Monday, October 11, 2010

While You Were Out / Dame Joan Sutherland

While we're certain there is plenty of opera news out there to report, today it seems the only news on our mind is the passing of Dame Joan Sutherland this morning, at the age of 83. Cause of death was not officially announced only that she passed peacefully.

The New York Times has a very comprehensive obituary they just posted which you can find here.

All of us here wish Maestro Bonynge and their companion Chester our deepest heartfelt sympathies - both Dame Joan and the Maestro were close friends to the Company - Joan performed here seven times: three of her appearances were concerts, four of them operas - Lucia di Lammermoor (1974), Die Fledermaus (1980), Adriana Lecouvreur (1983) and I Masnadieri (1984). The Maestro accompanied her in each performance (he also continued to conduct nearly a dozen other productions for us without her).

Our General and Artistic Director, Ian Campbell, had this to add:

"Joan's death ends, at least for now, an era of full-voiced coloratura singing. There is no soprano today with a sound to match hers, since however talented they be, singers of her roles cannot match the sheer outpouring of sound she delivered.

It was not a matter of "loudness" or "volume" but of fullness, roundness. Joan's voice filled every corner of every opera house in which she sang with a warm, rich sound which seemed to embrace the listener.

Her pin-point coloratura, still full and rich throughout a range beyond high D, was extraordinary. How she moved such a full sound so rapidly and effortlessly defied imagination.

I first heard and met Joan in Sydney in 1965 when she and Richard were part of a series of opera performances across Australia. There was no full-time opera company in Australia in 1965 - that came in 1967 when I joined as part of the first ensemble - so a local promoter had put a season together with the help of Richard Bonynge to showcase Joan.

She had come to international attention with a series of Lucia di Lammermoor performances at the Royal Opera in London in 1959. She soon had conquered the major opera capitals of the world, and it was time to visit home.

The singers came from around the world, and included the then relatively unknown Luciano Pavarotti who was 29. That was when I first heard him also, and attended four of his performances on free tickets he gave me. I did not hear him together with Joan at that time, however, but heard them frequently later.

Joan was at her peak. I managed to hear her first Sydney Lucia di Lammermoor, and the extraordinary sounds are still in my musical memory. When she made her first entrance the audience erupted, stopping the performance for what seemed like several minutes. At the end they would not stop cheering. It was certainly appreciation of her performance, but a bit of national pride was evident also.

Incidentally, for most of us it was our first staged Lucia.

Repertoire which had been unsung for a generation or more was revived through the talents of Joan and the detective work of Richard who knew better than even Joan herself what was right for her voice. Many of today's successful sopranos are in her debt since many of her re-discovered roles are again mainstream.

Joan actually sang quite a few times with San Diego Opera, and I'll get a list to you. Her performances here filled the theatre every time.

It is well known that Joan was very down-to-earth, and never lost her Australian accent or directness. She also had a delightful sense of humor. She never showed nervousness in rehearsal or performance, or hid it very well. Her constant needle point was her relaxation and took her mind off the demands of the stage.

I last saw her on June the second in London last year (2009). It was at a performance of Roberto Devereux at the Holland Park Festival. Richard was conducting and Joan and I were in the audience a few seats from one another. Everyone stood and applauded as she came in, a fitting tribute.

Joan had broken her legs in a recent fall and was struggling on two canes. She was frail. When I asked how she was managing she replied in typical style, "It's a bloody pain in the neck."

Every voice is so individual we can always say with confidence that we will never hear the like again. Joan sang in a style technique, with such a full sound, that she will be difficult to emulate.

But someone will follow in her footsteps eventually, and Joan will remain the touchstone for
that technically brilliant, larger-voiced coloratura soprano whenever she does come along. "
Rest in Peace Dame Joan. Thanks for the memories, and the music.
Below, some photos from our archive that haven't been seen in decades.

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