Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dame Joan Sutherland: Grieve, Heart, and Rejoice in Happy Memories

Dame Joan Sutherland
(Credit: Noosa Federation of the Arts) 
Dame Joan has died, and many of us are very sad. Our lives were so enriched - made so beautiful and so much happier - by that glorious sound, and while none of us is surprised about the aging process, true fans keep wanting the inevitable to be put off... and off... and off.

The memories are many, and mine - just another fan's but including several occasions when Dame Joan and I actually interacted with one another - are I suppose no more or less than anyone else's.

Still, it pleases me to think now about Dame Joan and share some of those memories.

They began many years ago, as she was first making her name in America. I'm not sure of all the specifics (I'm relying on my memory here), but my first encounter was when I was at university. Joan Sutherland was travelling about the United States under the sponsorship of her managers and participating in something called the Columbia Artists Series. It was the organization that brought artists to the Grounds of the University of Virginia, and I was a student at Mr. Jefferson's University at the time.

Several young performers gained valuable name recognition with these recitals (I remember Marilyn Horne was another singer who visited us in Charlottesville), and the recitals - held in the University's famous Cabell Hall - were very popular. I don't remember my connection with the Music Department (I was a liberal arts major not a music major) but for some reason some of us were asked to volunteer for particular tasks, like insuring that the route to the dressing rooms were clear, dealing with backstage visitors, and similar little tasks.

And for some reason, after the recital and when the crowd was moving away, I was still in the area with someone from the music faculty (don't remember who it is was) and we were chatting with Miss Sutherland. She expressed an interest in seeing a little more of the Virginia countryside, and as she did not have a train out of Charlottesville until late the next afternoon, she asked if it would be possible to have a drive. As it turned out, the faculty member wasn't available (or perhaps he didn't have an opportunity to offer since I - not being a shy fellow - possibly forged ahead with my offer - I don't remember, thankfully!).

So I volunteered my little Hillman Minx, and we agreed on a time to meet at her hotel. I got there on time, and Miss Sutherland and Mr. Guy had a delightful drive all about Albemarle Country (and beyond). We spoke about everything under the sun, and she made me promise to come to see her whenever she was singing somewhere and I was in the audience (and it was a promise she kept, for whenever I sent a note backstage - even at the Metropolitan Opera - I was admitted to join the group congratulating her on her performance, and she always greeted me warmly). She always remembered me, and even years later, when I would send a newspaper clipping or a birthday card, I always had a nice note back in return.

Not only a great singer, a great lady.

And the performances! I cannot begin to enumerate all of what I heard over the years. It so happened that my time in New York began just as her career was in its very best years, and for more than two decades I got to hear her in so many spectacular performances in New York and even - sometimes - in London and a few other places. Memories - performances - I'll never forget.

On the mantle in my sitting room there is a lovely photograph of her - signed to me - in that voluminous white gown from "La Traviata," to me one of her greatest roles. And across the room is a happy photograph - also signed to me - of her in costume as Marie in "La Fille du Regiment," which the Met mounted just for her and Luciano Pavarotti. One of her greatest successes (not surprisingly, since Joan Sutherland had a rather wild and very delightful sense of humor - she loved to laugh and have fun!).

And far too many other performances to list, but oh, how I loved her in the famous "Lucia," the three heroines of "Les Contes d'Hoffmann," "Norma" (with the great Marilyn Horne - who could ever forget their "Mira O Norma"? - hear them sing it it here in a 1979 recital) and so many more. And after an absence of a few years from the Met, she came back with Alfredo Kraus for a revival of "I Puritani," which was worth the wait. And as my then-wife and I walked across the Lincoln Center Plaza to go into the house, we were approached by a man with a big sign: "$1,000 for a ticket." My wife suggested we sell him our tickets and go off on a great vacation. No way. We were going to hear Joan Sutherland and Alfredo Kraus in "I Puritani." A vacation simply paled by comparison.

Then, toward the end of her singing career, a splendid Sunday-afternoon recital at the Metropolitan Opera House. Two memories: In the first, I knew someone who worked in the house and he happened to be standing next to her as she and Richard Bonynge were speaking before she went on stage. She was having great difficulties with the huge blue hoop skirt of her gown, and she turned to her husband with a great frown on her face and said: "I'm getting too old for this!" He simply smiled and gently pushed her out on to the great Met stage.

And the second memory: Not so nice. Two uninterested older ladies were seated just behind me and my friends. They spoke all through whatever prelude was played to start the recital off (I don't remember what it was) and they continued to speak during the first aria, even when Miss Sutherland was actually singing. As my friends tell it, I kept getting more and more agitated, and my friends were actually looking at me, worried about what I would do. I wasn't aware that they were watching me, but I didn't disappoint them. When the aria ended, during the applause, I jumped up in my seat, turned around, and screamed at the ladies: "If you don't shut up I am going to kill you!" We didn't hear another sound from them (and they didn't return after the intermission!).

OK. Perhaps not a Joan Sutherland story. Or perhaps it is. Perhaps it demonstrates the kind of passion this lady's talent brought out in her fans.

Thank you, dear Dame Joan, for all you gave us. We have been so blessed to have you with us.


Opile said...

Guy, be strong. She lived her life to the fullest. I read your tribute with such a delight on what kind legacy she must left on you life.

The challenge is: Will others talk of our life the same way when we are gone.

Guy St. Clair said...

Thank you, Geoffrey, for your kind comment. Appreciate it.

Dellie said...

I love this it makes Dame Joan even more special to me ... because she was Mr. Guy's friend. Big famous people show their humanity by remembering and honoring the folks who they meet along the way. I'm sure that Dame Joan was also better for the time she spent with you.... just like all the rest of us :).

DStanley said...

Such a fine tribute. And what a pleasure it must have been to know her and enjoy her rare talent in the way that you have.