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Classical Music Community Pays Tribute to Joan Sutherland

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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!