It is perhaps inevitable that anything to do with Dame Joan Sutherland be a matter of eye-watering statistics – even a coffee table book about her home in Switzerland. Chalet Monet is a bicep-building 350 pages and the chatty text by maestro Richard Bonynge is further enlivened with some 1000 photographs, both from their archive and by photographer Dominique Bersier. The effect is overwhelming and demands much browsing.
The house is four stories of many rooms, a Gothic-style tower and overlooks Lac Leman from above Montreux. According to Bonynge, “Noël Coward is the reason we came to live in Les Avants. Joan and I had met Noël on a ship crossing the Atlantic on our way to New York in the sixties. At the time we were living between our London home and a lovely old villa on Lago Maggiore. Noël suggested that it would be far more convenient if we lived more centrally, nearer Geneva or Zürich airports, and said he would help us find a house…”
An hour and a bit to Geneva and more than two to Zürich stretches “convenient” but anyway, Bonynge writes, he didn’t like the places Noël found but instead wanted the one up the mountain from the playwright’s. Sir Noël and the Bonynges were fond neighbours and the list of guests entertained is blindingly starry.
The photographs suggest a home that’s at once cosy and comfortable, grand and glittery. It is also a frank homage to Australia’s operatic goddess, her brilliant music making, triumphs and long life with Svengali-consort Bonynge. Piquantly, however, although evidence of Joan is to be found on every wall, the house is very much the creation of the conductor-collector.
As he so rightly says of the dozens of chandeliers, countless knickknacks and gewgaws, multitudes of portraits and other artworks, furnishings and furbelows, “I certainly realise that my house is cluttered…” One has to hope he has assistance in dusting these objets. It would be like painting the harbour bridge: never-ending yet much more fragile. Bonynge also notes, “Joan was very patient with my extravagances. We were absolute opposites – she did not desire possessions at all, and I became a passionate collector of many things.”
It’s a poignant admission. Sutherland’s personal simplicity was a striking quality. When she was preparing to retire from the stage, I was fortunate enough to spend an unexpected hour with her in Sydney. When asked what she was looking forward to she told me: being able to eat as much cheese as she liked and getting back to her garden – which she had rarely seen in Spring.
Bonynge now observes: “When she could, Joan loved being in the garden and would instruct our gardener on what needed doing. I, on the other hand, paid little attention! Since Joan’s death, I have become far more interested in gardening and now, to my surprise, I am full of suggestions! Spring is my favourite season – when the trees show their leaves and the flowers begin to bloom…”
As well as Bonynge’s squirrelling, Chalet Monet is also a memorial to a unique shared musical life. There is a massive music room where they rehearsed, recorded and practiced. Now, as well as an assembly of decorative eggs, the music is contained in orchestral, vocal and piano scores.
Chalet Monet is a treasury for opera buffs and stickybeaks alike. The house and its contents are idiosyncratic and extraordinary, and the book offers more than a glimpse into one man’s obsession and a musical partnership which we will never see again.
Note: Proceeds go to the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation for Young Singers.
By Richard Bonynge AC CBE
Melbourne Books, HB, pp346, $95
Available online from Booktopia