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Classical 101

Dame Joan Sutherland

[ADAM: THIS HAS AUDIO] Who ever thought Mount Everest would collapse or the Statue of Liberty would turn blue? They didn't of course, but the news that soprano Joan Sutherland died earlier today at her home in Switzerland is that kind of a shock...to me. Call me melodramatic, I've been called worse. Hers was not only the greatest voice but the greatest talent I ever encountered. I heard her on a record when I was barely in my teens. Years later a friend summed up the effect her sound had on people. It was what I felt in 1968, and its what I feel today. "Nobody ever sang anything that was bigger, rounder, warmer, m0re florid, more astonishing or more beautiful. Period." If her diction suffered in producing That Sound  you don't know the words, either. I wore out the LPS from the library. I was addicted to her voice.  My poor parents. (God rest them, they bought me more records) In 1970 it was announced that she would go on tour with the Met in Norma. Marilyn Horne would co star, and Sutherland's husband Richard Bonynge, who guided her career brilliantly, would conduct. The Met toured every spring in those days. They'd come to Boston on Patriot's Day. The miserable War Memorial Auditorium, an early 1950s fiasco built for the boat show (no disrespect to the boat show) was also the Boston Marathon's finish line. The race would end around 3 pm...the opera would open at 8. I must have mowed a lot of lawns.  I got a $5 ticket.  I wrote Joan Sutherland a fan letter asking if I could come backstage to meet her. Back came a letter from her secretary ("Mrs. Trench") Yes.  Joan Sutherland had her secretary write me a letter and said Yes. Came the great night. The performance was fantastic. They are still cheering and the old War Memorial is long gone .  A few weeks earlier the opera had been broadcast complete from the Met (God bless Texaco). Then Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show: [youtube T4mcD91duYA 490 344] My parents loved Ed Sullivan. So did yours. They were very impressed that I had received a letter from someone who had been on The Ed Sullivan Show. Anyway, I go backstage and give my name to the cop.  He comes back and ushers me into the crummy little dressing room and there, about 5'10 185 lbs. was Joan Sutherland.  In a black, low cut dress, en route to an after performance party. Big BIG red hair. I came up to her...well, all I can say is I couldn't stop looking down.  I almost sneezed from the powder that was...well, there.  I remember nothing of what she said to me, only that she was very nice, smiled a lot, very pleasant and sincere.  All I could think of was,  "Here I am looking at Joan Sutherland's boobs." Over the next twenty years I heard everything she did in New York . Standing room at the Met was one dollar, then two dollars, then five dollars. God knows what it is now. Lucia di Lammermoor, Le fille du regiment, Don Giovanni, I Puritani, Esclarmonde-there I'd be , six stories up at the top of the Met with that voice pinging and bouncing everywhere, hitting the top of my head, like a ball of light. I used to go backstage too, and she was always kind and fun-no diva nonsense-and I stopped looking at her boobs. Here she is in Lucia di Lammeroor not long after she hit it big in 1959. She had been singing professionally for ten years and outside of London almost no one knew her name. Until she sang Lucia: [youtube 5JRg5ChbYfc 490 344] Fast forward. She is now Dame Joan Sutherland.  She retired from singing in 1990, writes her memoirs, does some teaching, travels with her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge who continues to work internationally. She spends time with her son and daughter in law and grandchildren in Australia (where she was born) and enjoys her home in Switzerland (where she died). Dame Joan turned 80 in 2006. I decided I wanted to interview her. A phoner of  course.  Long shot, but you don't know if you don't ask.  I asked the Australian Opera and THEY said yes! Call her at this number in Sydney on Wednesday at 4 PM U.S. Eastern time.  I was a wreck. I was right to be.  Of course I misunderstood the time difference or the message. I called Dame Joan Sutherland at home in Australia at 6 a.m. local time. She was 80 years old, grumpy, sleepy and not -pleased. "You're a day late!" she cried. Then, to make it better, we kept losing our connection and I had to call her back a few times. First her boobs,  now this. Here are two excerpts, from November, 2006.  Christopher in Ohio to Dame Joan Sutherland in Sydney, WICKED early in the morning (there) Excerpt #1 [audio:DAME_JOAN_1.mp3] Excerpt #2 [audio:DAME_JOAN_2.mp3] Joan Sutherland has earned her rest. Her career went from Purcell to Wagner, but was rooted in Handel-Bellini-Donizetti-Rossini where to this day she has no peers. She recorded songs by Noel Coward-her next door neighbor-and songs from the English music hall.  She sang impossible to sing French operas that Wagner would have envied.  She enjoyed a long retirement and lived to see her grandchildren grow up.  And because of her, forty years ago I got a letter from the secretary of someone who had been on The Ed Sullivan Show. --Christopher Purdy

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.