Sutherland was my Starter Diva.
I was sixteen and knew nothing about opera, had just seen my first Traviata at the City Opera (Patricia Brooks, Placido Domingo), was entranced by the melodies – especially the Brindisi and “Sempre libera” – and wanted more. It is typical of my relationship to the zeitgeist that just as the world succumbed to the joys of the steady back beat, I fell completely in love with voluptuous melody.
I had long loved the tunes of Arthur Sullivan (whose mother was Italian), but bel canto promised a far richer trove. I went to E.J. Korvette’s (remember Korvette’s?) and looked for some likely-looking Verdi. A display offered three new compilation disks (tracks snipped from earlier recordings): Bellini, Handel, Verdi, arias sung by a lady waltzing grandly across the front cover in great swirling swaths of black tulle. I’d never heard of Bellini, associated Handel with chorales. Verdi was the man. The lady’s name was Joan Sutherland. “She’s good; my parents like her,” said my best friend, who was advising me.
Oh, was she good! Oh were the melodies sumptuous (“Ernani, involami”; “Santo di patria”; “Caro nome”; the Bolero from Vespri), and the voice every bit the same, clear as spring water, soaring up and down the scales by clear steps, fast or slow as you like, each tone ravishing, the trills so precise you could distinguish two separate notes, the runs sung just as they were written, the high E-flats in alt brilliant but never shrill. And since it was all in a language I didn’t know, the diction seemed just dandy to me.
Sutherland was the ideal Starter Diva because so much of what she did was technique, on the surface. Once you knew the repertory, you might long for more pathos in a Desdemona, more fire in a raging Luisa Miller, more brooding in a Violetta … but if you were after flawless sound, flawless technique, she was it. I urge tyros not to start with Callas, because the voice’s flaws will irritate you and until you understand the repertory, you won’t understand what she’s doing. Callas did a lot, but much of it was subtle. Sutherland could be subtle, but technically, not dramatically.
I became obsessed as only an adolescent desperate to stave off the sex urge (I knew it was going to be trouble) can be. I bought all her recordings and thirsted for more. The melodies of Alcina and Lucia and Puritani still carry me back to those dizzy, fantastic days; when music was so much more real to me than academics or personal relationships or anything else in my life. In dull high school classes (which was nearly all of them), I would keep myself awake by writing sonnets to Joan. Some of them were acrostics, spelling out her name. All of them were terrible (though when I sent them to her, she charmingly overlooked that fact).
I read her biography, the first one, which made her out to be an unpretentious, unsophisticated, hardworking Australian girl, guided by a clever Svengali husband and a bunch of tough teachers to display her exceptional gifts, fend off terrible health problems, and renew repertory long thought dead. The story was like a Hollywood film, far too good to be true. Later biographies and unauthorized rumors presented a different woman: down to earth, yes, but determined to get to the top if talent and hard work could take her there, very conscious of just who she was and how important to opera, the recording industry and Australia’s self-image, loving a laugh but with no sympathy for the lazy. Ambition and hard work and a firm set of the chin makes more sense than the modest maiden pushed to the forefront. She knew she was remarkable. She knew she wasn’t Lily Pons or Callas, but she was Joan Sutherland. (It is absurd to ask, as mediocre reporters always do, Who is the new Callas? The new Pavarotti? The new Sutherland? The new Horne? The great artists are always unique – therefore, catch them while you can.)
But let’s go back to my first exposure to the Sutherland instrument live and in person. I had written another sonnet and brought a dozen roses. And four albums for signature. But would I have the nerve to go backstage with them? The place: Carnegie Hall, the occasion American Opera Society’s presentation of Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice (aka L’anima del filosofo), with Nicolai Gedda as Orfeo, and Sutherland increasing her exposure by copping the bravura aria of a Spirit in Act II. Like Marcel on first seeing the actress Berma, I found it difficult to reconcile my anticipations with the superb but somehow alien occasion. The music was very odd: a chorus of Maenads tore Orfeo to pieces (following the myth, as Gluck does not), but they were Haydn Maenads – imagine a maddened horde of Dresden china shepherdesses. And yes, I got up the nerve to go backstage where I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
A year later, at the Met, in more comprehensible circumstances, a pair of Sonnambulas back to back – but I was not ready to understand Bellini, though many authorities (including her husband) think the simple, naïve Amina is Sutherland’s best characterization. There was a song recital in Newark, with “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” and “Home, Sweet Home” among the encores – the latter drew titters from the hall. Sutherland might really have been happier as a Victorian grande dame, invited to Windsor for the occasional recital.
There was an all-Handel concert at Hunter. In the second half, she came out to sing “Ombre pallide” from Alcina and couldn’t locate the music on the stand. Bonynge and the orchestra waited patiently. She turned the pages left, she turned them right. Nervous giggling began among the crowd. The usually bland face was suddenly expressive to a degree, deepening worry, maintaining cool, Aussie housewife “now where did I leave that casserole?” And suddenly, like sun breaking through clouds, relief burst out upon her features and we broke into laughter and applause. She was very communicative – just not in the artificial arena of the theater.
Backstage after that concert (I’d brought a new sonnet and four more albums to be signed – I thought it rude to bring more than four) someone had a recording of Haydn’s Orfeo for her signature. “Oooh, you pirates!” she cried, shaking a finger. But she signed.
A word on her acting: No, she was not a stage animal. As her biographies make clear, she had to force herself to learn to do all that stuff, and she needed careful coaching. Once she had the thing down, though, she had it down – she could do it walking in her sleep – and I mean Lucia or Traviata, not just Amina. But if anything went wrong, she had no idea how to fix it. Either you are the sort who is comfortable on the stage and can ad lib with no trouble, or you are not. It can’t be learned. Sills could improvise, live the role. Sutherland could not. Too, I don’t think her earthy sense of self could quite get the hang of being the loveliest princess in the world, her face dazzling tenors into transports and baritones into skullduggery. She was happier in comedies, making fun of herself, as in La Fille du Regiment – a very Australian trait.
Many’s the time I’ve seen her do something, and thought, “Whatever you do up there, don’t do that!” only to have her – do just that.
There was the Esclarmonde where the director and designer had set her up (she didn’t even have to sing, just stand there) as a Byzantine icon, worshipped by the chorus and Massenet’s incense-like music. But she had to remain veiled (because if a man saw her, she’d lose her magical powers – you know, opera as usual), and the veil was somehow awry. So what? But she couldn’t stop fiddling with the veil. We were all staring (the staging led all our eyes) at her supposedly immobile, dignified, iconic figure, and she couldn’t stop finicking with the goddam veil. All she had to do was not do anything at all. But this did not occur to her.
There was the Trovatore in San Francisco – her first essay at that role, which was not one of her great ones. She had her costumier run up her own costumes, as usual, distrusting house designers. (“What’s wrong with our costume?” wailed a Met flak once. “It’s cheap and vulgar,” said Joan. “Vulgar perhaps, but cheap never!” he replied.) Joan’s costumier apparently thought Trovatore was set in the eighteenth century; in fact, it’s the early fifteenth, and the rest of the costumes reflected this. Too, they were all in blues or browns or a touch of orange. But not Joan: she was in a huge pink farthingale. She did add tremendously to the realism of the second performance (I thought) by remembering to unlock Manrico’s prison before throwing the door wide open. But that was not the moment I best remember from that rather dreary Trovatore. The big moment of shudder that night came during Pavarotti’s “Ah si, ben mio.” The director had him to one side, facing outwards, with Sutherland’s back to us, listening to his every ardent syllable. And she did that. But as she turned towards him, she trod on her long pink underskirt. It was going to be tough to move out of that awkward position, so, imagining that our attention was focused entirely on Luciano’s golden phrases, she took advantage of the quiet to kick the skirt out from under her dress – unaware that, in that lighting and against that brown background, her pink bustled bum was the most eye-catching object in the house, and her every gesture in it was being shoved into our faces.
Then there was her Lakmé in Philadelphia. Joan, playing the lovely daughter of the bloodthirsty Hindu high priest but got up to resemble the Rock of Gibraltar as, I assume, a tribute to the majesty of the British Empire, sang the piss out of the Bell Song and was rewarded with minute after minute of hysteria. On and on it went, longer than the aria. And she was on her knees, and no doubt they were unhappy. At last she looked at us and broke tableau with a gesture: “Oh calm it down, girls,” she might almost have been saying. “It’s just me, you know, and I’m not going to sing it again.” We laughed. She was a pal. It was her moment. Victoria de los Angeles, observing Sutherland on TV, once remarked, “You just look at her and you know she would be such a chum.”
And then there was her final Lucia at the Met – the one captured on video. This is unfortunate, as there was (at nearly sixty) a marked falling off. She lowered the Mad Scene a step, for one thing. For another, where in earlier years (I first saw her sing it in 1970 and 1971), she had run the hundred-yard dash in and out all over the stage, all while tossing off flawless runs and leaps and trills and variations, in 1985 (was it?) she could only manage about twenty yards of dash. I was in standing room for the first two acts, but as the curtain came down on the sextet (remember when they did the sextet properly, with no stupid photographer to mess it up?), a young couple with, no doubt, suburban trains to catch leaped up from seats in Row B on the aisle and raced to the exit. I got there first, and they gave me their tickets. So there I sat for the Mad Scene with my friend Maaike beside me, marveling at how well Joan acted as well as sang a part she had performed over three hundred times at that point.
Then came the moment. She was staring at us, eyes demented, prepared to sweep down and roulade us to death. And her shawl slipped from her shoulders. Out of character, she looked down, hoisted it to one shoulder, then to the other, then back to look at us, ready to sing, in character – demented. Maaike muttered, “Oh God.” Indeed, theatrical tension has seldom been so entirely dispelled.
I said to Maaike later, “You don’t understand. This is what proves Sutherland is a major actress! If Callas or Sills had dropped the shawl, they’d have let the shawl go hang, and we’d never have seen them kick it away. But Sutherland instinctively realizes that to a really madwoman, dropping your shawl is just as significant as stabbing your groom 29 times on the wedding night. They are equally momentous in her eyes! Sutherland has equated them. She has made Lucia real!” No, I didn’t believe that, but I was very proud of concocting it and have used the story many times as an example of how a true opera devotee will defend his diva against all probability and all sanity.
Perhaps the most impressive feat I’ve ever seen on any stage also involved Sutherland. She sang four Rigolettos at the Met in June, 1972; I got to two of them. Ruggiero Raimondi as Sparafucile awed me then and forever by carrying a sack on his shoulder, a sack containing Joan and while singing lowered it gently to the stage it so that Sherill Milnes (not even trying to lift it) could haul it down front, kick it a few times, and out popped Joan, trilling away. At the later performance, Ivo Vinco sang Sparafucile. He had an attendant ruffian with him to carry the sack.
(to be continued)