October 2009


Curtain call

By Peter Conrad
Curtain call

Dame Joan Sutherland at Covent Garden, 1980. Photograph by Alan Davidson. © Getty Images.

Joan Sutherland

“I’m a big strong girl,” I remember Joan Sutherland saying to me in 1974. At the time, she was stoutly lugging a baggage train of costume hampers, hatboxes and suitcases into Lisbon Airport, which was under armed guard after the revolution a few days earlier that toppled Portugal’s senile fascist regime. She had been singing La Traviata in the city and was now – among a mob of trapped tourists and bourgeois fugitives from Bolshevism, all herded along by soldiers with machine-guns – trying to get home to Switzerland. I had met her at a dinner after a performance the week before, and was startled to find her alone in the chaotic scrum at the airport, re-opened hours before by the military junta that now ran the country.

With the connivance of an airline official, her husband Richard Bonynge had caught the first flight out to London; the diva was left behind with their impedimenta, the tiles and rugs they had bought as souvenirs, and also – as she told me on a later occasion – with the fees they had been paid in wads of cash, which she had stashed in every available hiding place. She demonstrated her strength by spurning my offer of help and kicking a hamper ahead of her on the rainy pavement outside the terminal.

April showers drenched us as the nervous queue inched along. “Ah well,” beamed Sutherland, “perhaps I’ll get a cold!” She was delighted by the prospect, which would have given her an excuse for cancelling a spring tour with the Metropolitan Opera. But the chilly downpour did her no harm: strength and health were what Sutherland radiated, despite the mental frailty or tubercular feebleness of the heroines she portrayed. This sturdy, unexceptional-looking woman breathed in and, when she exhaled, sparked off galaxies of sound that blazed in the air like the fireworks set off inside the auditorium at the Sydney Opera House on the night she retired in 1990.

Her jaunty comments came back to me this July when the 82-year-old Sutherland re-appeared in Britain, a year after falling in her garden and breaking both her legs. When she turned up for a performance of Roberto Devereux conducted by Bonynge at Holland Park Opera in London, she was discreetly pushed into place in a wheelchair; at the last night of the Singer of the World competition in Cardiff, she bravely shuffled a few feet onto the stage while clutching the arm of a retainer, then with evident relief sank into a seat to present the prizes. Without the puffballs of bright red bouffant hair she sported in her heyday, without those bulging Victorian crinolines that gave her the turning circle of a small truck when she rollicked through the singing lesson in La Fille du Régiment or chased the sound of an imaginary flute in the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, above all without the superhuman voice, she seemed like a mummified version of herself – shrunken, squeezed dry, as if about to disappear leaving only an echo behind.

Age is unkind to us all, but it’s especially cruel to performers. Athletes rely on their limbs to prove their prowess; opera singers, even more precariously, practise an art that depends on two tenuous bits of gristle lodged like a tuning fork in the back of the throat. They are all held hostage by their bodies, which is why the goals they kick or the high Cs they hit are so existentially encouraging, demonstrating to the rest of us that physical limits can, at least for a while, be triumphantly transgressed.

With her battler’s stoicism, Sutherland probably would not share my wistfulness about past glories. In 2002, discussing her retirement with Martin Kettle of the Guardian, she dismissed decrepitude with a shrug: “It was sheer physical burnout. You grow old. The machinery wears down. Just like your refrigerator.” Performance is ephemeral, and performers leave a legacy that can be blown away by the wind: they depend on the fickle memories of those who witnessed them in action, and it’s not only old soldiers who need to be commemorated, lest we forget their achievements. Sutherland, however, was resigned to oblivion. Arranging a rendezvous with Kettle, she worried when he suggested meeting at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The theatre had been rebuilt, and would she be able to find the stage door? Might some officious juvenile receptionist turn her away? “I don’t really think anyone remembers me there now,” she said. Luckily that turned out to be untrue, and she had to fend off clusters of nostalgic autograph-seekers in the corridors.

Half a century has now passed since Sutherland first sang Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden, transforming herself overnight – according to the theatrical legend – from a plodding workhorse into the most truly astral of stars. To mark the anniversary, her 1971 recording of the opera has been re-released in a limited edition, with a bonus disc of excerpts recorded in 1959 and 1961 (Decca 478 1513). The CD booklet lists her 223 appearances in the part and illustrates them in a gallery of photographs from productions in London, Venice and Hamburg: here you have Lucia miserably led to her forced marriage or rampaging in her gory nightie later that night, and Sutherland at a curtain call, facing up to a roaring ovation that rushes towards her like a breaking wave. Nothing can reproduce the impact her voice had when heard live – its unforced amplitude, the dizzy ease with which it vaulted upwards, the way you held your breath while listening to her sculpt air into arabesques – but the documentary evidence is a precious substitute.

In the little anthology of performances sampled in the CD set, you can hear Sutherland’s Lucia evolving, and the changes the character undergoes fill in the modest, unintrospective soprano’s autobiography. The 1959 scenes, recorded in Paris to capitalise on her London success, have an ingenuous freshness that is true to the naivety of Walter Scott’s Lucy in The Bride of Lammermoor, the novel on which Donizetti’s opera is based. You sense that Sutherland is hardly able to believe what is happening to her: when Lucia confesses her prohibited longings, the voice is at first shyly subdued, not daring to enunciate the character’s fantasies. After she carves up her unwanted husband on their wedding night, the mad scene is eerily bird-like, all guilt and disgust melodically purified. Insanity is the excuse for lyrical acrobatics, and the young singer is free to express herself because reality has no hold on the character she portrays.

By 1961, the record company had begun to merchandise Sutherland as the re-incarnation of fabled nineteenth-century prima donnas, and Bonynge was spending their petty cash on operatic relics: early portraits of the sopranos for whom Donizetti and Bellini composed, crowns and stage jewellery worn by his wife’s more recent predecessors. Absorbed into this history, Sutherland’s Lucia is now a heroine from the age of romanticism, as imperiously wishful as Jane Eyre. She endlessly elongates the word “Ascolta!”, meaning “Listen!”, when she tells her attendant the legend of the ghost at the fountain: this is the soprano setting out to entrance her auditors, giving notice that something uncannily wonderful will occur when the voice escapes from its prison of flesh and starts to paint the night sky. There is a shimmering haze around the tone, a lunar glow of reverie that replaces the bright wonder you hear in the tracks from 1959.

A decade later, when Sutherland recorded the complete opera for a second time, the sound is more matronly and bosomy, but the top notes are flashy and forthright as never before – perhaps her competitive response to Pavarotti’s presence in the cast. Here and there she finds details innocuously lurking in the score that she can play new games with, twisting the notes into curlicues or constructing suspension-bridges made of breath between one phrase and the next. Even the mannerisms are to be treasured. Those strangely mutated vowels, or a legato line that has always sounded to me like the Australian drawl in excelsis, are the imprint of a personal style; they announce her ownership of the role, and almost set her up as Donizetti’s co-author. The tenor Chris Merritt once told me about being onstage with Sutherland during a passage of florid vocal exhibitionism when her memory momentarily failed her. “I couldn’t believe what she did,” Merritt said. “She looked uncertain for a couple of seconds, then she just kept going, making it up on the spot. She was composing the music, right there beside me!” Interpretative embellishments kept on being added to Sutherland’s Lucia. In performances I heard her give in New York in 1982 and London in 1985, she seemed to be discovering the part all over again, challenging herself to perform marvels with diminished vocal resources and presenting Lucia as a traumatised victim whose coloratura was the sound of hysteria.

Sutherland will always be synonymous with Lucia, but that shouldn’t obscure her achievements in very different music. When I watch her in the DVD of the Sydney Opera House production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, the free-floating lyrical rapture of her singing tells me what it must be like to go hang-gliding: can this buoyant, rippling breeze really be produced by a pair of human lungs? And my favourite snippet of Sutherland is an invitation to jollity and rejoicing, remote from the moony desperation of Lucia and her mad sisters. The piece comes from Auber’s comic opera Fra Diavolo, and in it the effervescent heroine looks forward to her marriage and describes the celebratory clatter of the tambourines. Sutherland’s trills are tuned giggles, the fibrillation of a contagious happiness. I heard her sing the piece in a concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1988, and carried the glow of recollected pleasure around with me for days afterwards; her recording still serves as an infallible tonic when I’m miserable. The words of the aria promise that music can dispel all our sufferings, and for a few minutes Sutherland makes you believe it.

Since her only competition was her past self, Sutherland set out every night to justify her reputation and earn her applause. I interviewed her in Sydney for the Observer a few days before her farewell in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, and during our conversation, she hinted at how agonising it was to spend all those decades executing vocal pirouettes on a tightrope. “In this business,” she said, “you’re only as good as your next performance, you’re not even as good as the last one you gave!” No wonder she was so relieved that the next one was to be the very last, after which she could pass the time as a gardening granny. When she dropped hints about retirement in the 1970s, Bonynge – sounding a bit like the devilish music-master who goads Antonia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann to trill herself to death – told her, “If you’ve got the voice, you’ve got to sing.” That obligation or compulsion was a source of joy but also a burden. Sutherland was an ordinary suburban woman who happened, through no fault of her own, to be a musical genius; she might be called an inverse Dame Edna – not a housewife with delusions of superstardom but a superstar who would just as soon have remained a housewife. At her Sydney farewell she thanked Bonynge for his “spadework”, as if she were a hardy perennial that he, through his vocal training, had kept properly mulched; in the interview with Kettle, she treated herself as a kitchen appliance that could no longer be relied on, due for junking sometime soon.

Her unassuming manner was a camouflage, a very Australian defence against our only too democratic society and its resentment of over-achievement. The act irritated Patrick White, who admired her voice but thought of her as a “prime vulgarian”, an honorary resident of his philistine inferno Sarsparilla. They met only once, at a dinner after a performance of Suor Angelica in Sydney in 1977. Tucking in, Sutherland casually informed White that she hadn’t read any of his books, and made matters worse by adding that she couldn’t put The Thorn Birds down. In revenge White let his eye slide sideways to size up Bonynge, whom he considered “refined, and very handsome”. Yet despite his cattiness, he understood how disingenuous Sutherland’s hearty lowbrow behaviour actually was. In a letter, he called her “a wound-up Ocker Olympia”, referring to the twittering doll who is another of the female victims in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Was Sutherland on that occasion over-wound, wired by nerves, fearful of being judged by someone who had none of her qualms about declaring himself to be an artist? It was an odd moment in Australia’s cultural history, an awkward encounter between a woman whose brash Ocker demeanour covered her stubborn support for British monarchy and a man whose misanthropic abuse of his fellow Australians derived from his republican hatred of subservience. Sutherland was the exile, with her home in tax-free Switzerland and her funds entrusted to offshore companies; White, whose conscience prompted him to return from London a few years before Sutherland went there to make her name, was the unappreciated patriot.

No matter how affable Sutherland appeared, Lucia’s bloody shift became her: no one can have a career like hers without being something of a killer. Her benign mask mostly stayed in place, but it sometimes slipped when she observed the PR-fuelled rise of the Brooklyn songstress Beverly Sills, who at the New York City Opera in the 1970s challenged Sutherland’s monopoly of roles like Lucia. I once made the mistake of mentioning the City Opera to Sutherland, whose face instantly grew a crust of frost. “So you’re a fan of Miss Sills?” she asked, in a tone that had no emollient music in it. She listened as I made some disparaging remarks about the upstart, and decided to overlook my lapse.

Singing voices disclose and perhaps elicit deep truths about the characters of their owners. We can control the voices we speak with because they originate in the throat; the singing voice comes from ulterior regions, and doesn’t find it so easy to tell lies. It takes the whole body to produce it, from the anchoring diaphragm to the resonant cavities in the head, and it expresses what might be called the soul, or perhaps the id, of the singer. A voice as altitudinous as Sutherland’s – higher than anyone else’s, swelling as it soared rather than chirping or pecking at those impossible notes – clearly had a competitive edge, a determination to over-top all comers. She had a predictably scratchy relationship with another soprano who enjoyed dominion in a very different repertory. Her antagonist was Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish Wagnerian whose voice slashed through the air like a sabre. Sutherland skipped up the scale to reach the stratosphere; Nilsson seemed to stride into the air when she sang, producing a sound with a focused force that could be quite literally stunning. Killing came naturally to Nilsson, and her salty wit, usually announced by a cackle of mirth that was very close to a Valkyrie’s battle cry, could be lethal. Tales of diva warfare used to circulate. One story alleged that Nilsson had invited Sutherland to dinner in New York, and spent the day cooking Swedish meatballs. Sutherland, delayed in Washington by a snowstorm, didn’t turn up. Nilsson retaliated when someone at a party asked her whether Sutherland’s hair was really red. “I don’t know,” she snarled, “I haven’t pulled it yet.” The stand-off continued up to the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. Sutherland was otherwise engaged in the northern hemisphere, so Nilsson, surely delighted to have gazumped a national heroine, sang at the opening concert, torching Valhalla in the final scene of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with her usual incendiary intensity.

I had a glimpse of Sutherland’s cheeky way of dealing with such effrontery when I asked her to autograph the LP booklet of Wagner’s Siegfried, her only collaboration with Nilsson. Sutherland appeared in the recording as a favour to Decca, and trilled her way through a few brief avian utterances as the Woodbird who points Siegfried towards the sleeping warrior maiden Brünnhilde, his appointed bride. The Woodbird’s twiddly carolling is incidental and decorative; the opera gloriously concludes when Siegfried reaches the mountain top, penetrates a cordon of fire, and kisses the Valkyrie awake. The first line sung by Nilsson, a salute to the sunlight, sounds like a blazing cosmic dawn. Sutherland, however, made sure that she had the last word. She took the libretto from me, uncapped her fountain pen as if unsheathing a sword, and wrote her name across the entire page that contained the cast list. Curlicues resembling wrought iron helped to use up extra space; a remaining sliver of white paper at the top was taken up with her good wishes. Brünnhilde had been demoted. “There you are,” she said, handing it back. “I dare you to show that to Birgit!” Having seen Nilsson wield a spear in Die Walküre and an axe in Elektra, I decided against risking it.

I suspect that a biography of her, if a good one is ever written, might disclose the secret sources of distress and anxiety that she drew on when portraying what she called her “loopy ladies” or “dippy dames”. So far there are only mindless reverential accounts by Russell Braddon or Norma Major, along with an Autobiography in which Sutherland, resolutely disinclined to look at herself in the mirror, exhaustively tabulates the meals she ate, the flights she took and the royal personages she met, but says nothing at all about what it felt like to be her. Reading her book, I discovered to my amazement that she had quoted my review of her final performance in Sydney rather than giving her own account of the occasion. Was this humility, evasiveness or an admission that the object of all the fuss was someone else – an icon, not a person? Back in that turreted chalet above Montreux, her real life seems to have been bizarre: the chalet’s matey major-domo, Chester Carone – once a cinema manager in Sydney – addressed his employer as “Madame”. A posting on the internet a few years ago by a scurrilous ingrate named Stephan von Cron, employed for a while by Bonynge as a researcher, blabbed about marital friction and domestic tantrums. No longer needing to sing, Sutherland supposedly exercised her voice by screeching at von Cron for spending more than three minutes in the shower and using up the house’s supply of hot water. I find it hard to believe: would any true-born Australian begrudge someone else a good long shower?

The analogy with the fridge doesn’t tell the whole truth, because defunct appliances can be replaced by newer models. It must be painful to feel an instrument that is made of flesh and blood, of mucus membrane and thin air, dying inside you. But Sutherland regarded singing as a job not an art, which meant that she could face retirement with relief not regret. I took part in an evening-long broadcast by the BBC to commemorate her eightieth birthday in 2006. The producer mentioned that in Switzerland the household computer had been rigged up so that she could listen in, though he doubted that our tribute would have kept her up. “I bet she’s switched the machine off by now,” he said during a break. “She wouldn’t stay awake just to hear herself being paid compliments.”

“I’m glad I finished when I did,” Sutherland told Kettle, adding that nowadays, when sopranos are required to look like beauty queens while acting out psychodramas plotted by zany stage-directors, she would have no chance of the kind of career that opened up for her in 1959. It’s true that her successors sometimes undervalue her or treat her as a leftover from the remote, irrelevant past. The French soprano Natalie Dessay, recently engaged for a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, deferred to Sutherland’s vocal skills but scoffed that “she was not an actress. It was another time.” It was an arrogant and imperceptive judgement: in quieter moments Sutherland’s performances were touchingly confessional, exposing a plaintive vulnerability and fear of inadequacy that were no part of her bluff offstage persona.

In 2007, Anna Netrebko – a diva of the new kind, glammed-up, festooned with lucrative endorsement deals, as flightily hedonistic as Britney Spears – took over a Met production of Bellini’s I Puritani, first staged for Sutherland, and made it her own by dancing on the furniture in the heroine’s mad scene. She even sang lying flat on the floor at the rim of the stage, her upside-down head dangling backwards into the orchestra pit. Netrebko was a child in southern Russia in 1976 when the production was new. Meeting her a while ago, I mentioned that I didn’t remember Sutherland hopping onto tables or bouncing in and out of chairs. “Maybe she jump with the voice?” said Netrebko in her rough-and-ready English. “Is better, no?” Faithful to my memories, I could only agree.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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