Dispatch from New York: A soprano’s second debut

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“Sono pronto per il mio close-up, Meester Gelb.”

Saturday at the HD Broadcast of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West,” Sondra Radvanovsky will be making a very 21st century Met debut (or re-debut).


The American soprano makes her debut as the on-air host of the Met’s HD broadcast. The HD host is essentially the show’s Ryan Seacrest. But in a shrewd move, Peter Gelb didn’t hire a TV personality for the gig when the broadcast series began four years ago. Instead, he tapped telegenic stars from the opera world like Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming. (In contrast, PBS telecasts were for years hosted by Garrick Utley of NBC, and Sunday’s LA Phil Live broadcast is hosted by Vanessa Williams.)

Radvanovsky is not unaware of the fact that hosting the show is as in some ways as high profile as singing the lead: “How many millions of people are going to be watching this? Yikes, don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it,” she said.

On Monday night (after a full day’s rehearsal of her upcoming “Tosca”) she rehearsed for her Met Debut 2.0 and channeled her inner Ann Curry: “I have a tendency of talking very fast, I have to remember to slow it down and just get the words out.”

For three hours backstage, Radvanovsky navigated crew members, fake snow and moving sets as she juggled a constant flow of scriptwriters, assistant cameramen and sound people checking her microphones, all in the tight halls of the Met — and with a live performance of “Fanciulla” going on in the front of the hall. After the second intermission, when she interviewed stand-ins for the stars and conductor, she sighed, “and I have to be back here to sing again at 10 a.m.”

It’s a challenging assignment—especially for someone with little to no on-camera experience. “They didn’t teach this at conservatory,” the UCLA and USC graduate quipped after a teleprompter problem occurred while interviewing one of the stunt men (“Fanciulla” features a full-out barroom brawl). Indeed, the HD rehearsal felt more like a reality show or an episode of “30 Rock” — at one point in the broadcast Saturday the soprano will chat with the animal trainer and five horses as they wait in their dressing room: the parking lot of Lincoln Center.

The reality is that opera singers are going to have to be more and more media savvy as the arts go HD. Gone are the days where they can just worry about their voice — in time singers’ HD debut may be as important as their Met 1.0 debut. And perhaps one day, the Met’s broadcasts will help push opera stars into the mainstream celebrity limelight; until then, there’s the coveted HD host gig. “When I got an e-mail about a month ago saying ‘We would really love for you to host the HD broadcast,’ I proceeded to start crying,’ she said. ' ‘Really, you want me to do this?’”

Radvanovsky admits she thinks about an acting career after singing: “William Friedkin, the director of ‘Suor Angelica’ [at LA Opera in 2007] wanted me to be on ‘CSI’ but it didn’t work with my schedule.… I always wanted to be an actress. Maybe it will happen?”

After the hectic rehearsal though, Radvanovsky was tired and all she was dreaming of was changing back into comfortable shoes. “It’s slightly overwhelming,” she said leaving the theater. Only once before has the soprano performed in front of an audience of millions: “Barbara Walters asked me to be a guest on ‘The View’ once, she knew who I was through Plácido Domingo. It was about weight loss and how I maintain that with a busy life.

“And so I jumped rope on national television — in heels, by the way,” she laughed. “I’ll be ready for Saturday.”

--James C. Taylor

Above: Radvanovsky singing a duet with Plácido Domingo in New Orleans in 2009. Credit: Lee Celano/ For The Times