October 11, 2010

Joan Sutherland

The voice of of a century is gone.  She was 83.

I was lucky to have heard her live at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic in a concert version of Anna Bolena.  Her voice?  Though late in her career, I have never forgotten how it hovered in front of my face even though I was high up in the last row of the house.  It shimmered, glowed, and had a radiance that made me realize why the Italians called her "La Stupenda."

I also saw Sutherland give a masterclass/interview at The Juilliard School after she had retired. And though she did not seem to know how to teach her art to others, one observed that she knew—perhaps more than anyone of her time—the traditions of bel canto.

She could do it.

Talking about Sutherland with my husband at lunch today, he reminded me of a previous conversation we had about her voice, insofar as the vocal tone having an unusual acoustic property recognized by those who build organs. What is that property? To give an organ pipe a more luminous singing tone, pipes are designed to reinforce the octave overtone.  Sutherland's 'pipes'—one might say, had this in great evidence, that is a very different sound than is heard in voices that reinforce the 'third.'  The latter sounds reedy. Brigit Nilson's voice comes to mind here. 

Hers was a special voice. A great voice. And from a technical standpoint, a flawless one.  I count myself fortunate to have heard it with my own ears.  

The New York Times Obit can be read here.


  1. Daniel, your blog broke the news for me about Dame Joan. So sad! I'm sure they'll be a big write-up on her in our newspaper's Culture section tomorrow. I've got so many of her records, and of course as I write I've got one of her finest arias playing, "Se pietà" from Giulio Cesare. I always loved the creaminess in her voice, a quality she retained very late into her career. Just listen to her singing in "Esclarmonde", recorded when she was in her 50s -- superb singing of a stupendously difficult role. Unbelievable the way she was able to give everything a soft, rounded, creamy feel in stratospheres where so many other sopranos sound shrieky and shrill.
    Anyway, thanks for the news! (Have you ever read her autobiography? A must!)

  2. Daniel, I believe I saw a programme on Joan Sutherland about two months ago on BBC 4. I felt saddened by this news. It is truly end of the era of the traditions of bel canto. I love her singing big opera arias as much as I love her operatta. I remember buying her Home sweet home album a few years ago and I was touched by her exquisite voice in rendering these simple melodies (simple songs are not always the easiest to sing). I adore her version Marble Hall from THE BOHEMIAN GIRL. She sang word for word..full of ornamentation in phrases. I thought Jessye Norman's live performance of the song at Queen Elizabeth's birthday I believe, in London 1986, was one of the best. But I love Sutherland's version best. I will always associate this song with JS.

  3. It was a sad day here in Australia. The flags above our Harbour Bridge were at half mast, reminding me how proud we were to call her "Our Joan". I will remember her not only as one of the most prominent singers alive in my lifetime who had acquired ben canto techniques, but also as a woman of humility and generosity.


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