Classical Music Community Pays Tribute to Joan Sutherland

Monday, October 11, 2010

Matthew Horner, Vice President and Artist Manager at IMG Artists:

Dame Joan was the very reason I started listening to opera in the first place. I cannot say adequately what an impact she had on me.

I was a teenage violinist in Western PA and thought opera was fairly stupid stuff (I had seen Barbiere and Fledermaus only).  My mother had a record from the library of duets from Norma and Semiramide, and on a lark I put in on.  It was a Saul on the road to Damascus moment - I went crazy.  I couldn't believe opera and singing could be so virtuosic.  I fell into absolute diva worship which has continued to today.  Marilyn would later become my professional mentor and remains a great friend.

I saw Dame Joan sing Fille and Norma and a number of concerts in both NY and Washington, DC. The voice was still dazzling even in her early 60s. I met her only once thanks to Marilyn [Horne]. I went on and on about how I owed my career to her, her singing, artistry, technique and the usual blabbering that a besotted fan engages in.  With characteristic candor she said "happy to have launched you dear -- let's have a drink." I was in heaven.

It was in every way because of Dame Joan that I have this career and the immense privilege to work in this miraculous art form. Her equal will never be known.


Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera:

Joan Sutherland was one of the greatest sopranos to ever sing at the Met. I remember being enthralled by her duets with Marilyn Horne in Norma when I was a teenage usher. I was also in the house for a New Year's Eve performance of La Fille du Regiment in 1972, where she was joined by Pavarotti. Those performances helped me to fall in love with opera.


Michael Benchetrit, Vice President, CAMI Vocal:

What can I say?  I don't think Joan Sutherland's historic impact can be overestimated. In the beginning of her career, she was lucky to benefit from the visionary and invaluable help of her husband Richard Bonynge, who had the knowledge of Baroque, Romantic Bel Canto and late Romantic French repertoires, as well as the ability to "create" a new breed of an artist in his wife; someone who was fearlessly able to sing some of the most demanding vocal music ever written. They were also living in an age where a record company like Decca could take chances and record pieces like Graun's "Montezuma" or Bononcini's "Griselda" (even if these were just excerpts).

Of course, some will say that Callas had shown the way, which is very true, but the Bonynges took it a step further by performing the works Callas had helped unearth perhaps in a more truthful way (uncut versions, a serious study of ornamentation and performance practice, etc.). Without Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, who knows whether the Rossini and Donizetti renaissances would have taken place?

To discuss Joan Sutherland's career is to bring up a singer of historic importance. Her big breakthrough in a performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor" at Covent Garden in 1959 paved the way for better (i.e., more accurate) performances of that repertoire. As I said, Callas showed the way, but Callas' example was unique and simply could not be repeated without risking to turn into a parody. What Joan Sutherland showed was how to do that repertoire justice without having to attempt to mimic the superhuman artistic abilities of a Callas -- not to diminish her immense talent in any way! For instance, I believe that the performances of a June Anderson (to name one singer) in the 80s and 90s were directly inspired by the work done by Joan Sutherland, even if these ladies were extremely different artists.

And I think that many, many more generations of singers will be able to benefit from Joan Sutherland's example thanks to her numerous recordings and the incredible standards she was able to maintain until the very end of her career.

I wish I had some personal memories to share with you, but my only ones pertain to Marilyn Horne stopping traffic on West 66th Street, so that she could open her limo's window and could introduce me to Dame Joan, or the way she was so incredibly gracious to Nicole Cabell the night she won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2005. She was a great Lady on top of being a supreme Artist and we are fortunate to have had her make our lives richer with her art.


Midge Woolsey, WQXR Host:

As a young coloratura, I idolized Joan Sutherland.  I listened to her recordings over, and over and over again. The ones I remember most vividly are those that I worked on as a student -- Bishop's setting of Shakespeare's 'Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark', 'Let the Bright Seraphim' from Handel's Samson, 'Caro Nome' from Verdi's Rigoletto and the Doll's Aria from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann.  

What fascinated me most was the way she was able to move seamlessly from register to register. Being able to hit high notes is one thing. But, flying up into the stratosphere and coming back down smoothly is altogether something else.  Sutherland's voice stretched up and back and up and back like a supple rubber band. She made it sound as easy as falling off a log.  

Joan Sutherland's talent was real and her gift very, very special. She served the world of classical music tirelessly throughout her career and her fans were the lucky beneficiaries.


Marlena Malas, Voice Teacher, Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music

My ears as a teacher were trained by trained by her sound. She and Luciano [Pavarotti]. She was very instrumental in what I believe in and how I teach. She really changed the emphasis of singing when she appeared on the scene. It was a return to the Golden Age of singing. She affected so many singers, teachers, musicians. She's somebody we'll never see again. It's the end of an era.

She was of the school of beautiful singing that had great communication and great ease and quality of sound all the time. That was her whole life. Ricky [her husband, Richard Bonynge] was very instrumental in letting this come to fruition. He played for her when she was a student. They found this wonderful voice. First she was a mezzo and they were experimenting and he kept taking her up higher and higher and this came to pass. Before Joan, all coloraturas were smaller in stature and I think this was something quite new for the people she auditioned for - that she was able to do these extraordinary feats with her voice, always with ease and beauty. We have her recordings and videos and hopefully people will listen and learn from them.


James Jorden, Editor,

She was definitely not the negative stereotype of the prima donna. She was very rarely sick, or at least very rarely let on that she was sick, and she canceled so rarely that I think being "at" a Sutherland cancellation would count as a legendary event! I think though she may not have had a natural diva mentality, she was canny enough to listen and obey a lot of suggestions from Richard Bonynge, who does absolutely have that sensibility of what constitutes a great lady of the theater. And if that included wearing 40-pound velvet coutumes trimmed in sable in Houston in the middle of the summer, well -- that was part of the job, and you never heard complaining!


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Comments [8]

Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

SUTHERLAND, whose original interest was in performing Brunnhildes was convinced by her future husband Maestro Richard Bonynge, that she could contribute far more to the music scene as a dramatic coloratura, rescueing baroque and bel canto operas as had Maria Callas, to present masterworks where the VOICE was the prime interest, not the mise en scene total theater, represented by the Romantic Age and Verismo. Without a doubt Sutherland had the biggest soprano coloratura voice that we can judge from performances and recordings. Ever, the comedian when the occasion would permit, she told of when she was getting her passport renewed in Australia, the clerk asked for her identification. She told the clerk, 'Everyone knows me here, I'm Joan Sutherland. She had no ID on her and no one in the office ever heard of her. "If they don't know me here, where would they know me" To say that she was angry and peeved beyond words would be an understatement. But, she was also amused.
Luckily, video and sound-only recordings will keep generations of music lovers appreciative of her gorgeous, generous voicing of a wide "rep."

Oct. 14 2010 11:54 AM
Pat Volini

Although I saw Dame Joan perform at the Met a handful of times, the performance that stands out most in my mind was when I saw her at the Sydney Opera House around 1984. She played a supporting, rather than the lead role in “Dialogue of the Carmelites”. It was so interesting to see her “blend in”, rather than stand out. Of course at the end, she was singled out by the audience by a showing of enormous love and appreciation! What a great voice!

Oct. 14 2010 09:21 AM
Eugene Robinson from Phila Pa

On April 18 1962 I was lucky enough to attend "La Sonnambula" with Dame Joan, an opera and composer I had no clue about and was floored with truley great singing because to me, opera is all about the singing! Then in '63 it was "I Puritani" another new one. The usher said to me that ntie "Remember this nite, you may never hear another nite like it". He was an usher at the Academy of Music in Phila for 40 years and said this was one of the top THREE!

Oct. 13 2010 11:50 AM
Sam Goodyear from Millburn, New Jersey

I was a lowly sergeant stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas, during the Vietnam war.

It could have been worse for in the spring of 1971 the Cow Palace at the State Fairgrounds in Dallas was packed, packed, packed. Not with cows, but with opera-lovers breathless with anticipation at the 2:00 PM Saturday performance of Bellini’s “Norma” by the Metropolitan Opera. I had been reading reviews of the production as it toured the country and when I learned that it was coming to Texas I wrote away for a ticket with lightning speed. After all, I had never heard Joan Sutherland (along with Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti, thank you very much) but I had heard enough about her to know that this was an opportunity not to be missed.

At 1:58, a gentleman appeared in front of the curtain to make an announcement. A shudder of apprehension went through the two thousand patrons.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Miss Sutherland…”

A collective groan wheezed through the hall.

“…is in good voice and will be performing as scheduled this afternoon. In the role of-”

The relief! The buzz! The chatter! Neither the ailing unknown singer’s name nor that of his understudy penetrated the joyful hubbub. Who cared? Who came for the boring bits, anyway?

“We want Joan! We want Joan! Go, Joan, go! Let’s hear it for Joan! Gimme a J! Gimme an O! Gimme an A! Gimme an N! Waddaya got? JOAN!”

Not that there was anything of the sort, but the fervor was not unlike that of the Super Bowl or the World Series: rabid, passionate, ecstatic.

The lights dimmed at last and for the next three hours I was transfixed by some of the most beautiful music ever written, sung by the supreme artist of my lifetime. Not only did Joan Sutherland possess unearthly gifts of sound and musicality, she possessed a rare spirit of generosity and humility as well, unlike a “rival” of Greek extraction to whom she was often compared. (Rival, my eye. Joan Sutherland was an artist in the purest sense of the word, a servant of Art, humbly sharing what was given her with those who wanted and appreciated it. The other was so centered on herself, as I see it, that Art went by the boards. But far be it from me to name names…)

The music soared and billowed. Arias, duets, trios, choruses undulated from the stage like a mighty ocean. The applause was deafening. People regretted not bringing blankets for the chills and towels for the tears. They cheered and stamped their feet. Emerging from the theater, they were convinced that perhaps earthly existence wasn’t so bad after all, not if an infusion of exaltation like that was available once in a lifetime.

Oct. 12 2010 10:34 AM
Marjan Kiepura from New Hampshire

I was very saddened by this news. I met Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge after her farewell concert at Avery Fisher Hall some years ago. It was one of those events one never forgets. But not because it was a “farewell” concert – but rather for her artistry, the pauses, the breathing, and the exquisite taste that she brought to everything she sang. And Richard Bonynge was a superb and loving collaborator.

Ms. Sutherland commented to me that she and her husband had been influenced after seeing my parents, Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura, singing "The Merry Widow" at London’s Palace Theater in 1954. She subsequently made a CD of operetta arias and referred to my parents in her book. My mother adored her singing and went to the Met many times to hear her.

She had a generous spirit and was a totally delightful individual.

Oct. 12 2010 08:59 AM
Bernie Hughes from Bridgewater, NH

I first became acquainted with Joan Sutherland in 1966 when I purchased an LP album of Semiramide. I still have that album and on occasion play it. I consider it to be one of my treasures.

Oct. 12 2010 06:58 AM
Elizabeth Creed Sutaria

I remember the first time I can recall hearing Joan Sutherland's voice was
in a Saturday afternoon WQXR broadcast from the Met when I was 14.
She sang a duet with Marilyn Horne and the luscious sounds of those two
voices made me want to listen to
more opera-which I have for the past 50
years!Thankfully videos of her
performances are available--but she
will be greatly missed!

Oct. 11 2010 07:56 PM
Robert Huemmer from North Babylon, New York

The first time I heard Joan live was in the MET production of I Puritani. She was behind a scrim (supposedly in the chapel). I was hooked.
In my early days of going to the MET(late 70's or early 80's), I took the backstage tour. Our very knowledgeable docent had brought to the bowels of the house where the costume shops, photos studios et al. were located. All of a sudden, she stopped dead in her tracks. She lined us up against a wall like a nun ordering a group of 4th graders. We were told to be quiet. I thought Queen Elizabeth II or the pope was coming. It was of course our beloved Joan. She saw the group and responded with "Hi, everybody!"

Oct. 11 2010 06:49 PM

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