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Soprano on a Grand Scale

Joan Sutherland Gave Listeners Great Pleasure -- and Divas a Good Name

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page N02

"I'm older, I'm thinner, and I hobble a bit," Dame Joan Sutherland says. "I feel my years. And whenever I sing nowadays, it's only around my own house, and then only when I feel like singing. I still have some of my technique -- not everything goes, thank heavens -- but I'd never sing in public again. And you know something? I don't mind retirement one bit."

Sutherland, 78, is gregarious, opinionated and surprisingly self-deprecating for somebody who was recognized -- indeed, worshiped -- as a capital-D Diva long before the word was regularly applied to teenage pop stars cavorting in their underwear. She was speaking last month from Switzerland, where she lives with her husband of 50 years, the conductor Richard Bonynge. The two had originally planned to be in Egypt at the time of the Kennedy Center Honors, where Sutherland is being recognized this weekend. "Everything was all set, and then we found out the glorious news. So we're going to Cairo right now" -- indeed, they planned to leave for the airport immediately after our conversation -- "and then we'll come to Washington afterwards. I wouldn't miss this ceremony for the world!"

_____Kennedy Center Honors_____
Photo Gallery: Honorees
Warren Beatty
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Elton John
John Williams

She laughs a lot, Dame Joan -- a trait that permits her to express her horror of the present-day opera world with a resilient good humor. "I'd never be able to have a career today!" she says. "I don't have the right size, shape or physical agility. Today the singer is cast by how she looks, rather than by how she sings."

Her self-assessment is nonsense, of course. The appearance of a "new" Joan Sutherland -- in any size or shape, with any degree of mobility -- would hearten opera impresarios throughout the world, ensuring that their subscription seasons would be sold out for years to come. Simply put, she made some of the loveliest sounds of the 20th century. "With a beautiful, soft-grained voice of great range, power and flexibility, Sutherland could deliver fiendishly difficult coloratura with exceptional agility, clarity and mellifluous warmth," the critic Alan Blyth once observed. Indeed: She could pipe and twitter sweetly enough to satisfy any canary-fancier (as devoted admirers of self-consciously "pretty" singing are sometimes called), but the voice was a huge one, large enough to roar over an orchestra in full thrall and reach the ear of a listener in the last row of the largest opera house. Operaphiles dubbed her "La Stupenda" -- the Stupendous One -- and the nickname stuck.

She was another of those "overnight sensations" who had in fact worked hard for many years to get started. Born in 1926 in Sydney, Sutherland made her debut there in 1947 in Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." She went to London and sang respectable but hardly starring roles at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for much of the 1950s. She won attention as Jennifer in the world premiere of Sir Michael Tippett's "Midsummer Marriage" and made a handful of recordings for L'Oiseau Lyre, then an arcane, semi-scholarly label that was devoted to early music long before it became chic. But she was basically yet another hard-trudging, deeply gifted musician fighting her way up in what has long been acknowledged as a wonderful art and a deeply frustrating business -- and there was no sign that this was ever going to change.

Still, everything was transformed when she undertook the title role in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in early 1959 and made a spectacular success. The leading opera houses of London, Paris, Milan and New York fell for her like so many bowling pins. Her recording of the opera, on Decca/London, became an international bestseller, to be followed by dozens of others -- Bellini's "Norma," "I Puritani," "Beatrice di Tenda" and "La Sonnambula"; Delibes' "Lakme"; Gounod's "Faust"; a wide variety of works by Handel; Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots" (the first complete recording of any of this composer's once wildly popular operas); Verdi's "Rigoletto," "La Traviata" and "Il Trovatore"; even Wagner's "Siegfried" (she sang the role of the Forest Bird). Moreover, Sutherland made a variety of smart crossover albums, including Lehar's "Merry Widow" and an album of Noel Coward favorites, including duets with the Master himself.

"I'm not at all sorry to be out of the opera world as it exists today," she says. "I remember one of my last productions at the Met in the late '80s -- 'Il Trovatore' -- so bleak, so ugly, everybody in the dark, with swords clanking and ridiculous sets and columns sliding back and forth. Not long ago -- not at the Met, I'm happy to say -- there was a production of 'Faust' with people masturbating and defecating onstage in the final scene, while poor Marguerite is singing about Heaven. Horrible! There's this emphasis on everything that is vile -- whether or not it has anything to do with the opera itself -- and no attention paid to what is beautiful and noble."

Sutherland is not much happier with the new breed of singers. "I long for the [Renata] Tebaldis, the [Giulietta] Simionatos I remember from the 1950s, when my career was getting started," she says. "What wonderful artists they were! I don't think young musicians perfect their techniques in the way they used to, and that will make for a very short career unless you attend to it. Every so often, I'm told about a gifted young soprano, and when I finally get to hear her, she sounds wonderful, and then she's completely disappeared a year later."

And yet: "I do hear that there are some fine musicians coming out of Russia and Eastern Europe these days," she offers, somewhat hesitantly, as an optimistic afterthought. "Their names? Oh God, don't ask me that! But they're very, very good. I promise!"

© 2004 The Washington Post Company