Sir John Tooley General Director, Royal Opera House (1970-1988)
Tuesday, 15th February 2011 at 12:27 PM
The most glorious, the most beautiful voice to be heard anywhere round the world during the second half of the last century belonged to an unassuming and down-to-earth Australian: Joan Sutherland.
Joan’s introduction to music was rapid. Her mother was a singer who had decided not to pursue a professional career, but nevertheless kept up a daily routine of vocal exercises, which Joan began to emulate.
Recordings of great singers of the day were an integral part of her upbringing, inspiring some singing along from the family. Joan had also started piano lessons and later tried to join the school choir on her enrolment at St Catherine’s School for Girls, but was rejected because it was said she sang too loudly and would drown the other girls.
The war was well under way when Joan began to consider making a career as a singer. Forever practical, she decided that she must first learn shorthand and typing, and, for good measure, threw in dressmaking. Equipped with the means of earning her living, she found an office job and concentrated on her singing in her spare time. While thumbing through a newspaper one day she spotted a small advertisement offering free lessons to an untrained or semi-trained young singer deemed the winner of a competition sponsored by two singing teachers, John and Aida Dickens. Joan entered, apparently making a poor visual impression but giving a far better performance than any of the other applicants. Joan won and lessons began.
There was an immediate recognition by the Dickens that she was a soprano of considerable potential. To this end they gradually extended her voice against strong resistance from Joan and her mother, the former lacking self-confidence and the latter still convinced that her daughter was a mezzo. As the Dickens worked on her voice, they encouraged her to study languages and attend a drama school for coaching in movement, deportment and elocution.
Performance opportunities for Joan were opening up, and of course there were competitions, a feature of Australian life. She was not always lucky, but in 1950 she came first in the Mobil Quest competition. This, with some help from her uncle John, enabled her to book passages to London for her mother and herself.
During this period Joan met Richard Bonynge, who had recently won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. While piano was his principal study, Bonynge had been researching 18th and early 19th-century opera and the bel canto repertoire, tradition and style were of profound interest to him. He was already in London when Joan and her mother arrived in August 1951, and soon he and Joan were to meet up again. Meanwhile Joan and mother had installed themselves in a bedsitter in the attic of a Notting Hill house at a rent of £3 per week, bought a battered upright piano for £14 and somehow got that up to their attic. Money was tight, but they reckond they could survive for 2 years.
Armed with a letter of introduction, Joan went to see Clive Carey, the Director of the Opera Course at the RCM. He was impressed by her singing , but was concerned about her ungainliness. He recommended that she join the Opera School for a year in an attempt to correct this. Joan readily agreed but became more and more disheartened as she compared her physique with that of others. It was doing nothing to build her confidence.
Away from the College, Richard and Joan were working on her voice. By this time she was considered by most to be a dramatic soprano, but Richard was coming to a different conclusion, convinced that in her voice lay the potential to embrace everything which the bel canto repertoire and style demanded: purity of tone, a brilliant and high coloratura, flexibility and range. He knew that he had no easy task persuading Joan of this nor could he look to her mother as an ally.
In attempts to convince her he would resort to deception by telling her that she had sung a high C, whereas it was actually E flat. It was a huge struggle for both of them. “We fought like cats and dogs,” said Joan, to which she added, “and it took Richard three years to convince me.” For a long time she clung to an ambition to be a Wagnerian soprano – Kirsten Flagstadt was her idol.
Joan had applied to Covent Garden for an audition and was eventually offered a place in the Covent Garden Opera as a Principal at £10 per week - £15 on tour – from July 1952. Her debut was as the First Lady in The Magic Flute, followed by the Priestess in Aida. Next came Clotilda in Norma. Maria Callas led the cast, and observing Callas at work must surely have helped Joan to realise that a dramatic soprano could sing coloratura passages effectively without lightening the voice.
On arrival at the Royal Opera House, and contrary to expectations, Joan was agreeably surprised to find that everybody welcomed her warmly and were eager to help by showing her how things worked and what it was to be a member of an opera company. She often recalled how fortunate she was to have started her career at Covent Garden, particularly when it was an ensemble company.
Learning new roles was the norm at the Opera House and the going was hard. She was also spending time with Norman Ayrton, a well-known stage producer, who had been engaged to coach her in stagecraft, movement, elocution and deportment. To add to the pressure, she was afflicted by recurring ear, nose and throat problems.
Richard was there for her all this time and the role he was playing in her vocal and artistic development was increasingly recognised by the Covent Garden staff. His faith in Joan, if anything, grew stronger, and in 1954, in the midst of a huge amount of work, they married.
The years Joan spent at the Royal Opera House were productive for her as she gained more stage and performing experience. By the mid 1950s her standing was such that she and Richard could influence the choice of her repertoire.
The outcome of discussions at this time was the decision to mount a production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on Joan, a decision much favoured by Sir David Webster, a strong supporter of hers from the beginning. Tullio Serafin was engaged to conduct, and Franco Zeffirelli to design and direct.
The first performance on 17 February 1959 was a triumph for Joan and all concerned with it. The response of the public was tumultuous. In the audience was Maria Callas who went to Joan’s dressing room to congratulate her, apparently reminding her that it was she who had encouraged her to sing roles such as Lucia.
This was obviously a major turning point in Joan’s career and nothing would be the same again. Opera houses all over the world wanted her. What was now in prospect was a major revival of the bel canto repertoire, which Callas had started and Joan was to continue.
In the midst of the clamour for her time, Joan never forgot her roots and performances in Australia always featured in her plans. In 1965 she and Richard undertook a major tour of Australia under the auspices of J. C. Williamson Theatres, who had organised a similar tour for Dame Nellie Melba. Included in the company was Luciano Pavarotti.
Joan was a superlative singer, possessed of a ravishingly beautiful voice: pure, large, even throughout its wide range, flexible, warm and vibrant. She used it with consummate artistry to musical and dramatic ends. She fudged nothing, there was no light touching of a high or difficult note. Every note was sung with full amplitude of tone and clearly articulated, whatever the speed. Ornaments and trills, the latter of which she apparently learnt from her mother, were a marvel too.
The impact Joan made on her audiences, whether in the theatre, concert hall or on disc was profound, never to be forgotten. And all of this from an engaging and supremely modest human being.
Sir John Tooley
General Director, Royal Opera House 1970-1988