I was lucky enough to snag an interview yesterday with Dame Joan Sutherland,
on the phone from Sydney. Dame Joan celebrates her 80th birthday on November 7th.
Certainly she was an astonishing artist, one I heard many times dating back to 1970, and one I shall never forget.
The kindly press office at Opera Australia told me to call Dame Joan on November 1st at 4 p.m. my time. They must have told Dame Joan something else. Here's our conversation:
CP: Hello, this is Christopher Purdy from Ohio for Dame Joan Suth--
JS: You're a day late!
CP: Late? Uh...I'm sorry, I was told November 1st my time
JS: And today's the 2nd isn't it...and here you are
CP: Yes. I'm sorry. Can we speak now?
JS: Well, its a day late but go ahead.
At this point my trusty engineer was having trouble securing the connection for recording this interview. So now I'm a "day late" AND keeping Dame Joan Sutherland waiting on the phone. We do not do much small talk.
CP: Thank you for waiting, Dame Joan. We can begin now.
CP: It is one of the great honors of my life to speak with Dame Joan Sutherland who is on the phone from her home in Sydney-welcome, Dame Joan
JS: Thank you very much!
CP: I know you were influenced early in your singing life by your mother. I wonder if you could describe your mother's voice.
JS: Well mother was a mezzo soprano and her teacher wanted her to go abroad and study in Paris and so on, but she said she was too nervous and didn't want a career and she didn't want all that. She wanted to go to the cricket matches and be with her friends and so on.
CP: Did you listen to her from her earliest childdhood?
JS: Oh yes, I used to sit at her feet and listen to her practise from the time I was quite small.
CP: Did she think you would have a great career?
JS: I don't think she imagined the success I eventually had, but she knew the material was there and she knew that it would mean a lot of hard work.
CP: Did your voice always have that trill and that agility?
JS: The trill was always there, yes. I never sort of pursued the agility so much.
I followed my mother who was a lyric mezzo. So I sort of put a lid on my voice because I wanted to sound like her.
CP: And I know that Kirsten Flagstad was a singer you greatly admired
JS: Oh I adored the voice of Flagstad. That was really an incredible person. And with a wonderful appearance when she sang -she was totally involved.
CP: Recently here at the station we played a recording of Lucia made in London in 1959-that was the production that brought you international fame. What do you remember about those performances?
JS: I have the feeling there's something wrong with the second part of the mad scene there. There's something wrong with transferring the tape-it's pitched too high
But the production was wonderful. Zeffirelli was the producer and Serafin conducted.
I just saw Lucia in Brisbane with my husband conducting up there. And the Australian
opera set was nearly a copy of that Zeffirelli set. Every single set I've worked in in Lucia over years, people remembered that Zeffirelli set and it's been re produced
so many times since 1959. And again in Brisbane it was very much that physical production except now it has someone else's name on it...
CP: I know that 1959 production in London was very important for you but it was important for Lucia ,too. The opera hadn't been done for a long time
JS: No, back then it hadn't been done in years
CP: Another opera I have great memoreis of your performances at the Met was Norma.
That's a pinnacle for so many artists and it was unforgettable then
JS: Well, it's an unforgettable opera. It's a great piece. It's probably one of my favorites, if not my favorite. That and Esclarmonde
CP: What makes Norma a favorite?
JS: I think she's a very recognizably human person, where some of the characters are rather cardboard
CP: How is it you sounded fresh at the end of Norma? That's a long sing
JS: Oh it has a few breaks in it. You learn how to sing it with confidence and you learn the pitfalls, and you get to be confident about singing the role.
CP: And Massenet's Esclarmonde-that was an opera nobody knew. I don't think it had been done since Sybil Sanderson-this great French Wagner pageant. It was a big hit
JS: It was terrific. And I was amazed when Decca decided to delete the recording. I thought that was ridiculous. I was amazed because it was the only recording of the piece. So I was hot on the telephone saying what on earth do you think your'e doing? Not because I'm singing but because it's the only recording of it.
CP: I think they listened to you because I saw it the other day
JS: Oh yes, now it has been repoduced many times over
CP: How did you ever find Esclarmonde?
JS: I didn't. My husband did. He read a lot about Massenet along with the Italian bel canto composers. And he read that Massenet thought it was his best work. He found tattered copies of the vocal score in Paris, and later was fortunate enough to buy the complete orchestral score when it came up for auction.
CP: One of my regrets is that I did not get to see you in Alcina
JS: That was a great piece. I loved all the Handel I did. Rodelinda, Julius Caesar.
CP: And what about singing today? What are you hearing? You told me you were at a big competition last night in Sydney.
JS: Very good voices! There were a lot of male voices. In fact there was only one woman last night. And I think Richard and I agreed on the winner. The young woman was quite good but the young man who won, from Western Australia, I think he'll do very well
CP: Are there specific young artists today you admire who you are following with interest?
JS: Well there are very good voices here certainly, but I don't follow it too much. I've had a few difficulties recently with arthritis, and just recently with knee replacement surgery. So I don't get about like I once did. So I tend to rely on recordings and television. I go when I can. I'm not that drawn to it I'm afraid. I don't like the producitons. I don't like all this updating and stagings that don't go along with the music
CP: Well, let's change the subject to something happier! How will you be spending your birthday?
JS: At home. A nice birthday lunch at home in Switzerland. Lots of things were on offer. One of our friends wanted to do a big party at his restuarant but we'll just be back from Australia. We're leaving on Friday-and Friday in case you don't know is tomorrow (laughs). But here we are. We finally made it!
CP: Touche! And I've waited all my life! (both laugh)
Do you realize how important your recorded legacy is?
JS: Well I mean I hear people saying they seem to play it everywhere. They take recordings with them and play them in the car. I'm very gratified that people enjoyed what I did. I wouldn't have lasted as long as I did if people hadn't enjoyed it.
It was great--Richard and I did a lot work on preparing the pieces. And I like to go along with him now and see what he's doing
CP: Where is Mr. Bonynge now?
JS: Right now he's upstairs, fast asleep!
CP: I want to wish you a happy birthday. Thank you very much-for everything.
JS: Well thank you, thank you for all your good wishes.