Sutherland in her own words
In the rash of obits that always trail after a death, like the white foam behind a grand ship in departure, you try to get a feel for the personage that has left….In the “wake” of Dame Joan Sutherland’s death these obits- some written well, some by rote, some with publicity seekers, some with real mourners and friends- most hardly paint the real picture of this fabulous, giant both physically, vocally and personally. She leaves an impact that few others can boast, and in this amazing interview she tells it best….. I will write about her more later, as she had a profound effect on me and my career. For now, the last word is hers. And witty and amazing it is.
‘I didn’t want to be a diva’
o The Guardian, Wednesday 8 May 2002 17.11 BST
Joan Sutherland ‘I’m glad I finished when I did’ – Joan Sutherland
Joan Sutherland asks if we can do the interview somewhere in the Leicester Square area. I propose the Royal Opera House. After all, she sang there for nearly 40 years, from her beginning as a £10-a-week contract singer in 1952, through all the La Stupenda years, to her starry farewell on New Year’s Eve 1990.
On the phone she seems a little uncertain about the idea. “Is the stage door still where it was?” she asks. “I’m 75 now. I’ve not been there for so long, you know.” And then, incredibly: “I don’t really think anyone remembers me there, now.”
But of course they remember her. “Oh gosh, here she really is,” says the lady on the door as Sutherland enters. And they go on noticing her as we make our way through the Opera House’s labyrinth of passages backstage. People ask for her autograph. Whether she wants to be or not, Sutherland is a Covent Garden legend. “Well I will be when I’m dead,” she retorts with a grin.
Sutherland’s achievement as a soprano was prodigious. Along with her husband, conductor and mentor Richard Bonynge, she set the modern standard for performances of the Italian bel canto and French romantic repertoires. She became an overnight sensation in 1959, as Lucia di Lammermoor in Franco Zeffirelli’s production, and she hardly let up for the next three decades.
Throughout that time, she was almost as famous for insisting on keeping her feet on the ground. “I’m a mum. I never thought of becoming a diva. I just wanted to sing the roles and get on with my work. I used to come to the theatre in a taxi, not in some Rolls-Royce. I didn’t have time to do all that silly stuff.”
All these achievements will be recognized when Lord Harewood presents Sutherland with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s gold medal at its annual awards dinner tonight. “They asked me, would I accept it? Well you wouldn’t turn that down, would you?”
She scans the list of other musical heroes who have been awarded the gold medal in the past. Arturo Toscanini and Adelina Patti catch her eye. As does Emma Albani. “I’ve got one of her stage crowns.” John Barbirolli. “A dear old fellow.” Michael Tippett. “He just said I should sing his music beautifully and it would all become clear.” And she says with pride: “Do you know, I’m the only Australian on the list. Not even Nellie Melba is here.
“It’s nice to be remembered,” she says. “But the whole opera thing has changed from top to bottom. It has all changed. Even the way that the productions are geared. I’m glad I finished when I did. I might have done a few walkouts.”
Sutherland’s last stage role at Covent Garden was as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in 1988, a rarely performed work of the kind she made her own, and that showcased the tenderness and brilliance that were the hallmarks of her singing. But she reserved her very last performance for a guest appearance in Die Fledermaus two years later, in which she was joined by Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne.
“It was a difficult evening for me,” she recalls. “To come back and sing and to realise that it would be the last time. It was wonderful that Marilyn and Luciano came. And to have the public respond the way they did in view of the fact that I barely sang, and that in my old, quaky voice too.
“I decided it was time to stop because I felt that the technique was leaving me. The breathing was becoming more difficult too. It was about that time that I went to have a check-up. I found I had a slight heart problem, and I have been on pills ever since. It was sheer physical burnout. You grow old. The machinery wears down. Just like your refrigerator.”
Technique is something Sutherland cares about very much indeed. Since she retired she has sat on dozens of singing competition juries and heard a new generation of singers whom, she fears, neglect the technique that helped keep her at the top for so long.
“I’m afraid the rot is setting in. Today the young singers do not develop a basic vocal technique. They don’t know how to breathe and support and project the sound. They breathe from here” – she puts her hands on her breast – “and they don’t support anything. They sing from here” – this time she indicates the throat – “but they don’t project the sound into the cavities of the mouth and use the high palate. You see them holding on like this, down in their throat. It’s so unrelaxed. There seems to be no repose, no feeling of ease, no feeling of continual line, of breathing and projecting the sound, and the excitement of singing and giving it to the public.
“The old manuals were right. Garcia, Lamberti, the others. People don’t learn to breathe, support and project. And they don’t sing vocalise. There are great volumes of vocalise, singing exercises that give you the legato line and help join the middle voice to the upper voice. But now they sing down here… and then they stab at the top. They don’t know how to get there properly, and they will pay the price in the end.
“I don’t know where the teachers have gone,” she says. She has discussed this recently with other singers of her own era, such as Sena Jurinac and Birgit Nilsson, and with Ileana Cotrubas from a later generation. “They are all giving masterclasses because they find too many young singers just don’t have the technique. Cotrubas said to me: ‘I had a hard job learning my technique. They don’t want to have a hard job.’ They just want to read the music, learn it and go out and sing it.”
One of Sutherland’s own teachers was Clive Carey, a former pupil of Jean de Reszke and head of opera at the Royal College of Music. It was Carey who taught her how to reach the top notes that were always one of the most unfailing and thrilling parts of her vocal armoury. “I have sung an F sharp, but I wouldn’t want to do that very often. Mostly it was around E.
“It is a very wonderful feeling to get those notes, and I can’t remember many occasions when my top notes ever failed me. That was because of all the work I did to build the support for them. I had to really work on getting the quality of sound right. Carey always said that De Reszke insisted the high notes come out of the back of the top of the head. And that was where I finally located them, to great advantage.”
She thinks that if she were starting her career in the music business today, she would not get the work she got then. “I don’t think they would have taken me on in these houses nowadays. I was a big woman. And very naive really. But I think the gods were good to me. There was an upsurge just after the war, when we had opportunities to listen to really remarkable voices and time to learn from them. We worked here at Covent Garden as a company. That doesn’t happen now. It’s a big shame. We had a roster of so many sopranos, mezzo sopranos, tenors, baritones, basses, and they were here, really solid. A real family. A working place.”
Sutherland still lives, as she has done for nearly 40 years, in Switzerland, just above Montreux. She gardens (though her knees restrict the amount she can do), does needlepoint and knits, just as she always did in her dressing room between arias.
She says she has stopped singing, though “I hum around the house”. The voice that was once dubbed the vocal phenomenon of the postwar era “is still there”, she says, “but the physical strain on the body is too great. I just stopped. I don’t go to the opera very much. I think I’m a bit of a dropout.”
Only once since 1990 has Sutherland thought to let it rip one last time. A year or two after her retirement, her husband was flying home from Canada and “I decided to surprise him”. But after a day’s strenuous vocal exercises she found herself coughing and choking. “So then I really did give up.”
When I ask her which of her many recordings she would be happiest to be remembered by, she nominates her discs of Massenet’s Esclarmonde. “I’m very partial to that, particularly the love duet. It’s so erotic. It’s definitely the most erotic piece I ever sang.” And then, very quietly, she begins to sing, note perfect, the tone instantly recognisable. Suddenly I realise that on my tape recorder I now possess an extremely rare Covent Garden recital by Joan Sutherland.