Music

Favourite Spaces: Sondra Radvanovsky guides us through her rural refuge

'I can sing here and only the deer and wild turkeys can hear me,' says the famed soprano .

'I can sing here and only the deer and wild turkeys can hear me,' says the famed soprano

Step inside the rural Ontario home where soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has been spending the weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Pavel Antonov/design by Myles Chiu/CBC Music)

If you put soprano Sondra Radvanovsky on the spot and demanded to know what her favourite space in the world was, she'd likely choose the stage of La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu, or any of the major opera houses where she has triumphed over three decades as a prima donna.

But equally important to the Canadian-American singer is her home, situated in the countryside outside Caledon, Ont., which is where she and her husband have been spending the weeks of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like all performing artists, Radvanovsky finds her life on hold. "I have had months and months of contracts cancelled, as of now, and am expecting months and months more to be cancelled," she explained to CBC Music.

She has, however, found a creative outlet: producing and co-hosting a YouTube series called Screaming Divas, in which she and fellow soprano Keri Alkema drink gin, laugh, scream (of course) and talk about their feelings and the state of their art. They also interview guests. In episode 2 they chatted with Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company, artistic director of Santa Fe Opera, and the newly appointed director of Opéra national de Paris.

A recurring theme on Screaming Divas is how disorienting the pandemic has been.

"For singers, our instruments are so closely associated with our emotional levels, and my emotional level has been all over the place at the moment," Radvanovsky reflected. "I am struggling to sing every day, let alone every week.... But, I am finally feeling like singing again and have started practising."

With her mood improving, Radvanovsky graciously opened her doors (figuratively speaking) to show us around her rural Ontario refuge for our Favourite Spaces series.


Sondra Radvanovsky's music room boasts a Mason & Hamlin piano adorned with memorabilia from her 30-year career. (Supplied by Sondra Radvanovsky)

"This is my music room and my 1970s Mason & Hamlin spinet piano. On the front of the photo is an old score of Verdi's Macbeth, the next new role for me in September at Philadelphia Opera. It's an old, rejected score from the Metropolitan Opera and is literally falling apart.

"On top of the piano are so many tchotchkes that I have accumulated from my 30-year career, each one holding such a special moment: there is a photo of me and Placido Domingo, right above my piano lamp, on the occasion of my Metropolitan Opera debut in Verdi's Stiffelio in 1998.

"I also have to mention a great caricature artist, Bridget MacKeith, who is a fan and friend and made the two hand drawings on the piano and music stand. Also, on the wall, are posters from the three roles that I have sung at La Scala opera house in Milan. I call them my trifecta. Enjoy having a glimpse into my operatic career!"

Canadian-American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has been spending the days of the COVID-19 pandemic at her 'refuge' outside Caledon, Ont. (Supplied by Sondra Radvanovsky)

"So many wonderful emotions are associated with this room. It is the heart of our house, figuratively and literally. We have had Christmases here with my family, Thanksgiving dinners here and, my best memory, a surprise 50th birthday party here last year with our closest friends.

"I am lucky to have ben married now for 18 years to my incredible husband, Duncan. He travels with me and is not only my husband, but my chef, luggage porter, business manager and best friend all in one."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sondra Radvanovsky has been filming episodes of a video series, Screaming Divas, at home. (Supplied by Sondra Radvanovsky)

Screaming Divas

"This is a fun photo because it shows many elements of who I am right now. So many of my friends, musicians and otherwise, are struggling to find happiness and meaning during this pandemic. My best friend and opera singer, Keri Alkema, called me on one of her down days and said, 'I have an idea: let's do a show where we just chat with people and laugh and spread some joy and talk about all of our emotions, as well as music.' That quickly evolved into Screaming Divas, our new weekly YouTube show.

"We had no idea how to do anything remotely technical but, time being a luxury right now, we are figuring it all out. So this photo shows my setup for a taping of our show with my husband's work lights and my music stand holding my iPad.

"The best part of our show is that we are able to connect with people from all around the world who are all feeling the same feelings as we are. It has been our therapy, in a way, and has allowed us to laugh, cry and also know that we are not alone in our feelings right now. We also have been able to discuss the future of our art form with some really great people and to hear what they think will be the future of opera in the post COVID-19 era. And, well, there might have been some alcohol involved too!"

'I am so used to being in the public eye, both onstage and off, but there is a huge part of me that is very private and loves isolation.' — Sondra Radvanovsky (Supplied by Sondra Radvanovsky)

'Isolation from the screaming world'

"I find myself still struggling to get going in the mornings. Partly because artists are normally night owls, but also because my schedule has been disrupted and I have never had this much free time on my hands in, well, my life, I think!

"So, this is my morning workstation where we have found a new rhythm and routine of checking emails, discussing both business and personal things, me watching YouTube videos on how to do Instagram, etc., and also where we can just relax and have our morning tea.

"The painting behind me is something very special. This was my 50th birthday present from my husband, which he commissioned from one of my best friends and artists, Walter Hubert. As Walter says, it represents the artistic side of me — big, bold colours and very extroverted. But, he also painted another version with muted colours, which represents, as he says, the Sondra that he knows — just me.

"As an artist, I'm so used to being in the public eye, both onstage and off, but there is a huge part of me that is very private and loves isolation from the screaming world. I mean, that is the reason why we moved to the middle of the forest, right?"

'Nature balances and grounds me and allows me to remember that, no matter how much I am singing, nature is important.' — Sondra Radvanovsky (Supplied by Sondra Radvanovsky)

"This is our property in Caledon and we are fortunate to own 20 acres, 19 of which are conservation land.

"In the 10 years that we have owned this house, I think we might have spent the equivalent of two years here. We are usually home for two or three days at a time, and most of that time is spent washing clothes, going to appointments and then repacking. So this time at home has truly been a luxury and one that I am not taking for granted.

"This land, our little forest as I like to call it, is our refuge. We are quite remote and I can sing here and only the deer and wild turkeys can hear me!  When we travel, we are normally in the heart of big cities around the world and they are filled with hustle, bustle and noise. It is always good to come home and 'recharge your batteries' before getting back to work.

"For a performer, there is so much more to the job than just standing onstage and singing. There are constant interviews, dinners and meetings with everyone wanting a piece of you. I try and take walks in our little forest as often as possible because I find that nature balances and grounds me and allows me to remember that, no matter how much I am singing, nature is important."

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