Richard Bonynge gives his personal account of the struggles and triumphs of his late wife, La Stupenda.

First meeting

“We first met in the 1940s in Sydney, and we were very companionable, but didn’t really know each other all that well. I went to London in 1950 and she came a year later – that’s when it suddenly caught fire. Apart from anything else, we became great friends. We did everything together: we loved to go to the theatre, the ballet, the opera… It just became a part of our life: we spent our whole lives together from that moment on.”

The big break

“That was the Lucia di Lammermoor in Covent Garden in 1959, a gloriously tasteful production – Covent Garden went all out. The conductor Tullio Serafin was a great maestro of bel canto, and director Franco Zeffirelli as a young man was just brilliant. This was also one of 
the first roles in Covent Garden that Joan had sung in Italian, which was interesting. 

“I was sitting in the audience with my mother-in-law, both very nervous. I think we actually held hands! And it was a very, very moving experience, I can assure you – something not to be forgotten. I don’t remember how long the ovation was exactly, but it seemed to go on forever. 

“That production changed things not only for Joan, but for Covent Garden as well. Before Lucia they sang almost everything in English – Joan sang Rigoletto and Otello in English. Even Italians came and sang Italian opera in some very quaint English, I can tell you. But after the success of Lucia they started to revert to the original languages.”

The voice

“When I first heard Joan her voice was not particularly even. Her teachers had tried to give her a huge top, and the middle voice was neglected. So for many years we worked very carefully on the middle voice to make sure she could sing a beautiful legato across her range. In the beginning we’d find all sorts of tricks to get round things, but in working honestly and carefully we were able to overcome those faults. 

“People ask when her voice was at its peak, but it’s impossible to say. The youthful sound of the ’50s and early ’60s was extraordinary, and so was the more mature sound of the late ’70s and ’80s. It depends what you’re looking for. To sing Lucrezia Borgia and Anna Bolena she needed a more mature sound, which she didn’t have early on. 

“One of Joan’s consistent strengths as a singer was absolute warmth through her entire register, even in the wonderful low notes you can hear in many of the bigger operas, in Turandot and Norma. And then there was the incredible agility she had. But it was the heart and soul you could hear in the voice which made it so wonderful. It was a voice which I found extremely moving. It’d be hard to get through to the end of her operas without being in tears – and I’m not talking about myself so much – but I would regularly see the public in floods of tears.

“She was able to move people with her voice. She wasn’t trying to do anything special, she just sang the music as she felt it. Joan was a very honest singer, and her standard was extremely high. Even if she was not well or had an off-day, her standard was way above that of most of her contemporaries.”

The war for bel canto 

“We spent our life fighting: us against the world. When Joan began everyone thought, ‘Oh yes, she’s a Wagnerian singer’ and they tried to turn her into that. Well, she could have been one, there’s no doubt about it, because she had a huge voice. Her teachers in Sydney had her singing the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde and Suicidio from La Gioconda, big Verdi arias, all that sort of stuff. 

“When I started working with her, which was late in 1951, I could feel there was something else there. We spent a lot of time together, and Joan’s the sort of person who just sang all the time. If she was cooking a meal she’d be singing, and when I heard her relaxed, it was a different sound. It seemed to work more easily, and she didn’t have the trouble with the top she’d been having.

“I started exploring this with her and we experimented. At first she was not willing – she thought I was insane – and her mother said, ‘You’re ruining my daughter’s voice’. And everyone knows the story. I’d trick her and play arias a tone higher and take her up in exercises where she had no idea where she was going. Because Joan didn’t have perfect pitch, so she could sing an F or a G and it didn’t make a big difference to her. So I convinced her she could sing bel canto, and she fell in love with it too and realised that the great music of Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini and early Verdi was very much for her. 

“People think because they put the label ‘coloratura’ on her that it couldn’t have been that big a voice. But the great New York Times critic Harold Schonberg said her voice was bigger than Birgit Nilsson’s. I don’t think Joan was a coloratura: she was a soprano who had a great technique and was able to sing everything from Wagner to the lightest repertoire because she could manipulate and control her voice.

“Once she got the Lucia, she became hot property – all the theatres wanted her and they would listen to what we wanted to perform. We were able to sneak in all sorts of operas that would otherwise have never been done. Over the years we were able to do the first performances in over 100 years of certain operas. Daughter of the Regiment was not known at all when we first 
did it in Covent Garden in 1965.”

The question of diction 

“At times Joan’s diction was clear as a bell; at other times it wasn’t. Certainly, pronouncing words clearly when you’re singing in the stratosphere is a problem, and not only Joan’s problem, it’s the problem of many singers. When the voice is smaller it’s easier to make the words very clear. But occasionally you have to make a decision – what is more important, the line of the music or the words you sing? 

“I think when you’re singing a recitative, it’s absolutely important the words be clear. If you’re singing a great line of music, the musical line should take precedence.”

The strongest vocal cords in the world?

“We believed that if you’re singing correctly you don’t tire. You can speak all day without losing your voice, so why should the same not apply to singing? This is an ideal that is seldom realised, but it is possible. Joan, for example, became very strong over the years. I remember on several occasions she’d do a dress rehearsal full-voice in the morning, then another opera full-voice in the evening. But the younger singers would get tired after an hour’s work.

“A doctor in Covent Garden who visited her in the ’50s said Joan had the strongest vocal cords he’d ever seen. And he had seen the cords of Dame Nellie Melba. After her early days, Joan’s voice didn’t even need warming up. She had a voice that just worked.”

The hard slog

“Joan didn’t care about being in the public eye all the time; she just loved to sing. That was the main thing in her life: she adored singing and was very serious about it. She would be sitting up in bed – she didn’t sleep a lot – at 6am studying her texts, which she needed to do because she didn’t have a great memory. By God, she put in the hours!

“I don’t know too many singers today who put in that amount of time: they just want to be famous yesterday. I hear so many young singers who have lovely voices, but they don’t put in the hours. So you get all these big bel canto roles – Rossini, Verdi, Donizetti – which are sung well, but they’re not perfect: you can’t hear every single note. Singers take the easy way out – and that makes the difference between great and just good.”

Joan the actress

“When Joan began in opera, she was definitely not a stage animal. You could almost say she didn’t have a clue. But she learnt. And she kept learning, and it came to the stage where she would walk on the stage and the public were absolutely rapt even before she opened her mouth because her presence was so enormous. And it was one of those things that grew over the years.

“Just yesterday I received in the post a DVD of a complete performance of Lucia from the early ’80s in Holland, which was something I didn’t have and I played it through. I was so moved because she was completely immersed in the role, and it was just a normal performance on tour and she had no idea it was being videoed. It was a very, very moving experience, and at the same time was sung almost to perfection. It was indescribable. To say she wasn’t a great actress is ridiculous.”

Her nightmare performance

“I remember once in Palermo in the early ’60s she was doing the Lucia conducted by Tullio Serafin and she had woken up that morning with abscesses in both ears. They were 
very painful and she was almost deaf, and I said ‘Well, there’s no question of you singing today’. ‘I’m singing,’ she said. And that was that. 

“She went on, and in the middle of the Mad Scene one abscess burst. Blood literally coursed down her costume. The chorus girl standing next to her fell down in a dead faint right on stage, but Joan kept on singing to the end of the scene. And it was wonderful. I don’t know how she managed to sing so fantastically in tune when she couldn’t hear. Then I rushed backstage at the end of the act and asked, ‘Are you alright?’ She said: ‘Oh it’s marvellous, I can hear again!’ That was her reaction.

“She was such a stoic woman. When Joan was ill, she would never cancel. In her whole career of 45 years, she cancelled less than ten times. Which is quite something when you think of some of the big stars who cancel constantly.”

Joan’s favourite role

 

“In exploring the bel canto repertoire I came across an opera by Massenet called Esclarmonde, which the composer supposedly regarded as his masterwork. Joan had huge success at the San Francisco Opera, and the director Kurt Adler wanted her back. He asked, ‘What would you like to do?’ And we said, ‘Esclarmonde!’ He’d never heard of it, but I told him it was a great role for Joan and a wonderful piece. Without a second thought he said, ‘Well, if you say it’s good, I’ll believe you. We’ll do it!’

“And not only did he do it but he gave us an extraordinary, beautiful production by Beni Montresor, which went on to the Metropolitan Opera then to Covent Garden. At the end it was Joan’s favourite opera. All the years she was singing, she never played her own records. But I’d frequently come back into the house and hear Esclarmonde. She loved that piece; she adored it.”

Photo: Joan Sutherland as Esclarmonde at the Metropolitan Opera, 1976.

The rivalries with other sopranos?

“I can assure you those never existed at all. She was great friends with Beverly Sills and although she wasn’t an intimate friend of Maria Callas, they got on well, and Callas (left) was very nice to Joan at the beginning of her career.

“She got along with almost all the singers she came in contact with, and some like Marilyn Horne became very dear friends. She wasn’t jealous of people; she didn’t have a jealous bone in her body. She loved to sing and the better her partners were, the more she enjoyed it – it always brought out the best in her.”

Coming home

“In 1974 the Australian Opera invited us out to do Tales of Hoffmann. They gave us a beautiful production and we had the pick of the young Australian singers. And when we were out there, I was asked to take on the musical directorship of the Australian Opera, which I did for ten remarkable years. I loved it, and kept coming back because I enjoyed working for the company. It was more than a company, it was a family. Artistic director Moffatt Oxenbould and I had meetings every year with the singers to discuss their repertoire. We grew to love and care about them and were upset when we couldn’t make them all happy. 

“Joan, of course, wanted to be with me, so she was happy to do lots of performances in Australia. And I think Australia was very lucky to hear her in so many different roles. They even got her in Suor Angelica, which no one else in the world heard.”

The fights with Australia

“There were some wonderful fights with the board of the Australian Opera. I remember one board member saying, ‘What’s Lucia di Lammermoor?’ And there were fights over putting on Alcina or Fra Diavolo. These were operas which, in the end, earned the company a lot of money because they were a great success – and not just because of Joan. When we staged Alcina we did it with Joan Carden, so I wouldn’t be accused of putting family first, then my Joan sang it the following year. And Fra Diavolo was a great debut for Isobel Buchanan.

“But the board fought these things… They thought we were spending too much money, but it was peanuts compared to what they’re spending these days. And the public came and used to sleep out in the streets all night to get into the performances. The whole of the ’70s and the ’80s were exciting times for us in Australia. We loved it and I think the public were really with us.”

Joan’s greatest moments

“Joan always performed at a very high level. Occasionally she excelled herself, performing to such perfection that I couldn’t believe my ears, but it’s hard to say what her greatest moments were. Of course, the 1959 Lucia was wonderful, but the most extraordinary reception Joan ever had was at the 1965 production of La Sonnambula in Melbourne. The ovation lasted literally three quarters of an hour; it went on and on and on. They couldn’t get rid of the people: it was fantastic.

“The La Sonnambula was a particular favourite of mine. Everybody says Lucia. Of course, that was fabulous, but I adored La Sonnambula more. Music can be a very subjective thing, but what we always believed is that when people come to the theatre they should be immersed in magic, and if you don’t get some great feeling of being taken out of yourself and put into another world then we are not doing our job. It’s our job to make magic. Or at least to try.”

The final curtain

 

“After she retired in 1989, that was it. She might have crooned to herself around the house, but she didn’t do any exercises or worry about the breath or anything like that. She’d just warble to herself, singing anything that came into her head without actually thinking about vocal production. At the end of her career she said, “It’s been wonderful, I’ve had enough.” Full stop. 

“She didn’t miss it. I think what she missed was the colleagues. She loved being with her colleagues in the opera, and she had many, many friends around the world, so she used to miss them. Musically, she’d like to listen to music, but I don’t think she needed to perform anymore. She’d been through that part of her life.”

My life after Joan

“I don’t feel she’s gone; she’s still around. In our house especially, which she inhabits in a very live way. I still talk to her all the time. But I’m very busy, which is a good thing. We have to accept what happens. Joan was very, very ill, and the quality of her life had deteriorated to a terrible extent. She was ready to go, and she didn’t linger on. I couldn’t bear seeing her suffer. It wasn’t a shock to me when she went. It happened and it was the right thing at the time. 

“I think most people who spend so much time together end up hating each other. But Joan and I respected each other. We were very different people. I loved certain things and she loved other things, but I respected all the things she wanted to do and vice versa. It was an incredible, wonderful life we had together. And of course I miss that, I can tell you.”

For more recollections of Dame Joan Sutherland, including one of her final interviews, pick up your copy of the December 2011 issue of Limelight here.