A Young Lady's First Time and an Old Dame's Last Hurrah

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On the centennial of Mahler’s death, it seems somewhat appropriate that last night marked the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s tribute to Joan Sutherland, hosted by Marilyn Horne and featuring an array of colleagues including Spiro Malas, Martina Arroyo, Regina Resnik, Sherrill Milnes and Sutherland’s widower (and exclusive conductor) Richard Bonynge.

The evening was mostly lighthearted with fond remembrances of Sutherland as a singer and colleague. However, by the time Marilyn Horne said “I miss my friend” and rolled a clip of Sutherland singing a favorite recital piece, I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls, my eye makeup was working its way down my cheeks.

Opera fans often talk about their first time with wistfulness, nostalgia and romance reserved for describing a first lover. Weathered and unplayable LPs and ancient programs are held onto as proof of that initial, intimate moment when the art form is discovered. For my part, I still have the three laser discs that my grandparents showed me end on end when I was a child. They were Sutherland’s and Bonynge’s 1972-3 series, Who’s Afraid of Opera, a series of works distilled into 30-minute, family-friendly performances with dialogue in English, musical numbers in the original language. To move along the sprawling plots, Sutherland would step out of the performances to speak with three puppet friends—a lion and two goats—who served as a rapt audience to the musical dramas. Most kids had Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, I had Joan Sutherland’s opera box.

There was plenty of '70s kitsch to be sure (especially in an abbreviated version of “Seigneur, daignez permettre” from Faust that featured Mephistopheles’s disembodied head, though admittedly in 1989 this terrified me to no end). But some of these performances show Sutherland at her finest. There’s a chilling mad scene from Lucia, a sublime “Caro Nome” in Rigoletto and a delectable “Una voce poco fa” in Barber of Seville. Most curiously, out of the eight operas produced in this series—which also included La Fille du Regiment and La Traviata—two relatively unknown works accompanied the warhorses and gave Sutherland the opportunity to separately show off her unfathomable coloratura and comic chops: Thomas’s Mignon and Offenbach’s La Périchole.

For me and my impressionable toddler’s mind, it was the unexpectedness that drew me to Sutherland above all other sopranos. On one side of the laser disc, she would be hamming it up as a tomboyish soldier and on the other she would be delivering a gut-wrenching death scene as Violetta Valèry. She didn’t limit herself to the warhorses but, alongside Bonynge, explored and expanded repertoire from Handel to Rossini to Massenet. Much in the way parents expand the picky palates of their children by adding a favorite ingredient to a foreign dish, I could listen to even the most obscure and unfamiliar works as a child if they starred my Joan.

Her shortcomings, which would have rung a death knell for other singers, made her all the more compelling. In my grandparent’s basement, while my mother was completing her OB/GYN residency, I was learning about how one human body could contain—as Sherrill Milnes described it last night—a “dome of sound.” To my grandfather, I would point out how she towered over her tenor partners like Ian Caley, André Turp, Ramon Remedios and John Brecknock. “That’s so she can reach the high notes,” he would respond.

I never got to see Sutherland live. By the time I started going to the opera in New England and New York, she was retiring from the stage worlds away in Sydney and London. And while I disagree with the notion that one cannot truly appreciate opera if they weren’t around to see the “Greats” in performance, I do regret never being able to experience that all-enveloping sound in person. As I moved into arts journalism, I hoped for the chance to interview her, a sort of full circle from the countless afternoons I spent on a couch in Rhode Island obsessively watching Larry Berthelson’s puppets—Sir William, Rudy and Billy—journey with Joan through Rossini and Gounod.

When my grandfather had a stroke in 2009, I flew from my then-home Los Angeles to Rhode Island and sat by his bed, telling him stories about Sutherland from her biography and, in my own faltering and untrained voice, singing him lines from Verdi and Donizetti. Like Sutherland, he had a dry sense of humor: When, in his nursing home, I showed him my tattoo—the first line of Valentin’s aria from Faust—he said, “You couldn’t have picked something from Lucia?” I made it up to him by slipping a page from the sheet music to “Spargi d’amaro pianto” into his shirt pocket prior to his funeral.

Ironically, I was also on a red-eye from LAX to JFK when Sutherland passed away, just a few days after what would have been my grandfather’s birthday (the first since his passing). Getting home at around 10 am, I blearily checked my Facebook. Unable to focus on the words, I scanned pictures and YouTube links, noticing that they all seemed to feature La Stupenda. Oh no, I thought. Oh no…

In an introduction to the Who’s Afraid of Opera version of La Traviata, the old puppet Sir William tells his young nephew that “Heroines of great love stories never die as long as people go on telling their stories.” For many love stories between listeners and opera, Sutherland was that heroine. At Town Hall last night, on the same stage where Sutherland made her New York debut, her story lived on.

Opera fans: Who was your first? Leave your reminiscences in the comments below.