Tuesday, October 12, 2010

La stupenda

Dame Joan as she was when we met her
I met Dame Joan Sutherland once. I bought her in an auction. Really. And she was some of the best value for money that I have ever enjoyed. The auction was an Opera Australia fund raiser, and the auction ‘lot’ consisted of six premium tickets to a matinee performance of Delibes’ Lakmé at the Sydney Opera House, with Joan's husband Richard Bonynge conducting, followed by afternoon tea at the Sir Stamford Hotel in Macquarie Street with Dame Joan and Richard (and a cheerful little woman who turned out to be their travelling secretary, and, as a bonus, the soprano Antoinette Halloran who sang in Lakmé).

Having secured this obvious bargain, my next thought was: do I know five other people who would consider this to be the highlight of their year, as I do? I did manage to find five other keen opera aficionados (Kyle, Andrew, Roger, Tanya and Natalie) and we all enjoyed the performance, but were rather nervous about meeting the famous afternoon tea guests. We need not have been worried. Dame Joan was a completely natural, down to earth, ‘all-Australian’ personality, and her husband the maestro was charming and relaxed. As I recall, he was a little late in arriving – he had been working all afternoon, of course – and Dame Joan expressed some concern that he should really be at home with his slippers on.

In one of her spectacular dresses,
Pavrotti in the background
While Richard regaled the guests at one end of the table with discussion of his collector’s quest for old original manuscripts of French music, I sat next to Dame Joan and chatted to her about what it was like in the sixties, when she was travelling from one great opera house of the world to another, knocking ‘em dead with her amazing colouratura voice, hitting the spectacular high notes with a consummate ease which has hardly been equalled. She spoke of sailing from Trieste to New York, with a trunk full of costumes. It seems that the impresarios often gave her her costumes as part-payment for her services – according to her, because the costumes wouldn’t fit anyone else. So off she sailed with her besequinned trunks to the next production. She spoke also of her family, one son and two grand-daughters, with much affection. When asked what she thought of the afternoon’s performance (Lakmé is a role for which she was renowned) she remarked kindly (and diplomatically):  ‘They shouldn’t ask [name of soprano] to take on roles she isn’t ready for’. This is what everyone had been thinking, of course.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSC3zkjRcSc  Dame Joan’s ‘Bell Song’ from Lakmé - have a listen; you will be amazed that the human voice can actually do this.

And if you are interested, here’s a video clip of ten different colouratura sopranos singing The Bell Song so you can compare the amazing feat of hitting that High E – including La Callas and Dame Joan. Call me prejudiced, but while Callas is full and rich and accomplished, Joan is pure and effortless and beautiful. The others are also-rans. Though frankly the fact that anyone can sing this at all is ridiculous! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQa2EpyKJJE

Several times through afternoon tea Dame Joan spoke to her husband, to ask him a question or make a remark, and she called him variously ‘Sir’ and ‘Rick’. They both kindly signed our programs (mine is now a treasured souvenir, of course). What a pleasant afternoon it was. And so exciting! When the Sutherland/Bonynge contingent had left, we six repaired to the other end of the Sir Stamford bar for a fortifying G&T, to let the nervous energy dissipate, and to critique the experience. “I didn’t know what to call him!” I said, recalling the ‘Sir’ and ‘Rick’ thing. Tanya regally announced: “I just called him Maestro”. Of course. We all agreed that Dame Joan was just a sweetheart, and that we were among some of the most privileged opera fans ever.

Looking gor-jus!
Yesterday the news came through that Dame Joan Sutherland, rightly called ‘the voice of the century’, has passed away, aged 83, at her home in Switzerland. Dame Joan and Maestro have been based in Switzerland since the early 1960s, though both are Australians. There is a good review of her career in today’s Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/oct/11/dame-joan-sutherland-obituary  The article talks about Joan being a worthy successor to Maria Callas, carrying on the revival of interest in the ‘bel canto’ repertoire (I understand that they never actually sang together, although Joan understudied Callas in ‘Norma’ in the late 50s). It also mentions how she and Richard made a protégé of Luciano Pavarotti and performed with him many times; and that Joan and the wonderful mezzo Marilyn Horne were good friends and sang together often.

This article does not, however, focus on the importance of Dame Joan’s support of opera in Australia. Her international stature could even be said to have helped Sydney acquire its amazing Opera House; and she continually supported the Company during its early years, performing regularly on the Sydney Opera House stage and elsewhere in the country.  Her farewell performance at the SOH on 2nd October 1990, when she was 63, is legendary, and brought a 20 minute standing ovation.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqpDZMKCbRw

Roger was one of the guests at afternoon tea, and is a very discerning music fan. When he had a recent health scare, to whom should he turn but...’la stupenda’. Here is his story from yesterday (quoted with permission):

I went into hospital yesterday for an angiogram. The purpose was to determine whether there were any signs of coronary vascular disease to explain some recent chest pain. The outcome was very good – all the arteries of my heart look exactly as they should. Still, it was a fairly stressful prospect, including signing the consent forms for stents to be inserted if the cardiologist found any blockage or constriction.
Before setting off for St Vincents I listened to some music and had a few interesting minutes choosing appropriate pieces. I decided against the gloomy (Vier Letzte Lieder, the Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde, etc) and listened instead to Haydn’s Oxford Symphony. The finale is possibly the most cheerful piece of music ever written. Then I listened to Joan Sutherland singing the polonaise ‘Son vergin vezzosa’ from I Puritani. It’s a performance I’ve loved since my early teens and shows one of the greatest of all singers caught in her absolute prime in 1960.It hit the spot yet again – the beauty of the sound, the athleticism of the runs and the ease and splendour of the top notes. The final high E flat is truly exhilarating and life-affirming. What I didn’t know as I listened was that she’d died a couple of hours earlier. When I saw the headlines in the Herald this morning I found it poignant to think of the pleasure her recordings had recently brought me, as they have now done for many decades.
Thanks to al for the good wishes. Now I’m off to listen to the great Dame again, and to see what tribute Anton has talked SBS into including on the evening news!                  - Roger

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxabD-w6QGQ : Roger’s choice! Joan sings ‘Son vergin vezzosa’ from I Puritani

“People talk a lot of nonsense about becoming a star. One is just given a talent, and it’a one’s duty to make the most of it. My talent was my voice, and Richard was born with a talent to delve and discover things. He discovered my voice. I have been extraordinarily fortunate that our two talents came together and gave me so much happiness.” [Dame Joan quoted today by the Guardian.]

Vale, Dame Joan Sutherland. You will be missed but not forgotten, as we continue to listen to ‘the voice of the century’.

Images from these websites:


  1. Nice tribute. The Library's music curator was rushed off her feet with Dame Joan related business yesterday; everything else was put aside.

  2. lovely tribute that brings back memories. Stella and i saw and heard La Stupenda in the most amazing and unforgettable Il Travatore back in '82/'83 at the SOH. What a night. What a voice. What a setting. Our Joannie's done us real proud.

  3. I am reliably informed by people whose opinions on the subject of opera I greatly respect, that Dame Joan sang once with Callas, as Clothilde to Callas' Norma at Covent Garden. Just to correct the record! Thanks Damian, Anton & Roger!

    And Harry -- *green with envy*

  4. You're welcome! A beautiful tribute to a beautiful human being...
    "Santo di patria..."