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October 12, 2010

More thoughts on Joan Sutherland, and more souvenirs of her art

For lovers of the vocal art, great opera singers are the equivalent of great movie stars. They've got the same larger-than-life aura. They make us look forward intently to their next performance, while we treasure each past one. They keep us interested in their private lives. We love to read about what they're doing and thinking, their views about themselves or others, about the business and the art.

We lost a major opera star Monday, when Dame Joan Sutherland, the astonishing Australian-born soprano, died at 83. Never mind that she stopped singing publicly a long time ago. Her presence was ever-fresh on recordings and video. And, having left an extremely high bar, Dame Joan was always still around, in a sense, whenever anyone, anywhere sang her repertoire -- "Not bad, but you should have heard Joan Sutherland."

Dame Joan, like Maria Callas, transformed the way people heard a big part of the opera repertoire, the bel canto genre that had mostly been the domain of songbird sopranos before they came along. Dame Joan did not have the earthy, emotional sound of Callas, but she nonetheless could flesh out coloratura filigree in a stunning way. The richness of the voice, from top to bottom, and the superb sense of style made all the difference. And Dame Joan proved just as compelling when she moved beyond bel canto, even way beyond, at least on one venerable recording, into the demanding title role of Puccini's "Turandot."

This much-loved soprano earned the affection of opera fans because she could make opera so exciting just with the brilliant sound she made. We crave fabulous voices the way early film fans craved fabulous faces. Dame Joan Sutherland satisfied and justified the need for opera stars. It's that simple.

We want our idols to stay with us; we don't care if they age, or stay mostly out of sight, as long as they're still around. It doesn't feel right, doesn't feel fair when they're gone. It hurts a little when a living legend passes on to legend.

I couldn't resist posting some more souvenirs of the Sutherland legacy. My thanks to a friend for alerting me to a rare, just-posted video of the soprano in never-broadcast footage from a '74 Met "Hoffmann," which I'm sharing here (I hope it doesn't get pulled before you get a chance to enjoy Dame Joan's Olympia). For fun, I've added an audio clip of the unlikely trio of Joan, Ella and Dinah singing Gilbert and Sullivan. And then the sublime combination of Joan Sutherland and her longtime friend Marilyn Horne in the "Norma" duet:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:20 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


Tim, I adore her Olympia/ Giulietta/ Antonia and am absolutely sure that no one has ever surpassed Joan Sutherland in portraying the 3 facets of Woman.
"Mira O Norma" has been one of my favorite opera duets since I heard it performed by Sutherland and Horne.
I take her death as a personal loss and grieve deeply. The world has lost a true artist, the most loyal and devoted priestess of Music.

Thanks very much for your comments. TIM

Thanks for posting these. It was wonderful in the Norma selection to see her looking so young! What a glorious voice.

Glad you liked it. Glorious, indeed. TIM

a poem I meant to send her and never did.
i dedicate this poem to joan
The greatest pretender in the sky
is a thief in wings
and sings ands sings in purloined folly

A burlesque bird first loots a throat
then coddles every stolen note
and assembles every syllable.

Then one by one in choral mime
as though specie was in the air
came robber - incognito
with incipit pompous dare.
And what honest notes could sound
that author care to see
that invention were an honest gift
achieved in authenticity.

Joan mimicked birds and did it better.
Im late in the news that she passed. In this case No news is better than some news. Singing now for the angels. its their turn to weep not out of courtesy but wonderment.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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