Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Farewell to Dame Joan Sutherland

Many thanks to the Metropolitan Opera Guild for the beautiful program in memory of Dame Joan Sutherland, presented last Tuesday night (May 17, 2011). Since her death on October 10, 2010, there had been two memorial services, including a State Memorial Service on November 9, 2010 at the Sydney Opera House and a service held in Westminster Abbey on February 15, 2011.

This program, though, seemed to have been more "personal" in concept, and that seems just right. Sutherland had a very special place in the hearts and minds of her many American friends and fans, and it was good to have a remembrance event that was organized - obviously by intention - to capture both the professional strengths of this hard-working woman's career and the happier, more down-to-earth approach to her work (and to her life) that she will always be remembered for.

The Guild's program was titled "Stupenda!" and it was appropriate, since the public and the press had anointed her "la stupenda" after her Italian debut, in Venice at Teatro La Fenice in 1960. The name stuck (indeed, there's even a marvelous statue of Sutherland with that name at the Royal Botanical Gardens near Melbourne), and it made sense to title Tuesday's program with a word much associated with this great lady.

And there was an appropriate sub-title, too, "A Loving Tribute." It couldn't have been a more accurate description for the evening. Even the theater itself was chosen with loving care, New York's famous old theater, Town Hall, which had been the site of Sutherland's New York debut in February 1961, in a concert performance of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda. After her long-awaited recognition as a (perhaps the) leading opera singer performing the bel canto repertoire, recognition which came with her performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on February 17, 1959 in Franco Zeffirelli's production of "Lucia di Lammermoor," Sutherland had made her American debut at the Dallas Opera in 1960, and then she came to the Metropolitan Opera on 26 September 1961, singing Lucia to almost-unheard-of acclaim.

As a devoted fan I spent many well-remembered and very special hours in attendance at Sutherland's performances at the Met, and more often then not, listening to her whenever she appeared in a Saturday afternoon opera on the old Texaco (now Toll Brothers) radio broadcasts. Once I had arrived in New York, in the late sixties, I was at the opera house for many of her performances, and often at her concerts as well, including those with Lucio Pavorotti after he became a big star. There were also several - if I'm remembering correctly - hugely successful recitals at the Met, some on Sunday afternoons. A special memory of mine is her performance in the Met's 100th anniversary gala in 1983 (October 22). At that splendid day-long event, Sutherland - with Bonynge conducting - closed the first half of the afternoon program with Rossini's "Bel raggio lusinghier" from Semiramide, bringing down the house! It was a special delight to me and I still have fun re-playing my nearly worn-out old video of that performance! Like her final appearance for us in New York, in a concert at the Met in 1989, this is one of my happiest Joan Sutherland memories.

Marilyn Horne, Sutherland's great friend and professional colleague, was the host for the tribute program. It was a delightful and very well-organized event (and of special note, it should be noted, was the excellence of the video and other technical preparations and implementation - whoever did this did a splendid job). The entire program was all designed to provide us with an accurate demonstration of Sutherland's big, full voice, including excerpts from many opera performances, concerts, recitals, and even the television shows. Yes, there she was, on "The Ed Sullivan Show." And, yes! On "The Dinah Shore Show"! Not only was Sutherland's amazing talent on display, we got to enjoy the light-hearted and very funny side of her personality as well.

As I said, the planning for the event also demonstrated that the program had been arranged with loving care, and the comments and shared memories of such musical luminaries as Sherrill Milnes, Spiro Malas, Regina Resnik, Martina Arroyo, and, finally, Conductor Richard Boynenge, all brought Sutherland again to us for one last time. Boynenge's remarks were particularly poignant, for not only had their long marriage been truly a personal and professional partnership, his obvious respect for and encouraging role in Sutherland's success came through sweetly and touchingly. He is obviously very proud - as he should be - to have been with her throughout her long career.

All of us who love great music are very indebted to the Metropolitan Opera Guild for putting this together, and indeed, to both the Guild and to BNY Mellon Wealth Management, corporate sponsors for the program. We are very grateful to all the people involved in this loving tribute, for enabling us to share these very precious memories.

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