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An Interview with Sondra Radvanovsky: The Finest Tosca of Our Time

Posted By: Gail Eichenthal · 6/18/2013 12:40:00 PM

Saturday morning at ten, Classical KUSC presents the final production of the 2013 series, LA Opera on Air, featuring the extraordinary American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. She is surely the finest Tosca of our time, and this is a performance not to be missed.

That may sound like broadcast hype, but it’s not. Ask anyone who was there (when Radvanovsky wasn’t fighting a cold early in the run). 

When I attended one of these unforgettable Tosca’s at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion a few weeks ago, in fact, the very greatness of the performance put me in a slightly awkward position. Ronda, the friend of 20 years standing with whom I was attending that Sunday matinee, you see, had never before seen an opera. At intermission, the buzz was already deafening. Even among older, seasoned patrons, the word was: none had ever seen the equal of this performance. Now, after the first intermission, “Vissi d’arte” was coming, Tosca’s heart-rending aria about how she has always lived for art.  I felt compelled to let Ronda know, without being overbearing, that this was not a typical trip to the opera house.

Me: “Um. I hope you’re enjoying the opera at least a bit?”

Ronda:  “Oh, absolutely.”

Me: “Oh, that’s good! Because, well, it’s not exactly an AVERAGE day at the opera. At least for me. This singer…..um….I’ve never seen a more powerful performance.  In my life.  Ever.  Sorry to be so heavy-handed! I needed you to know!”

Ronda: “Wow. That’s amazing. Because I feel every time she opens her mouth to sing, she holds me, captivated. It’s mesmerizing.”

Long friendship, saved. New LA Opera patron, born.

I still remember the first time I heard Radvanovsky. I’m no expert on singing.  But I love the human voice, and I see as many productions of opera and musical theater as I can squeeze into my schedule. Still, in the fall of 2008, when I attended a dress rehearsal of William Friedkin’s searing production of Suor Angelica at LA Opera  in preparation for the live KUSC broadcast we were doing a few days later, I literally could not believe my ears. Could this singer I had not yet heard of, Sondra Radvanovsky, possibly possess one of the greatest voices of the era? Tears running down my cheeks (don’t even think of seeing Suor Angelica if you are self-conscious about these things) I turned to my more knowledgeable friends and cohorts, Kimberlea Daggy and Duff Murphy, and asked them, “is it me, or was that absolutely phenomenal?” They were both in tears, as well, and confirmed that this was a world-class singer at the top of her game.

In the following interview backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, recorded after her final Tosca, Radvanovsky told me that 2008 Suor Angelica with LA Opera proved to be a turning point in her career.  She also reminisced about an earlier milestone as a young singer: her studies with the distinguished French baritone Martial Singher, who was in his 80’s when Radvanovsky began to work with him at his studio in Santa Barbara.  She had already studied voice and theater at both USC and UCLA, but clearly Singher was a key musical influence.

Here's my conversation with Sondra Radvanovsky:

 

 

For a hint of that remarkable “Suor Angelica” by Puccini, check out this recording (it must be an aircheck from the LA Opera on Air broadcast on KUSC: don’t tell!) posted by Radvanovsky’s brother a few years back. There are some wonderful comments on the YouTube site, too.

 

There are more on the highs and lows of an operatic career in this fine 2011 New York Times interview with Sondra.

And don’t forget to catch LA Opera On Air’s final broadcast of the season:  Puccini’s Tosca, starring Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, Saturday morning June 22 at 10am. Your host is Duff Murphy.

You’ll cry!

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  1. Roger Lebow posted on 06/19/2013 04:01 PM
    I'm glad to know that's how SR hits you too, Gail. And it's interesting to be in the pit playing these operas (as I did for Suor Angelica* and Tosca both), and to sneak a look (lest you're both uncool and teary) at your equally transported colleagues after her Vissi d'Arte, for example, or the Suor Angelica aria, the name of which escapes me (in fact, the only time I think I spotted lachrymal action on James Conlon's face was after this aria). One is too overcome to speak, of course, but later when you're comparing notes it's very much the same deal: Was that as heaven-storming as I thought it was?

    And here's another thing: she doesn't hold back at rehearsals (except once in the Act 2 showdown with Scarpia when we repeated one section for the third time she marked a couple of the high Bs & Cs)--she was even joking with the orchestra, "You can tell I like those notes." In fact, she sang one of the shows with a cold, and the only concession I could hear was that Vissi d'Arte was slightly less expansive (note to anyone listening to the broadcast: you will NOT hear this sung with such passion and control often, particularly at that tempo).

    Sorry to gush. BUT...

    * Bit o' trivia: when Sondra sang Suor Angelica, who sang Rinuccio (the small tenor role in Gianni Schicchi)? Right--Rolando Villazon.
  2. Roger Lebow posted on 06/20/2013 01:06 PM
    Sorry: egregious case of conflated Schicchis. Villazon sang in the one we did on a Bluebeard's Castle double-bill directed by William Friedkin. Please forget I said anything. About that--about Sondra I was being conservative.
  3. Gail E posted on 06/20/2013 04:23 PM
    Thanks, Roger, for that fascinating point of view from the cello section of the superb LA Opera Orchestra. It's actually quite wonderful to know that you guys, even while working, can also be swept away by an extraordinary voice. I guess when she says you can't step 'over the line' of emotion during Vissi d'arte, that pertains to string players, too. If you're all weeping profusely, it would be hard to see the score! Yet how can you not be moved?
  4. Mark Hein posted on 07/15/2013 10:55 AM
    I had the distinct good fortune to tune in on the Saturday you aired "Tosca."
    In 50+ years of opera loving, I've seen and heard "Tosca" several times, and "Vissi d'Arte" many more. To be honest, I never understood why this aria made it quite so high in the canon. Until that Saturday.
    Before it was half done I had to pull off the road -- I was crying too hard to drive. The full range of Tosca's emotions and thoughts was utterly clear in her performance, and heart-piercing.
    Ms. Radvanovsky brings purity of tone across the range, remarkable vocal power -- with seeming ease -- from ppp to fff, and unequalled clarity. Most of all, as an actor I was swept away by her ability to shape and sustain her character's emotions through her extraordinary musicality.
    I have been blessed to hear Callas, and Sutherland, and Fleming ... and now Radvanoksky, whose "Vissi d'Arte" is a gift I will not forget.
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