Friday 24 February 2017

A legend and loyal friend to her last curtain call

Myles McWeeney

The world of music is mourning one of the greatest opera singers of all time -- Dame Joan Sutherland, who died aged 83 at her home in Switzerland on Sunday.

In Dublin, friends and fans remembered some of her extraordinary performances here and spoke also of her great charm and modesty.

She was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1926, the same year Dame Nellie Melba gave her farewell performance at Covent Garden in London where, almost 30 years later, Sutherland was to begin her stellar career.

She began singing at an early age, sitting under the piano imitating her mother Hilda, a fine amateur mezzo soprano, as she practised. She won many vocal scholarships in Australia, and in her mid-20s headed for London to study at the Royal College of Music.

She made her debut at Covent Garden the following year in The Magic Flute, and was hailed as a great talent when she sang the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor directed by Franco Zeffirelli in 1959. After a performance of the same opera in La Scala in Milan, she was dubbed 'La Stupenda'.

Luciano Pavarotti described her as "the greatest coloratura soprano of all time". Placido Domingo, who made his US debut with her in Lucia di Lammermoor, said it was "among the greatest stage experiences of my life".

Over a career that spanned 40 years she excelled at the fiendishly difficult bel canto style. She was probably better vocally than Callas who, however, was the better actor.

In truth, Sutherland was not a great actor, a fact that bothered her little. She said if audiences wanted to see acting they could go to a stage play. However, those who saw her in the famous mad scene in Act III of Lucia di Lammermoor, raging around with a towering mane of (her own) wild red hair, will attest to her dramatic presence.

The Italian cinema director Federico Fellini was so taken by her that he asked her to star in his famous movie, La Dolce Vita. Her husband, Australian conductor Richard Bonynge, and opera director Franco Zeffirelli dissuaded her from accepting the lead role.

In late November 1958 she appeared in the Dublin Grand Opera Society's winter season as Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni. The sterling cast also included great Welsh baritone Geraint Evans and astonishing Irish tenor Dermot Troy, who died at just 37 years of age three years later in 1962.

She also took part in a concert in Dublin's Phoenix Hall with the Radio Eireann Light Orchestra, at which she sang Let the Bright Seraphim from Handel's Samson and Regnava nel Silenzio from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The Irish Independent's music critic Pat O'Kelly was there that night and says, "I remember the Handel for the brightness of her tone and can still see her rising on her tippy-toes for the high notes, and they were high!"

It was during this period that she forged a lifelong friendship with Dr Veronica Dunne who was also contracted as a soprano to the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. The two young divas frequently sang the same roles on alternate days. "She was really humble and had a great sense of humour," Dunne recalls. "In those days singers weren't paid well, just £10 a week, and £20 a week when singing. We'd go to a nearby Lyons Corner Cafe and eat sausages and chips for 1/3."

When 'Ronnie' Dunne, now one of Ireland's most respected vocal teachers, founded the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in 1995 she asked Dame Joan, as she had become, to be one of the adjudicators. She agreed immediately, and in her typically generous manner, refused to accept a fee. Dr Dunne used the money set aside for the fee to create the Dame Joan Sutherland Prize for the best Irish singer at the competition.

In 1991 Sutherland's husband came to Dublin to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in a Naxos recording of Irish composer William Balfe's The Bohemian Girl. Dame Joan was with him. Laurie Cearr, then PRO for orchestras and performing groups at RTE, asked her to pose for a publicity photograph. She refused with good grace, explaining it was her husband's gig. She attended every rehearsal, sitting in the Concert Hall stalls knitting.

'Ronnie' says of her friend of 50 years: "She was a great prima donna who managed to remain a normal human being. She loved nothing better than chatting to me about our grandchildren, and was a loyal and generous friend to all who knew her."

Dame Sutherland is survived by her husband Richard Bonynge, their son Adam, and two grandchildren.

Irish Independent

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