Dame Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)

Dame Joan Sutherland has died at her home in Switzerland. I wrote a little about my love affair with her voice here. For me, as for many, hers was the voice. What a legacy of beauty and joy she has left us. Here she is, from the treasure trove of material you can find on YouTube, singing ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ from Lucia di Lammermoor, recorded live at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1959–the beginning… Updated: the Covent Garden video is gone from YouTube, so here’s another splendid rendition:

And here’s her farewell to the same stage:

Saturday Afternoon at the Opera

I’ve been an opera lover at least since I was five years old, when I received this LP of highlights from the Sutherland-Bergonzi La Traviata as a birthday present. Of course, I must have been primed for this gift by hearing opera around the house: both of my parents are also opera lovers, and my father in particular cherished the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts. One of my first school writing projects was a guide to Lucia di Lammermoor; see my pithy summary of Act III? A major life highlight was going backstage at the Vancouver Opera to meet La Stupenda in person–hence the personalized autograph on the record cover, which is one of the items I would probably take risks for in the event of a fire. I was nine at the time and so overwhelmed by the event that I completely blew off Richard Bonynge, who very courteously hailed me as we progressed down the corridor and offered his autograph as well. “OK, if you want,” was my careless reply–but I suppose he was accustomed to being Mr. Joan Sutherland by then. (Clearly recognizing his place in my pantheon, he signed the back of the record.)

Predictably, as a teenager I did rebel for a while, not so much against opera, as against other people’s interest in it: I remember sulking about the need to tip-toe around on Saturday afternoons and being obstreperous about being put in charge of recording the occasional broadcast when my parents had to be out. But I (we!) got through that phase, and then I started working part-time at a classical music store, where my operatic know-how was actually an asset (mandatory brush-with-celebrity anecdote: when Goldie Hawn came in the shop–she and Mel Gibson were in town filming Bird on a Wire–I helped her pick out the Bjoerling-de los Angeles La Boheme when she said she was looking for something gorgeous). Initially I was ‘hired’ to do inventory for specific record labels, for which I was ‘paid’ in store credits. My parents are currently storing the archive of LP box sets I accumulated before I was promoted to minimum wage and starting saving money instead.

When, as a university student, I moved into my own apartment, one thing that came with me was the Saturday afternoon ritual. I still have, as a matter of fact, a stash of cassette tapes of broadcasts from that period, including a superb Rigoletto with June Anderson as Gilda. But I reached the pinnacle of my opera-loving career when, as a graduate student at Cornell, I had season tickets to the Met, for the Saturday afternoon performances, no less. I was able to do this because my sister was living in Mamaroneck (you NY types will know just where that is on the Northern Line), so I could take the long bus trip across the Catskills (coming from BC, I didn’t recognize them as mountains the first time) and stay with her for the weekend. I’m not sure there’s a better feeling than coming out of Grand Central Station knowing that you have all morning to roam the city and all afternoon to spend at Lincoln Center–even if it was about $10 to get a coffee at intermission.

Now I live in a city without a full-scale opera company, though our music department puts on some small-scale productions, and now we too are the beneficiaries of the brilliant live broadcasts from the Met. I haven’t been to one here yet, though: apparently the demand is so strong you have to show up at least a couple of hours in advance, and Saturdays are typically busy enough for working parents. Having children of my own, in fact, has changed my understanding of what those broadcasts must have meant to my parents: like reading, listening (at least in any serious way) becomes a rare thing when your children are small. That said, our children too are growing up with opera. We used to soothe–or at least distract–our son after baths (which for some reason he found very traumatic as an infant) by getting out my beloved books of opera songs for voice and piano and going through our favorites as loudly as we could, and my daughter has already sat by and comforted me as I sob my way through the Zeffirelli film of La Traviata. Sometimes it’s best, though, when everyone else is out and I can revert to my childish self. Today, as the spring sunshine streamed in the windows, I took The Art of the Prima Donna from the cabinet and spent my own Saturday afternoon happily at the opera.

I know operatic voices are profoundly personal and not everyone loves Sutherland’s rich tone or joyous facility. They are wrong of course, but that’s OK: some of my best friends (my grandmother, even) have been Callas fans. But to my ear, nurtured on her voice from childhood, there’s just nobody else, at least for certain repertoire. (For Puccini, I’m a Price fan, except when I’m a Caballe fan.) Also, I’m not altogether satisfied with this choice of clip, which doesn’t altogether convey the magic. Still,from me to you, through the magic of YouTube, enjoy.

This Week Instead of Radio 2

I promise: I won’t keep obsessing on the evisceration of good programming on CBC Radio 2.* It’s just that I’m still in the “anger” stage of the grieving process for an old friend. Still, as I remarked recently, there is a plus side, which is returning to my stash of old opera tapes. This morning in my car I was blasting a recording of Joan Sutherland, Alfredo Kraus, and James Morris in Lucia live at the Met in 1982. Here’s the Sextet from that production, courtesy of YouTube (a bit scratchy, but you get the idea). Sure, Sutherland (at 56) is past her prime here (next week, maybe I’ll get out my ‘bootleg’ tapes of her 1959 Covent Garden performance), but she still handles the trills and ornaments better than pretty much anybody else, and she knocks the big high notes right out of the House. Plus the excitement of performances like this comes in part from the tremendous appreciation expressed by the audience: I think I enjoy the applause almost as much as the singing (sadly, the YouTuber cuts it off). I have been listening to Lucia for many years and know almost all the words, including to the Mad Scene, and another fun feature of listening to it in my car is singing along in the security that nobody can actually hear me–my childhood dreams of being an opera singer came to less than nothing, but I can croak “Il fantasma, il fantasma” with the best of them.


*It’s not that I like only classical music and opera. My own playlists include plenty of jazz, rock, pop, Broadway, folk, and ‘world,’ especially Greek and Balkan music. But I can get other kinds of music anywhere else on the radio (and often more listenable stuff than what I’m catching when I flip past CBC these days), and I don’t mash them all up into one jarringly unpredictable playlist.