Monday, October 11, 2010

A great voice stilled...

The news came today that Dame Joan Sutherland has died. It was a bit over a half century ago that I first heard that unique soprano voice, and I doubt that there has been a full week in my life since that I have not heard it in recording or memory. I still remember the first time I heard that voice.  Long ago there was a radio program called Alan Doerr Presents on the local classical music station. I was up late studying. My keen interest in baroque music was already flourishing back then, and I perked up when an aria from an opera called  Artaxerxes by Thomas Augustine Arne was announced. Vocal music from that period was a rare treat in those days. Even major opera houses made a big commotion about the performance of a Mozart opera. "Baroque music" generally meant Vivaldi's The Four Seasons

It’s no exaggeration to say that what I heard that night changed my life in a way for which I cannot easily express appropriate thanks. The aria was, of course, “The soldier tir'd”, and the voice was that of Joan Sutherland. The first radio broadcast of a Sutherland Lucia soon followed: I remember the tension and apprehension as I listened: will she really be able to pull it off? Will she really be able to do it? Not only did she do it, but it soon became apparent that this was a  singer we could rely on, one who was up to the task over and over.

People coming into opera today will probably find this hard to believe, but back then we had never heard a voice like this one. Shortly before that first hearing I was in a local record store; most record stores had a dark ghetto in the back where the classical recordings were housed (Discount Records was still in my future). I remember browsing the bins one day and seeing an album titled “The Art of the Prima Donna”. And I clearly remember scanning the contents, looking at the picture of Sutherland, and  thinking to myself,- thinking it very dismissively-  “I wonder who she thinks she is”. Perhaps only someone my age or older can understand that attitude. There was no shortage of so-called coloratura sopranos in those days. As a group, they were characterized by small, scratchy, metallic, mechanical, graceless, inflexible voices capable of producing the occasional improbably high tone. Not one of them had a true trill, and for singers specializing in a repertoire of typically heavily embroidered music, few of them sounded at all comfortable in fioratura. How wrong I was when I assumed that Sutherland was just another one of these annoying upstarts! How isolated we were back then, how difficult it was to keep current, how hard to gorge on the nutritious broth of solid, timely information. That late night radio program changed all of that in a few minutes.

I heard her in live performance for the first time in 1961 here in Washington at Constitution Hall. That huge barn of a hall is no friend to small-voiced singers. Thanks to some cancellations, I had a seat in the first balcony relatively close to the stage, very near to the presidential box (the Kennedys were not present).

I was eighteen years old, and this was my first encounter with a great singer live and going at full tilt. For years I had been listening to the reissued recordings of some of the great singers of what we thought of then as the last golden age of singing, the period leading up to and briefly after the First World War. Thanks to those recordings, I knew the repertoire. As Sutherland moved into encores it was a real thrill for me to recognize these pieces.  But there was something even more thrilling: this was a voice unlike any I had ever heard. As so many people have said about her singing, it was as if the music had been written for her.

In reading  Dr. Burney’s description of  the singing of  Lucretia Aguiari , where he wrote  that she was the only singer he had ever heard who sang extremely high notes (what Dr. Burney knew as cork cutting notes) in real voice,  I immediately thought of Sutherland.  Aguiari was one of those singers capable of singing extremely high notes (contemporary accounts say up to the C above high C). Although Sutherland never ventured into that territory, her singing was characterized by a uniquely natural, limpid quality well up into the range which most singers avoid. Whether or not it was real voice or not, it was amazingly real and natural sounding.

Old photos of the great singers of the early twentieth century, the sort of photos which appeared on old reissued record albums or in magazine articles about those singers, were frequently autographed by the singer with some pleasantry addressed to a member of the singer’s adoring public. Sutherland was always very good to her public.  I’m a nobody,  yet I met her and talked to her on a number of occasions. The last time was when she was in Washington on a book tour. The long line extended out the door and around the block. As I entered the building, I noticed the late impresario Patrick Hays standing off to the side, taking in this phenomenon. When my turn came with the great singer, she seemed genuinely reluctant to let me go: we talked, and talked, and each time I made a perfunctory attempt to end the encounter, she moved the conversation in a new direction. More than once, as recordings of her singing played in the background, she made mild, mock-disparaging comments about the high notes, as if to elicit a counter opinion from me.  I loved every second of it, and it was obvious that she did too.

When I was a teenager just getting into opera, I often read stories about those who had heard Patti or  Melba, and how families passed on from generation to generation stories about the great singers. In addition to everything else she gave us, Sutherland left a legacy of accomplishment which will no doubt run for many generations. In my dotage I hope to be sharing and enjoying still  this abundance. 


Jimmy said...

My first acquaintance with Joan Sutherland was in the mid sixties when she was touring Bellini's Norma with Marilyn Horne (Jackie) and an unknown tenor, Pavaroti. Oh My!

a sad day.

McWort said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
McWort said...

I flew to New York to hear a Sutherland/Horne Norma at the Metropolitan Opera. What an incredible experience that performance was! Horne and Sutherland made amazing music together. Years later, when a recording of Norma was issued featuring Sutherland as Norma and Caballé as Adalgisa, I thought to myself something like “that’s got to be the perfect duo for those roles.” But how wrong I was: the timbres of the voices of Sutherland and Caballé were too much alike – in some of the duet work I could not be sure who was really singing. But with Sutherland and Horne there was never that sort of uncertainty: those voices compliment one another perfectly. Sutherland and Horne together produce a sound which is solidly in a century old tradition of recorded duets from Norma. Find, if you can, the recording of the duet ‘Ah! sì, fa core e abbracciame” from Bellini’s Norma made by Lilli Lehmann and Hedwig Helbig in 1907; compare it to the duet “Mira, o Norma” made by Ponselle and Telva in 1929 and then to either duet as recorded by Sutherland and Horne. The similarities of style and timbre are amazing.