Joan Sutherland: ‘a singer is there to sing’

October 22, 1972: Joan Sutherland is a big, cheerful presence, with a big, vertical-oblong face, as down-to-earth a prima donna as you could ever wish to meet (she once told Susan she thought the famous white air conditioning funnels on the CBC-Vancouver forecourt looked like “diseased penises”).

She’s one of the world’s great operatic sopranos, but for the longest time, she says, she thought she was a mezzo, like her mother. “I never actually believed the top was on my voice, but he always did.” She’s pointing at her husband, Richard Bonynge, as she says this.

They’re in town for a Lucrezia Borgia at the Vancouver Opera and happily ensconced (with her hairdresser, a close friend of Bonynge, in the basement) at a pretty house on the northern fringe of elegant old Shaughnessy. Much of the recent bel canto revival has to do with this couple—he’s one who digs them out, she’s the one who brings them alive. “I sometimes wonder,” he says,” why some of these modern composers, with their incredible leaps and their bad intervals, ever write for the voice at all.”

Most modern operas, he says, have strong plots but weak music, “so what you’re faced with is drama and not opera. The best opera has to transcend the drama—Otello, you might say, is even better than Shakespeare’s original.” Hmm.

But Joan chips in, and takes a swipe at those who choose to criticize the “static” staging so often seen in opera. “It all boils down to the same old argument,” she says. “If people want good acting they should go to the theatre. A singer should study to be as good an actor as he or she can possibly be, but she is predominantly there to sing. An opera speaks through its singing, not through its drama.”

 

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