Verdi Voices: As the World Celebrates the 200th Anniversary of Verdi's Birth, We Asked Some Leading Canadian Exponents of the Italian Master's Operas to Talk about the Risks and Rewards of Bringing His Music to the Stage

Opera Canada, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Verdi Voices: As the World Celebrates the 200th Anniversary of Verdi's Birth, We Asked Some Leading Canadian Exponents of the Italian Master's Operas to Talk about the Risks and Rewards of Bringing His Music to the Stage


Sondra Radvanovsky

Sondra Radvanovsky, a stellar mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera and a sought-after visitor to most of the world's other great opera stages, has earned special praise for her Verdi heroines. From her tiny first assignments at the Met, as Countess Ceprano in Rigoletto and the Priestess in Aida in the 1996/97 season, she quickly progressed to Leonora in I1 trovatore in the summer of 1998, followed over the years by Violetta in La traviata, Luisa Miller, Elena in I vespri Siciliani, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Elvira in Ernani, Lina in Stiffelio, Aida, and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera. She spent the early summer of 2013 in a new Ballo at La Scala, and then, after a string of Normas in Barcelona and at the Met, returns to Amelia at Vienna's Staatsoper in November.

"When I was just starting out as a singer, I would have nighttime conversations with Verdi. I would sleep with my score underneath my pillow and he would talk with me about the music. I would ask him for help on ail my scores of his. I joke about this now, but really, Verdi did tell me exactly what to do: he wrote everything in the score. He gave it all to us singers, and all we have to do is translate it into sound. I'm not saying he makes it easy--far from it! No, he's very difficult, and demanding, and not everyone is up to his challenges. But you can't say you don't know exactly what he wanted--not just the musical markings, but the emotional ones, too.

I had my first Verdi 'moment' when I bought a CD of Leontyne Price singing his music. I was spellbound listening to it--it was the first time I'd ever heard her sing. I was 17 or 18 and studying with Martial Singher, and he was the first one to figure out that I was going to be a Verdi soprano. I was learning the "Salce, sake" and "Ave Maria" from Otello, and he told me to go out and buy this CD. Well, I did, and I put it on and almost right away I started weeping. Verdi was the first composer with whom I'd ever felt that kind of thing. I heard his music and I just wanted more, and more, so I listened to everything. It was like a drug. It was the sheer beauty of the music, and how it speaks to the soul--the emotional aspect--that really got to me.

I just knew I had to sing it.

And the more I learned about singing, the more I loved the vocal challenges Verdi gives singers. I just came from singing Tosca in Los Angeles, and that's a walk in the park next to Ballo, which I'm rehearsing now--it doesn't require a lot of finesse. But with Verdi, you've got to be technically on the mark to give him what he wanted. Amelia has a huge range. Her big scena is a buffet of dynamics and markings--singing piano here, forte there, piano, forte, over two octaves, and with the orchestra wailing away. You have to be able to sail over the orchestra when Verdi asks you to, you need to have that thrust--he doesn't want you to blend in. You have to have that power in reserve--in addition to being able to sing soft, soft, so soft ...

I waited till I was 40 to sing Aida and Amelia. Turning 40 really makes a difference for a larger-voiced soprano. Both those roles require a heavier middle and bottom voice. My voice was growing and I said, 'Okay it's rime.' In a couple of years I'll be singing Leonora in La forza del destino, and I'm hoping to go back to Luisa Miller--I sang that role so early in my career. But I'm putting on hold what I call Verdi's angry women'--Lady Macbeth, Abigaille, Odabella--I don't like putting all that effort and energy into anger!

I'm so fortunate to be singing so much Verdi. So many singers you hear are singing Wagner when they should be singing Mozart. I was lucky. I think I was given the right voice for the music I most love to sing."--Patrick Dillon

Wendy Nielsen

Soprano Wendy Nielsen has had the opportunity to sing much Verdi to brilliant effect, but today gives increasing time to teaching at the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, the University of Toronto, in master classes and at her summer program in New Brunswick. …

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