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: