Vocalist of the Year:
Sondra Radvanovsky

By Wynne Delacoma

She is the Norma of our time. Last season at Lyric Opera of Chicago, her voice soared and swirled effortlessly through Bellini’s vocal ornaments, becoming an implacable force, a bone-chilling, tidal wave of fury as the high priestess ordered her people into battle.

2018 Muscial America Vocalist of the Year:<br>Sondra Radvanovsky
© 2017 Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Bellini’s Norma at the Metropolitan Opera, 2017.

Opera is an art, not a competitive sport. But every field of human endeavor has its thoroughbreds and frontrunners, and in the opera world American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky belongs to that elite pack. In 2015-16, already acclaimed as one of her era’s great Verdi sopranos, she achieved a singular feat in the bel canto realm. Singing all three of Donizetti’s beleaguered British queens—Ann Boleyn,
Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth I—to great acclaim in a single season at the Metropolitan Opera, she scored a kind of operatic Triple Crown.

Born in 1969 in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Illinois, an alumna of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program, a headliner at the world’s major opera houses, Radvanovsky is the compleat opera singer. Her soprano is powerful, agile, and capable of infinitesimally subtle nuance. One review of her Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Met in 2011 described her voice in the poignant “D’amor sull’ali rosee” as “a plush column of sound buffed by a shimmering vibrato…tapered to its purest essence in the mournful pianissimos that capped each phrase.” Last season at Lyric Opera of Chicago, her Norma soared and swirled effortlessly through Bellini’s vocal ornaments, but her voice became an implacable force, a bone-chilling, tidal wave of fury as the high priestess ordered her people into battle.

The ideal combination of actress and singer
Physically, Radvanovsky seems born and bred for the 21st-century era of DVDs and HD movie-theater simulcasts. Whether wearing the flowing robes of a Druid priestess or the vast, jewel-encrusted skirts of a Tudor queen, she immediately captures the audience’s attention onstage, a tall, noble figure with dark, expressive eyes. She is that ideal combination, equally commanding as an actress and a singer.

And to top it off, the diva is a trouper. In fall 2009, Radvanovsky arrived in Chicago for a new production of Verdi’s Ernani with a five-pound cast on one leg and a broken toe on the other. (The week before, in San Francisco for performances of Il Trovatore, she injured her ankle struggling with a purse snatcher outside a Walgreen’s near the San Francisco opera house. A few days later, during a performance, the tenor singing Manrico fell to his knees in adoration of her Leonora and broke her little toe. And you thought the plot of Il Trovatore was implausible.) During Ernani rehearsals, Radvanovsky sat in Chicago’s cavernous Civic Opera House with her feet propped up. When needed onstage, she gamely hobbled up the stairs and went through her paces, including some probably painful genuflecting and kneeling on the steeply raked stage.

This past summer, however, Radvanovsky the trouper called a temporary halt. In mid-July the Orange Festival in France announced that she had cancelled her two scheduled performances of Aida August 2 and 5. After a gala performance July 15 of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the National Theater in Mannheim, she headed home to Canada where she and her husband, Duncan Lear, have a home on 20 bucolic acres near Toronto. She read, relaxed, and tramped the countryside until mid-August when she traveled to New York to begin rehearsals for the new production of Norma that opened the Met’s current season.

Home with a happy sigh
“Now I’m home for a month,” Radvanovsky said with a happy sigh during a phone conversation the day returning from Mannheim. “When I signed the contract for Orange, I wasn’t doing opening night at the Met.” (She accepted the Met’s offer in early 2016 when Anna Netrebko, the Met’s originally schedule Norma, decided not to add the role to her repertoire.) Radvanovsky cancelled her Orange appearances, she said, six weeks before the festival announced that she wouldn’t be singing. 

“I am exhausted,” the soprano admitted. “The last two operas that I did [before Mannheim], I got sick. I had to cancel, for the first time ever in my life, two performances, in Zürich of Ballo. And right before that, I was in Los Angeles singing Tosca. I had a virus there too. Luckily I didn’t have to cancel because my cover did all the rehearsals, but I had no voice for seven or eight days. It’s your body telling you, ‘Sondra, slow down.’ I’ve been going non-stop since the three [Donizetti] queens.”

Radvanovsky listened closely to her body, with stellar results, once before. By the early 2000s her voice was requiring inordinate amounts of rest. Doctors discovered a node on her vocal cords, probably caused by a nick from a tube put down her throat during treatment for pneumonia when she was a newborn. Radvanovsky had sung her entire life and built a formidable international career with an impaired vocal cord. In 2003 she had the node removed, and the operation, always risky for singers, was a resounding success. Two months after surgery, she sang her first I Vespri Siciliani in French at the Opéra Bastille in Paris. 

“I could finally use my full voice,” she said. “It allowed my true voice to come out and shine.” 

Radvanovsky’s big, lustrous voice continues to develop in unexpected ways.

Not one for 'normal'
“I’ve never been one to do anything normal,” she said with a laugh. “Honestly, I never, ever, ever thought 10 years ago that I was going to be singing Donizetti and Bellini. Most voices like mine get heavier and darker and lower. I really thought—right now, at 48 years old—I was going to be thinking about singing Turandots and Nabucco and all that big dramatic stuff. But my voice really did a U-turn in a way; it got higher and, in some ways, lighter. Singing the three queens, to sing those three roles with a larger voice, a voice not usually associated with singing Donizetti really made me focus on my technique. It made me a stronger singer.”

The future will hold some new operas, including Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, and Radvanovsky will be returning to roles she hasn’t sung recently such as Luisa Miller. But expanding her already wide repertoire isn’t a top priority right now.

“I’ve done so many roles,” she said, “and I’m really happy singing what I’m singing now. It’s so great to have this plethora of great roles to choose from. I’m really lucky that I love what I sing. I’ve got the best job in the world. I say that all the time. I get paid to do what I love.” •

Wynne Delacoma is a freelance arts writer, lecturer, and critic whose outlets include the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Classical Review, San Francisco Classical Voice, and Musical America. Classical-music critic on the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006, she is also an adjunct faculty member teaching arts criticism and reporting at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.