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music: opera

American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who sings for the Canadian Opera Company, in her home near Caledon, Ont.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

An hour's drive northwest of Toronto, the Caledon Hills are a blaze of fall colour - dotted with mansions, discreetly tucked away.

In one of these lives the internationally celebrated soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, star of the Metropolitan Opera.

"Please come in!" she says sweetly, offering a comfy seat in an expansive living room. For someone in the midst of rehearsals for her first-ever performance in the title role of Verdi's Aida (on Saturday ), she seems remarkably relaxed. It is also her Canadian Opera Company debut role.

Since beginning her training at the Metropolitan Opera in the late nineties, Radvanovsky has steadily risen through the ranks internationally, and has sung major roles at A-list venues such as La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, the Vienna State Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She is widely seen as one of the world's leading Verdi sopranos. In a review of a recent Met production of Verdi's Stiffelio, The New York Times's Anthony Tomassini praised her performance for its "utter integrity, supple phrasing, nuanced colorings and aching vulnerability."

At 41, Radvanovsky has Gibson-Girl good looks and down-to-earth Midwestern charm. She grew up in small-town Indiana, and has also lived in California and New York. But for the last decade, she's called Canada home. That's unusual: While an impressive number of fine singers come from Canada, it's rare for a foreign opera singer to move to this country.

So how did she end up here? It begins in New York about a decade ago, when Canadian tenor Michael Schade invited her to a dinner with Schade's friend Duncan Lear. Radvanovsky and Lear hit it off splendidly, and were married a year later. "You always meet the right person when you're not looking," she says, recalling the whirlwind romance.

For the first year of her marriage to Lear, she lived in New York and he lived in Toronto. Then she said, "Why don't we give Canada a try?" They spent nine years in Oakville, Ont., and last year moved to their wooded, 10-acre spread in Caledon.

She's made an effort to pick up the local customs, such as poking fun at our neighbours to the south. "Some Americans are very America-centric. They think it snows all the time here, and we go skiing in the middle of summer." She even calls the last letter of the alphabet "zed." Evidently, marriage to a Canadian has changed her perspective.

Marriage also changed Lear's life in a big way, as he took on the full-time job of being Radvanovsky's manager, looking after everything from contracts to hotels. He gently hovers around the interview, offering bits of information when needed.

"Duncan, was it two years ago that I sang with Dmitri in Russia?" she asks, referring to her concerts with the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

"It was June 24, 2008," he replies, without hesitation. (And he's exactly right)

On that Russian trip, Radvanovsky recorded her debut CD, Verdi Arias, which was released this year. The disc was clearly designed to play to Radvanovsky's strength: 19th-century Italian repertoire, especially the role of Leonora from Il Trovatore, which she's performed in Paris, London, Florence, Berlin and New York.

But she's approaching Aida - a role she's sharing with Canadian soprano Michele Capalbo - with some trepidation.

"It's steeped in tradition," she notes, "and people expect perfection. Also, the role is very demanding: It sits a bit low, so you have to put more pressure on the voice to sing it. And it's a long opera: I'm onstage almost the whole evening, except for two scenes."

Radvanovsky says she was hired by Alexander Neef shortly after he became general director of the COC two years ago.

"I'd worked with Alexander in Paris [Neef was casting director of the Paris Opera] He said, 'I want you to feel free here to try out new roles, to do things you don't do in other places.' "

Radvanovsky says she likes the idea of singing Aida first at the COC because she feels "sheltered" in Toronto. "It's close enough to New York that the New York public can come if they want to. But it's not like doing a role debut in New York with all the press and all the critics there."

But she finds her home is what keeps her grounded. "I absolutely love Canada, and I wouldn't live anywhere else. It's half American and half European, and I really enjoy that. And the people are just fantastic - nicer than any people in the world."

Aida opens Saturday at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and plays until Nov. 5 (