Remembering 'La Stupenda'
When I was an assistant stage manager with New Orleans Opera back in the early ‘80s, the resident scenic designer was a fervent fan of soprano Joan Sutherland. More than a fan, actually. David was obsessed.
He loved to tell the story about how he got recruited by the Memphis Opera to oversee the designs for a production of Verdi's La traviata. Portraying the heroine was none other than the Australian diva herself, and David set off for Tennessee pulling a U-Haul trailer crammed with Sutherland memorabilia.
After meeting Sutherland, David told her he had some items he wished her to autograph. "But of course," she replied. "Where are they?" He led her outside to the garage and revealed the contents of the trailer. Sutherland surveyed the amassed treasures and suggested they divide her autographing activity into two separate sessions. By the time David left Memphis, every single memento had been inscribed with care.
As I think about Sutherland’s death Sunday at age 83 at her home in Switzerland, my mind returns again and again to this story because it reflects so many of the qualities that made her special. Being an opera singer was never just a job for Sutherland. It was a calling, a way of life that demanded absolute dedication both on and off the stage.
With Sutherland, the show didn't end when the curtain fell. It continued right through to a personal audience with her fans backstage. She stayed until every single person had been heard and acknowledged, graciously thanking them for their support.
Sutherland was always mindful that the vast majority of her fans were not rich patrons but persons of limited means who made personal and financial sacrifices to attend her performances. She rarely canceled a performance, even if it meant singing through physical or emotional pain.
This extraordinary integrity helped her transcend any number of early barriers. Her mother was her first voice teacher, and she introduced young Joan to old recordings of various Golden Age singers. An extremely tall woman with a prominently square jaw, Sutherland hardly resembled Lily Pons, Grace Moore or any of the other glamorous sopranos of her generation.
Sutherland would eventually meet Richard Bonynge, a fellow music student who not only took command of her vocal instruction but also reinvented her in his own image. After migrating to London with Bonynge, Sutherland was pegged by the administration of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as a Wagnerian singer. But that booming repertoire took little advantage of her singular talent.
Bonynge fostered her innate gift for the florid writing of Baroque and bel canto composers he adored but were not then in vogue. Sutherland once said that her legendary trill was never taught but something she learned to imitate at a young age. Bonynge refined this instinctive ability through rigorous training, introducing her to operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti that would become her bread and butter.
All the elements for success aligned perfectly in 1959, when Covent Garden decided to mount a new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for Sutherland. Franco Zeffirelli staged the production, with the elderly Italian maestro Tullio Serafin conducting. Zeffirelli exploited her capacity for hard work and critical feedback to maximum effect, transforming a self-conscious, dowdy woman into a confident stage figure of fascination and dramatic power. Serafin imparted the stylistic secrets of a repertoire that had fallen into neglect long ago.
From these men, she acquired a thirst for the life-long pursuit of artistic excellence that sustained a 30-year international career. That first performance of Lucia catapulted her into the international limelight and the Donizetti opera would serve as her calling card throughout the operatic world -- including La Scala, where she was dubbed "La Stupenda."
Bonynge became Sutherland's exclusive conductor, and the "package deal" nature of their contracts became a point of criticism for the couple. Other complaints concerned her insistence on performing with familiar but less able colleagues. Yet it was hard to argue with the results: Few artists have delivered performances of such consistent excellence as Sutherland.
For opera lovers of a certain age, Sutherland represents an ethos that simply doesn't exist anymore. She is the epitome of a singer as gateway to catharsis, the portal to transcendence.
At the tender age of 8, I would check out as many of her LPs as the New Orleans Public Library would allow and tote them home for repeated listening. What was dazzling then remains so today: the magical trill, the effortless coloratura, the ringing high notes, the ability to move an enormous voice rapidly through intricate, delicate music. I may not have a trailer of memorabilia, but I, and countless other music lovers worldwide, have something even more valuable: cherished memories of truly stupendous singing.