Joan Sutherland died. =…(
I’m so sad! I just knew this would happen soon. Ever since I was informed of her gardening accident during my run of Daughter of the Regiment, I just knew it didn’t look good. I really, really wanted to interview her for Classical Singer, but didn’t know how to get ahold of her or anyone who worked for her. I asked a conductor I’d worked with who knew her- actually I think I asked him twice, if he had any leads, any idea who to ask, and he never got back to me. I mean, since she wasn’t singing anymore, she didn’t have a whole team of agents and managers and PR people that I could go through. I’m not saying I exhausted my resources- I probably could have called the press office at the Met and asked them what I should do, but I’ve had bad luck with them in the past, when I had legitimate reasons for them to call me back- I didn’t imagine I would have better luck asking them to help out just as a favor. (That said, I did once call Opera News with a random question and they were awesome about it and helped me out.)
It was just- I knew the end was approaching, and she was really, really, truly, one of the greats. Of ALL TIME. Like, top 5 on probably any list. And I just wanted to get her words for young singers. I knew she would have amazing things to say. But, no contacts were forthcoming in my initial inquiries, so I put it on the back burner until something seemed to come up, which it never did, and now it’s too late.
Joan Sutherland- she was a problem. A big problem for people like me- for sopranos everywhere, really.
It’s not just in a generic way, like “she was so good no one could live up to her.” I mean, there are plenty of other singers you could ostensibly say that about, but no, they didn’t ruin soprano’s lives the way Dame Joan did.
See, we opera singers, and ESPECIALLY we sopranos, are divided up into different “Fachs” or categories of voice types, which correspond to the roles we sing. You can have a big loud voice, or you can have a luscious pretty voice, or, if you’re like me, you can have a really high voice that does stunts.
The casting directors used to have to choose.
Then Sutherland happened. She had all of those things. She had a big, loud, luscious, pretty, high voice that did stunts.
And then the maestri, the artistic directors, the public- they didn’t have to choose anymore. Now the sound they heard in their minds’ ears when they pictured a coloratura was larger, richer- and still with extreme high notes and flawless coloratura. Why should they settle for a cute little voice, when there were people like Joan out there?
Of course, she was the only Sutherland, but I’ve always felt that there was a shift there. That she single-handedly ended the era that featured Lily Pons and Amelita Galli-Curci. Of course I’m over-simplifying and scape-goating, but that was how it was explained to me as a music student, and it stayed with me. It was the “reason people don’t want to hire you to sing bel canto.” And it’s pretty much held true- to this date I have starred in only one bel canto opera, La Fille du Régiment- and that’s sort of an exception, it is more traditionally associated with sprightly coloraturas than, say, Sonnambula or Puritani. Plus, it’s in French, for which I have a leg up over other American sopranos.
She screwed things up for larger voices too- the bar had been raised. Sutherland can sing insanely fast and flawless coloratura, why can’t YOU?
So I hated Joan Sutherland. Except you can’t. She’s too awesome.
On the surface, she never made my short list of favorite singers. Besides having a bone to pick with her about my career (being a small-voiced coloratura), I tend to gravitate towards singers I can relate to on a musical level- people with voices more akin to my own. My CD players during my musical formative years were stocked with Lily Pons, Amelita Galli-Curci, Beverly Sills, Sumi Jo- people who were not mistaken for Wagner singers early in their careers. But the truth is, I never sang one of Sutherland’s roles without consulting her recording. OK, without buying her recording and listening to it over and over and over again because it’s so great you can’t tear yourself away.
To me and to probably more sopranos than anyone else, Sutherland represented the unattainable ideal. And she maintained this position with distinct imperfections. Most obviously, her diction. One – two?- of my voice teachers, trying to kick my legato in the ass, used to say, “You don’t have to get that hung up on pronunciation. Look at Sutherland- nobody ever understood a word she sang, and it didn’t stop her!” She was not commended for her acting abilities- and is one of the singers you know are being referred to whenever someone complains about how “opera singers of yesterday couldn’t act.” And her looks- being tall is great for models but bad for sopranos, as it leaves you towering over your often-shorter tenor. Plus she had a huge, wide jaw that made her a bit odd-looking. Of course many who fell in love with her voice fell in love with her face as well.
So, Dame Joan in Heaven (you get to keep your titles when you get your harp and wings, right?) a sarcastic “thank you” for making my career more difficult than it already is, and a heartfelt “thank you” for being the greatest soprano of our lifetime.
Now’s the part where I obligatorily paste a YouTube video. There are a couple going around today, her Lucia, her Norma- I’m more of a Lucia-lover, and since so many of my readers are not opera people, this clip shows everything that’s amazing about her.