the other people, let their advice go in one ear and out the other – because everybody has advice, you know? Everybody will tell you one thing or another. But you have to just listen to the people you trust.
NG: Excellent advice. And finally: I know that your good friend Dmitri has embarked on a few cross-over projects, such as his recent appearance at Radio Music Hall; I also saw that you’ve got a friend in Josh Groban. So the question is: when are you going to cross that line?
SR: You know, some people can do it, and some people can’t. I have never, ever done pop or Broadway or any of that – and never had a desire to. I love listening to Josh; he’s a great guy and brings so much passion to his singing; and Barbara Streisand too, who’s a friend of ours. But I think I was given a gift – and that was to sing opera. It’s my passion, and when I do something, I want to give it 110%. Some singers have a more varied background: Rene Fleming has a long-standing passion for jazz, as does Deborah Voigt; Dmitri sang Russian folk songs, and was a pop singer when he was young; he was even in a rock band – with that hair, I mean come on [laughs]!
But I started singing opera at eleven years old; I never sang Broadway or musical theater. Opera was my calling, so I just sound funny when I sing anything besides opera, really. I sing art songs, yes; but when I try to sing along with pop songs in the car, my husband is like, “Oh no!” – that’s a square peg in a round hole.
NG: So you won’t be singing in a concert with Lou Reed, like Renée [Fleming] did?
SR: No, and you know what? Part of me really wishes that I could, because there’s a whole other audience that I could attract. But it just sounds funny; it just sounds like an opera singer singing jazz or pop. Renée can do it so gracefully, and she’s so good at it – and I just can’t. Oh well.
NG: Listen, all things considered, it’s not a bad trade off.
SR: Yeah, you know, I’ll take it.
NG: Well, we will certainly take it too – and thanks for a wonderful interview, Sondra.
SR: Great, thanks so much!