Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Can you imagine Kanye West or Eminem rapping a song…and getting a five minute standing ovation? That's what often happened when Dame Joan Sutherland performed an aria. In 1959, at Covent Garden, the crowd went nuts for 19 minutes, following her performance as "Lucia di Lammermoor."

So why would Sutherland end up on the Illfolks blog? Because the average person took her for granted. They preferred the flashier and more controversial Maria Callas, or even the warm and kindly Beverly Sills. To the average opera fan, Bony Joan was not authentic enough for Italian opera (we want Tebaldi!) wasn't ethnic enough for the trendy (Leontyne Price was what they wanted), didn't have a back story of emotional troubles (Teresa Stratas) and wasn't one of those giant Wagnerian windbags (Kirsten Flagstad) or chunky fireplugs (Marilyn Horne). The Aussie singer was, to critics, simply "La Stupenda," and they admired both her opera performances and her recordings of aria, such as the Grammy-winning "Art of the Prima Donna" in 1960.

I'll admit that Joan Sutherland, OM AC DBE (those are honors, not her license plate) is not my "fave." When I first started experimenting with opera, I was craven enough to prefer a beautiful woman on the cover of a boxed set, which meant De Los Angeles, Peters or Neblett. But in the same way "you're beautiful when you're angry," a woman can be very attractive when she goes nuts. And so, I was quite pleased with a VHS tape of Sutherland in "Lucia de Lammermoor," doing her mad scene in a bloody gown. There were plenty of other operas for Joan that involved grand mad scenes or death scenes, which didn't require a great beauty, which is something the lantern-jawed Joanie was not. As she aged, she sort of began resembling a moray eel…all prominent nose and chin, flashing rows of pretty dangerous teeth.

In part thanks to her husband, who urged her to abandon her ambition of singing heavy Wagnerian opera, Sutherland excelled in roles that showed off her flexibility, range, and trademark "trill," which is what being a "coloratura" is all about. Americans saw her regularly on "The Bell Telephone Hour" (a DVD of highlights exists).

While her "Lucia de Lammermoor" remains a highlight, "Esclarmonde" was her own favorite role…one of the most difficult ones for any coloratura. She eased toward retirement in the 1980's, and gave her last operatic performance in her native Australia, in 1990. After tutoring students, taking a few acting roles and judging talent competitions, Sutherland gradually eased away from the music world entirely. Bluntly stated three years ago; "I'm 80 years old and I really don't want to have anything to do with opera anymore." She preferred tending her own garden in Switzerland…where she fell, breaking both her legs.

The 81 year-old diva recovered, and was still in pretty good health up till last year, when she turned up at Buckingham Palace for a luncheon with The Queen. Sutherland was greatly devoted to the monarchy, and to Australia keeping its ties with Great Britain, and this led to the only real controversy in her career.

In 1994 she told Australians, 'I'm a very ardent supporter of the monarchy and I can't imagine not having our wonderful allegiance to our heritage, to our Queen and to our right to have this wonderful, wonderful on-going connection with home. My parents loved the old country and I was brought up believing I was British. I used to have a British passport and it really upsets me that I don't any more. It also upsets me that it is such a damned job to get an Australian passport now - you have to go to be interviewed by a Chinese or an Indian. I'm not particularly racist, but I find it ludicrous.'

Some found her remark racist, and the media gleefully jumped all over Joan Sutherland, who by then was no longer performing and therefore ready for scorn and abuse. Now, as Stanton said at Lincoln's bedside, she "belongs to the ages." She died last fortnight. (November 7 1926 – October 10, 2010). Since most any normal person can only stand opera for a limited amount of time, your download is five fine examples of aria. If you want more, her album of arias is very much in print.

Slippin' you five on Joan: (The Soldier Tir'd - ARNE, Bel Raggio Lusinghier - ROSSINI, Ah! Je Veux Viuvre - GONOUD, Ou Va La Jeune Indoue - DELIBES and Caro Nome - VERDI)


Sam said...

Callas was retired by the time Joan's career took off, Sills would only become a rival from the late sixties into the seventies, Tebaldi existed in verismo world something Joan never ventured into until the end of her career (and not very well either), she and Price almost never shared roles, Stratas who? She doesn't deserve to be on Illfolk. And her racism wasn't her only controversy, but, unlike Callas she had built up a persona as a humble simple woman. People close to her knew better.

Ill Folks said...

Thanks, I appreciate this kind of knowledge and sharing!