In the mid-1970s, Beverly Sills made headlines singing all three of Donizetti's Tudor queens: the title heroines of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda and Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux: in a single season at New York City Opera. Now, for the first time in 40 years, another soprano will attempt this herculean task on a New York stage when Sondra Radvanovsky takes on the three roles over the course of the new Met season. She spoke to the Met's Matt Dobkin about the challenges of her royal feat.
You'll start rehearsals for your big Tudor queen season soon. How are you preparing?
You know, opera singers are athletes. What we do is very athletic. Not just those two little muscles in our throat, the vocal cords, but the rest of our body. So I'm really focusing on just making myself the strongest: physically and mentally: that I can be for this. For Christmas my husband set up a whole gym for me, with a big television and an audio system. I go there for an hour or two every day, with the music on in the background. I retain music better when I'm in motion.
When the Met approached you about doing all three operas in one season, what was the first thing that went through your mind?
"You're crazy." [Laughs] I said, "Honestly, I would love to tell you yes or no, but I have never heard all three of these operas!" That's how remote of an idea it was for me. So I said, "Give me a week, let me go sing through some of this." But I was already kind of heading in that direction, vocally. I had a Norma planned: I just didn't know these three operas.
You are very open about the vocal surgery you had in 2003 and the fact that you essentially had to relearn how to sing. Did that factor in your decision to make this detour into Donizetti, after being primarily a Verdi soprano?
That's a great question and a lot of people don't ask it, because there's such a stigma attached to vocal surgery. I had originally learned how to sing with this impedi- ment, this bump on my cords, which was something I'd had since I was a child. But it had gotten to the point where I had to have two days off between performances because I would go hoarse, because I was singing so much that the polyp in my throat started to interfere with my technique. And there was a price I was paying for singing, not just vocally, but personally: I couldn't go out with my friends after a show because I had to protect my voice. I couldn't do too many interviews. And it got to the point where I said, "I'm sorry, but living life is more important than singing, so if I lose my voice in this surgery, I would be really, really sad because I love singing more than anything. But I have to do this for my life." And what happened is that the surgery uncovered this whole other aspect of my voice, this very high and soft singing. It was like finding my true voice.
Let's talk about the vocal character of these three roles.
Well, let me first say that Donizetti did not write them as a trilogy, he didn't neces- sarily mean for them to be sung by the same person. Anna Bolena is a full lyric soprano role. The tessitura is the lowest, and you have to be careful, because she has a lot of vocal outbursts, and it is by far the longest evening, vocally. Then we get to Mary Stuart, who was a very religious woman, who has turned to God, so she's very different. Except for the confron- tation scene with Elizabeth: which is the highlight of the opera: she has really beautiful, melancholy music, very reflective and very pious. Elizabeth I in Devereux, for me, is the strongest of these three characters by far. She's at the end of her life, and it's a life that she didn't choose, a life that was put upon her. She's this very bitter, angry woman. Vocally, it's the most demanding with all of the colora- tura and outbursts. And then in two beats, she can go from screaming her head off to basically crying. So at the end of Roberto Devereux, I'm exhausted.
How will your director, David McVicar, help you get through it?
I am so excited to be working with Sir David. He's one of those directors who takes the time to get to know how I work, what things make me excited on stage. He does that with all of his artists, and I think that's why he's such a great director.
It's impossible to talk about this project without addressing the Beverly Sills factor. Are you feeling any pressure from the inevitable comparison?
I'm trying not to, but it keeps being thrown back in my face! What Beverly did with these roles is amazing. I wish she were still around so I could talk with her about how she tackled all three! I only met her once. I was going down the stairs of the lobby as a young artist at the Met, and she was there, talking to someone. I started shaking, because she was so influ- ential in my becoming an opera singer. So here I was, close to tears and shaking, and she just looked at me and said, "Can I help you?" Who would have known that 20 years later: my 20th season at the Met: I'd be tackling the same feat she did?
I assume at the end of the season you have a big vacation. What are your plans?
I go directly to Paris and sing ten Aidas!
Anna Bolena opens September 26, followed by Maria Stuarda in January and Roberto Devereux in March.