Tuesday, October 12, 2010


(Alcina Venice 1960. Source: La Stupenda, Brian Adams)

Dame Joan Sutherland OM, AC, DBE
Dame Joan
Joan Sutherland
Our Joan
Joyce Wunderlungs
La Stupenda
The Stupendous One
The Stunning One
Joan Sutherland Bonynge

It's always a shock, even when you know it's coming. She died yesterday at her Switzerland home aged 83. I cried a bit this morning, reading and listening, sad for the family, for everyone she ever touched. She's gone. The music world is marveling at what it has lost. There's some wonderful obituaries and memories, a few of which are The Sydney Morning Herald; The Guardian; The Joan Sutherland Society; The Independent; Melba Records; Opera Britannia and yes, from Opera Chic. Jesscia Duchen links to an early interview, over 5 parts on youtube. It's worth listening just to hear her describe how performance is transporting and otherwordly.

She's been part of my life since 1959, since the Covent Garden Lucia, when the news of the phenomenon swept through the world and into our little suburban house in Sydney. The news kept coming year after year, making headlines with exotic tales of storming the Opera Houses of Milan, Venice, Paris and then North America and finally New York. My parents bought records, The Art of The Prima Donna the first and most prized, as it is today. My big sister took me to Rowe Street Records to buy me a birthday present. I'd decided on Carmen, and she insisted despite my embarrassment on asking if they had Joan singing it. I knew Joan sang really high notes and Carmen didn't. We got Jane Rhodes. My next record I bought all on my own, an Ace of Spades Tales of Hoffman, not knowing that many years later this would be how I would meet her in the flesh. She toured Australia in 1965, after I had just started University. I still remember the discussion around the dining table about whether to go, and the cost of the tickets. We didn't. I suppose it was money, a mistake to this day I try to never make again.

I sat in the third row of the circle for that Tales of Hoffman. It was now 1974. I was graduated, independent, well advanced on a higher degree, working in a big important institution, but so so young. I sat there trembling like a child, knowing that there she was, hidden inside that gorgeous glass cage centre stage, waiting forever till Olympia emerged. I can see her still. If I tell you the whole thing was stunning, imprinted, then I'm understating it. Raymond Myers played her to death, the transparent piano lighting up green, and she sang, and sang, and she died.

No she didn't. She went and sang Esclarmonde in San Francisco two months later. She sang this!

In the concert hall especially she was indeed 'The Stunning One', the first Lucia was hysterical, there was hysteria; Lucrezia Borgia, The Merry Widow, Otello. The pity of it was that Norma was in the little black box next door, never mind, she broke me up, as she predicted, with Margreta Elkins.

You know the voice. I can't describe it, not really. Yehudi Menuhin can. "Dear Miss Sutherland. You transported me last night. I have never heard such beautiful singing - your voice would be the dream of any string player, as in addition to the most wonderful articulation each note seemed to carry a warm weight as it were, as if your bow arm was drawing the sound out of the vocal chords in a way which makes me feel both inspired and discouraged at the same time."

(Source: Joan Sutherland A Tribute, Moffatt Oxenbould)

But I've felt it. I sat in the back row of the stalls for the Sutherland Pavarotti Gala. The one note of any note I've ever heard, ever, that has physically shaken me was the last note of her Lo son l'umine ancella which expanded with a perfectly centered tone, this mighty resonance amplifying through the hall, surrounding me (I was the only one there) in a sonic experience still unequalled. Listen below and you'll hear none of what I'm talking about, none of those incredible harmonics, the crescendo, the amplitude, the immersion, from her but directionless at the same time (come down here and I'll play you the DVD on K's sound system and that'll make your eyes water), but listen and you will hear her stamp her foot as she steps forward and leans into the launch. And launch she did, nothing like it, and yes, I have been to Cape Kennedy.

One of my favorites, and if I put them all in this post would never load properly, is seeing her looking pretty relaxed and singing the hell out of Meyerbeer, or rather, having 'a bash' at it.

I met her once, briefly, at the end of a charity night in Sydney, years after her retirement. She and other 'women of renown' (Nancy Bird-Walton, and others, and I can proudly say one of my sisters) modelled clothes, walking the catwalk, at a fundraiser for cancer in children research. Can you imagine? Joan walked the walk to Norma. Of course, knives and forks dropped, mouth dropped open, and in seconds the guests were on their feet clapping and cheering. She stood alone after her stint, and was, as everyone who has had any contact with her knows, unassuming and generous. We had a brief correspondence over the matter of the sale of her family's Queen Street house, and as always, her words on paper were as infused with common sense and graciousness as if she were sitting next to you on the couch.

Thank you Joan, thank you. I often think about living in other times, other places, in other guises. But I'd choose for no other, not least because of you. And one other.

Thank you.

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