On March 13, 2020, one hour before curtain at the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, Sondra Radvanovsky received news that what was to be her first concert appearance of the year had been cancelled. The coronavirus had arrived. Thrown into limbo like hundreds of other performers around the globe, the engaging world soprano looked on helplessly as one by one a long list of subsequent scheduled engagements vanished overnight. Opera Going Toronto reached out by phone to the Toronto-based singer at her home in Caledon to discuss the current crisis in opera as well as her latest role as co-host of Screaming Divas, a free-wheeling opera vlog launched last April with longtime friend, fellow soprano Keri Alkema.
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I won’t ask you how you are, Sondra. You and Keri have been extremely open about your feelings, personal and professional both, on YouTube over the past couple of months. What I would like to know, however, is WHERE you are on this incredibly brutal journey called COVID-19? The emotional landscape never seems to stand still somehow.
You’re right. It’s an emotional roller coaster. But I find weather really affects my moods. If it’s sunny like today I feel more positive and hopeful. For the first month or so it was cold. It was snowing. Then we had the polar vortex. So now with the warmer weather I feel like my spirits are lifting a little bit. Also, there is some encouraging movement in the opera field happening in Europe with small concert events. Smaller venues. Social distancing, of course. But then I think, ‘When is it going to happen here?’ And then you start spiralling back downwards, right?
It’s true. Have you developed any primary stress relievers to help you cope?
I have. Well, let me preface that by saying we’ve lived in our house here for 10 years now and we’ve never been home for more than two weeks in a row. My husband, Duncan, has built a gym for me in the basement so I’ve found a lot of solace in working out. Also, right now, I’ve just started singing again and I mean JUST. In the last 4 days. I hadn’t felt the desire before now. The need. The want. I just couldn’t deal with the emotional impact of singing. I just felt my soul wasn’t ready to do that yet. I don’t know about you but this has been an extremely reflective time for me because I haven’t really gotten off the merry-go-round in 25 years. I started my career and I hit the ground running and it’s just been GO, GO, GO, GO!
I was going to ask this later but let’s deal with it now. I did a bit of sleuthing on-line, looking at your schedule in 2019 until February 2020. 17 engagements in 12 months and I’m sure I missed a few. 9 concerts. 8 principal roles in major opera houses. All but two appearances outside Toronto. This to me sounds absolutely punishing. I wonder, as you say, now that you’ve had the chance to reflect, I wonder if you’ve reflected on the amount of time you’re required to spend on the road? Has that increased pressure tempered or changed your career perspective in any way?
That is an excellent question. And one that has been on my mind not just over the last few months but over the last year. I passed through a burn-out point with new roles last year. Well, one, Luisa Miller, was a role I hadn’t sung in 12 or 15 years.
Before you sang it in Barcelona.
Yes. So doing that then cramming a very easy opera called Il Pirata into your brain.
Piece of cake. Not demanding at all.
(Laughs) So doing that, then putting together this whole Three Queens concert, then Pique Dame in Chicago — I was exhausted. I was even talking to my manager about taking a sabbatical because, not only on top of all the singing, I had family issues that were also extremely stressful what with my mother’s health and her ageing. I think there needs to be an adjustment for me. And in our business as well. Nobody can maintain, nor should anybody have to maintain, these crazy schedules. I talked to Alexander Neef about this actually and said, ‘What do you think about having a nationalistic approach to opera?’ If I can make singing in Toronto, singing in Canada, the core of my career with the odd foray over to Europe — I’m all for it.
Has Screaming Divas been at all therapeutic for you? It seems to have that feel about it sometimes. It certainly has been inspirational for all of us watching. Has it helped you to talk through all of this — career, pandemic, cancellations — publicly with your colleagues?
Absolutely. It’s amazing what happens when you’re in front of a camera. The honesty of what comes out of your mouth that you might not have the courage to talk about otherwise. For instance, I have never ever publicly spoken about my eating disorders. We had an interview with Lisette Oropesa who has been on her own weight loss journey for the last 10 years of her life. Body discrimination, not just only in opera but all of the performing arts — well, in the whole world — is a huge issue. I just thought this was the time to talk about it. So, yes, it has been quite therapeutic. Keri and I keep going back and forth and saying, ‘Do we want to go back to singing? Should we just keep doing this?’ Right now being an opera singer or any kind of performer — we’re going to have to pivot a little bit in the next 6 months, possibly two years. Desperation is a terrible word and I don’t want to be desperate. So this was my way of avoiding that.
These are such strange times. So overwhelming. Do you think opera has the power, has the ability to speak to issues arising from here and now — issues not only related to the pandemic but issues, desperately serious social issues. I’m thinking about the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Can opera communicate meaning in that kind of context?
Definitely. I think a lot of people look at opera as a white elitist art form but if you take all that out, opera is essentially about love and communication and life. There are so many amazing African American composers, singers, conductors, orchestra members, instrumentalists, pianists. We don’t see enough of them because, I think at a very early age they’ve been told, ‘Oh, honey. You can’t do that.’ Opera needs to embrace that diversity because opera is about diversity. It needs to change. It needs not to be so archaic in its thought processes — in how we stage productions. In how we use singers and the orchestra and directors. Everyone. Music, not just opera, all music is meant to bring people together, not split them apart.
‘Archaic thought processes.’ How can opera break loose?
You have to go to the root of the whole problem which is lack of education, in my opinion. The future of opera right now is in the hands of those who are in school, who are growing up without any awareness of opera. By denying them that opportunity, they’re not going to go. They’re going to go to a pop concert because they don’t know what opera is. I think THAT is the bigger issue we need to discuss in the post pandemic era. Education. Teaching kids. Pop music came out of opera, not the other way around. We need to show them that it’s cool. It’s relevant. And it’s fun. And that they would enjoy it.
Speaking of young people, I’m sure young singers who are struggling to launch or, even more terrifyingly, just trying to maintain careers these days have approached you and asked for advice. What do you say to them?
It’s a very tough question. I think we were dealing with it even pre-COVID. We were seeing opera houses losing their funding but, yes, it’s the number one question I hear. ‘What do I do now? How do I have a career?’ So my answer is, first, ‘Do you love this enough to sacrifice a lot?’ For young singers there are even less opportunities for jobs. And there are more singers than ever out there. If you don’t love it. If it’s just, ‘Wow! Let’s see if I can do this!’, then I think you really have to re-examine your career path. But that said, I don’t want to dampen anybody’s dream. I had a dream and it took me a long time to fulfill that dream. If you have that passion and that desire so strongly, then I say, ‘Keep pursuing it.’
What do you think your role is as an artist as we transition back to normalcy in opera, however gradually, in whatever form?
Well, I feel going forward, in these past three months I’ve found my voice. Maybe it’s because I’m 51 years old now, I have always been so cautious in my career what I say, what I do. I’m an opera singer. I’m in the public eye. I think that was more of a negative view but now I’m trying to put a more positive spin on it. I have things to say. I’m not afraid of using my voice anymore. I just want to keep the channels of communication open about the need for change, not just in opera but in the world because change is a scary thing. Now that we’re forced to face it, we have two options. We can go back to our comfort zone and say, ‘But I always did it like this.’ Or we can embrace change and say, ‘Thank you for this opportunity.’ And I think opera needs to find its voice as well. It’s struggling right now because opera was fearful. Opera was stuck in a rut. It was always, ‘Change is bad.’ Opera has yet to embrace the next step 100% fully.
What do you think that next step is?
I think there are many. Inclusivity, diversity are number one. We just went through #MeToo and that was still on the table when COVID-19 hit. So that we addressed because that was one of the skeletons in the closet that had to be opened. But we have to look at not just men and women in this business but issues affecting ethnicity, we need to address that as well. Opera has got to get into the present time. We can still do all those operas from long ago but maybe we can update the staging, maybe make it more relevant. And create new operas that show where we are and where we want to go. It’s time.