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Sydney Opera House

Speech by Moffatt Oxenbould for the State Memorial in honour of Dame Joan Sutherland

9 November 2010

In recent weeks many sincere and affectionate words have been spoken and written in tribute to Dame Joan Sutherland. Her talent, humanity and sense of responsibility have been commended and her unpretentiousness remarked upon. Some have used the word ordinary – no doubt intending it as a compliment - but Joan Sutherland was far from ordinary; on so many levels – as an artist, an Australian, a colleague and a friend - she was extraordinary.

Having won two major Australian singing competitions, Joan Sutherland left Sydney in 1951, dreaming of a career in opera. Her ambition was comparatively modest: to sing on the stage at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden – something she was to realize in October 1952, but only after four separate auditions. Seven years later she sang Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for the first time, in a dazzling performance that made her an international star overnight. Very soon Sutherland was singing in the greatest opera houses of the world. One noted American critic said it all: “She came; she sang; she conquered!”

In 1954 she had married Richard Bonynge, a fellow Australian musician, who had the foresight to recognize that the dramatic repertoire in which she was being cast was not the vocal direction in which she should be heading. He believed she had the ability to sing the repertoire of the great 19th century prima donnas for whom Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti had written such bravura scores, and he gave her the confidence to embrace these bel canto operas of which she was to prove such a stupendous exponent. The artistic and life partnership of Richard and Joan Bonynge stands as a wonderful enduring love story – each a strong and greatly gifted individual, together they really were extraordinary!

Back home, Australian opera lovers devoured news that reached our shores of Joan Sutherland’s triumphant progress. Each new recording thrilled us and we hoped that Australia would soon hear her again “on home soil”.

In 1964 Sir Frank Tait, of J.C.Williamson’s Theatres, announced that “the firm”, as Williamson’s was known, was bringing Sutherland back to Australia in the following year, to head a specially-formed opera company, whose artistic director would be Richard Bonynge.

All of us lucky enough to have been involved in that historic 1965 season had high expectations of the reality of having Sutherland in our midst, but I’m certain none of us had any idea that these expectations would be so hugely exceeded. When we first heard her sing, jaws dropped as we marveled, not just at technical brilliance and virtuosity, but at the sheer beauty of her God-given voice and its ability to make immediate contact with the depths of one’s emotional core. But perhaps the most happily surprising discovery was that while our star was a true leading lady, with an absolutely disciplined and professional attitude to our work together, she was also a fantastic colleague with no airs or graces about her stellar status. She was a real team-player – a star player, definitely – but one who shared the sense of privilege we all felt at being given the opportunity to be involved professionally in such an amazing operatic adventure in our own country.  The curtain call after the last performance of the Melbourne season in 1965 is something one will never forget, as an old rehearsal piano was pushed onto the stage in response to the audience’s insistent chanting that Australia’s beloved star should sing “Home sweet home”. How she sang it I’ll never know, but I do know that it was one of those rare occasions when the bond between artist and audience was acknowledged with overwhelming love and mutual respect.

Nine eventful years went by before the Bonynges’ return to Australia - to appear with the Australian Opera in the Sydney Opera House in recital and a new production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.

At the end of the triumphal first night – the 13th July 1974-Joan and Richard were invited to become Life Members of the company, an invitation they willingly accepted. And from that day onwards, both these great Australian artists played a personal as well as a professional role in the company’s life, sharing triumph and adversity, joy and sadness, leading by example, and encouraging members of the company - young and not so young – in the pursuit of excellence.

Dame Joan was undoubtedly one of the greatest singers the world has ever known, an artist who richly deserved the honorificprima donna - first lady - because she realized that being a star had obligations among the accolades. She was always conscious of the expectations of her audience, loyal to the managements that engaged her, to her colleagues and,  most of all, to the music she sang. She was not a performer who assumed something would go well because it had gone well in the past: every performance day she went through her score, even though she may have sung the music on countless occasions. Her life was disciplined, and her humility absolutely genuine. Her high profile and international eminence naturally made her an advocate and ambassador for opera in Australia – a role she played with persuasive grace and considerable passion.

Her performances simulcast across the nation on ABC radio and television brought her artistry into the homes of Australians who had perhaps never been inside an opera house. Under the scrutiny of television cameras, her integrity and honesty as a performer shone through. Her public loved her – and she loved them back.

A couple of years after her final stage performance Joan told me that she “didn’t miss the performing so much – but she did miss the people”; she thrived on a camaraderie founded on mutual trust, respect and affection. She loved chatting at a table of colleagues in the green room during rehearsal breaks and with Sandy, her dresser and Shirley, who looked after her wigs: planning the logistics and sequences of makeup, costume and wig changes for each production, and when, in a long opera, was the best moment to have a cup of tea!

Future generations - and all of us who were privileged to hear and work with her - are extraordinarily fortunate to have such a rich document of her artistry available to us on CD and DVD. These recordings are part of our national cultural heritage, to wonder at in years to come as we marvel at the achievement of the young Australian soprano who, on 17th July 1951, sailed past Bennelong Point, through Sydney Heads, with the dream of singing on the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. How hard she worked and how stupendously that dream came true!

This gracious lady now has a high place in the Pantheon of the lyric stage as one of the finest artists of any generation, forever woven into music’s history. On behalf of her many colleagues and friends I give thanks for the life of Dame Joan Sutherland, who shared with us her joy in singing and always gave us her very best: inspiring, thrilling, provoking and encouraging us to believe that we - like her, but in our own ways - had the possibility of doing extraordinary things.