Stupenda in the Abbey
My husband is proud to claim that in the 1950s, when they were both employed at Covent Garden, he was paid a larger salary than Joan Sutherland was. Fresh from Sydney, she had joined the company in 1952, and was soon appearing in small roles, including Clotilde, opposite Maria Callas’s Norma. This was followed by several years of steady progress and major roles (Agathe, Antonia, Micaela), but no great public success. My husband watched Joan’s progress from the beginning of her time and realised, as did others, that here was a great singer in the making. Then, in February 1959, Sutherland, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, made her triumphant début as Lucia di Lammermoor, and everything changed dramatically, including her fees.
The story of Sutherland’s magnificent career needs no re-telling. Less well known is the fact that despite all the temptations of fame, which might have gone to her head and turned her into a grande dame, Joan always remained the honest, friendly, extremely likeable woman who left Australia. Pretentiousness cut no ice with Joan, whose directness put a stop to any signs of such behavior, and whose strong sense of fun quickly disarmed the nervous. Of course, she knew how good she was, but her own common sense and decency prevented her from trading on her position. With Richard Bonynge’s inestimable help and support, she was a marvellous colleague and friend to young performers, including countless Australian singers, especially during her years with Opera Australia.
Joan was always game to send herself up. I recall two splendid examples of this from a production of Die Fledermaus that we saw in San Francisco. In Act One, when the tenor (sung by the very un-tall Ragnar Ulfung) tried to embrace her, Joan drew herself up to her commanding height and raised her arm in Statue of Liberty style, so that Ulfung simply climbed her like a squirrel up a tree, which was irresistibly funny. During the ball in Act Two, Joan said, on seeing Adèle (the dainty Judith Blegen), ‘There’s my maid, in my dress … (pause) … CUT DOWN!’ Collapse of audience.
For her eightieth birthday in November 2006, my husband was asked to take part in a public interview with Joan, at the Wigmore Hall. They were to discuss her career and play some of her myriad recordings. The night before, the four of us had dinner together, so that the two ‘performers’ could plan the evening. They were both quite nervous about it (Sutherland had retired from the stage sixteen years earlier, after a final season of Les Huguenots and an ecstatic send-off in the Sydney Opera House). After about ten minutes, Ricky and I started laughing and told them that all they had to do was what they were doing over dinner – just be two old friends gossiping. And that is exactly what they did!
After the appalling fall in her garden at Les Avants, Switzerland, when she broke both femurs, Joan was in hospital for many months, and never fully recovered. Ricky was often away conducting, so we would ring her occasionally, just to relieve any boredom. She was astonishingly philosophical about it all, even though her deteriorating sight prevented her from doing her beloved needlepoint, which had seen her through so many rather tedious hours spent waiting backstage.
How to describe the voice? If it is possible to combine bloom and brilliance in one voice, this was it. The legato singing was smooth, caressing, velvety, and the coloratura had the precision and edge of a xylophone shot through with colour like iridescent drops of water. The sound was beautiful throughout, no matter how difficult the music. All of it was plumb in the middle of the note, and her intonation was perfect.
If one had a criticism it concerned her diction, which was far from clear. Admittedly, ‘the higher the harder’ applies to the soprano voice, especially in coloratura, but Joan was a special case in this regard. I remember a recording of Home Sweet Home that seemed to be composed entirely of vowels. It sounded beautiful, of course, but the message was vague. Still, who could worry, on hearing that glorious instrument in full flow, about a certain want of consonants?
There could have been no greater recognition of Joan’s enormous contribution to opera than the memorial service in Westminster Abbey on 16 February. This was the most perfectly planned and executed occasion of its kind that I can recall. The Abbey, packed with friends, family, and fans, rang with the sound of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Tony Pappano.
We were seated in the South Transept, just below the altar, and opposite the orchestra, thus well-placed to hear and see everything that happened. The Introit, by Byrd, was sung by the choir with such delicacy that it really did seem to be the music of the spheres. After this came a traditional service interspersed with some of Joan’s recordings; Let the Bright Seraphim, which made me want to tell Prince Charles (who was there) that this was how it should sound, and Casta Diva; then two items (Fauré’s Pie Jesu and the Mozart Alleluia), sung by a brave and really excellent young Australian soprano, Valda Wilson. There were readings by Dame Norma Major (wife of the former prime minister, and one of Joan’s many biographers), followed by Ricky: the first a marvellous passage from the book of Samuel about David, son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, chasing the evil spirits from Saul with his harp playing.
During the Handel, Joan and Ricky’s grandson, Vanya, head up and back straight, carried a cushion on which rested Joan’s three great honours (the Order of Merit; Companion of the Order of Australia; Dame Commander of the British Empire) all the way from the West Door to the High Altar. Vanya has the famous Sutherland Chin, and it was held up firmly throughout his slow march up the nave. On presenting the cushion to the Dean, he backed down the steps – all without faltering.
The address by John Tooley, a former general director of the Royal Opera, was very dry and not easy to hear, even though we were almost at the foot of the pulpit. It consisted mostly of a factual account of Joan’s career. After the Anthem by Vaughan Williams, there were several short prayers, read by the Australian high commissioner, some of Joan’s family, and others associated with her life and work. Then came another hymn, the Blessing and the national anthem (amusing to watch some in the congregation, after the first verse, suddenly bury their noses in the program) – and that was it. It had lasted precisely one hour, as scheduled.
Leaving the Abbey took an eternity; there were so many old friends embracing in the aisles. But there was a tremendous atmosphere of goodwill, and much happiness that our glorious ‘Stupenda’ had been honoured in such a magnificent way.
CONTENTS: JULY–AUGUST 2011