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Opera Buffs Mourn Sutherland
by Jake Highton
Nov 13, 2010 | 839 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The wonderful thing about singers, actors and entertainers is that they give so much pleasure to millions of people worldwide.

Such a joy-giver was soprano Joan Sutherland, “La Stupenda” (the stupendous one).

Sutherland, who died recently, was an Australian soprano in the tradition of outstanding Australian voices like that of Nellie Melba. (Yes, she for whom Melba toast and peach Melba were created by the famed French chef Escoffier.)

For four decades Sutherland enthralled opera goers with the power and range of her voice.

Anthony Tommasini, New York Times music critic, wrote:

“Her voice was evenly produced throughout an enormous range, from a low G to effortless flights above high C. She could spin lyrical phrases with elegant legato, subtle colorings and expressive nuances.

“Her sound was warm, vibrant and resonant without any forcing. Her voice was so  naturally large at the start of her career that Sutherland seemed destined to become a Wagnerian dramatic soprano.”

Fortunately, she turned to bel canto of early 19th century Italian opera. This led to Covent Garden in 1959 and international acclaim.

Her most famous role was as Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Her singing of that opera’s Mad Scene drew a 12-

minute ovation during her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1961.

She also starred in Bellini’s “Norma,” perhaps the greatest challenge in all opera. It was a work popularized in the 1950s by “la divina” Maria Callas.

Although best known for the hefty roles of Lucia and Norma, she also handled the lighter ones with aplomb. One was the Lehár operetta  “The Merry Widow,” the other, Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the  Regiment.”

Sutherland, to put it kindly, was no beauty. But she charmed her way through light roles.

In my video of her performance in “The Merry Widow” (Australian Opera, Sydney, 1988), she comes on stage with a winning smile. She then sings wonderfully throughout to capture the spirit of Gay Paree. The operetta glows with lilting waltzes, lively dances and cancans. I defy listeners to avoid occasional tears of joy.

Sutherland sang at the Met 223 times. I was one of the lucky ones to hear her sing in a Met production. After the Met closed its New York season in April it began a national tour. I heard her in Cleveland and Detroit.

After one thrilling Sutherland performance of “Lucia” in Cleveland, as I was leaving the opera hall, a grande dame walking beside me said to her companion: “She was OK but nothing like Galli-Curci.” (Galli-Curci was a diva in the Caruso era in the first two decades of the 20th century.)

As they say, everything is relative. Someone remembers what they think was a greater singer.             

Zinn file

The FBI has released its 423-page file on Howard Zinn, the late historian who revealed so many shameful episodes left out of most history books.

His book, “A People’s History of the United States” (1980),  and “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (1995) by James Loewen, are two of the most important history books ever written.

Loewen demolished the myth of American exceptionalism as Charles Beard in 1907 shattered the sacred image of the Founders. Beard stressed their devotion to property (slaves) and protecting their wealth and privilege.

But to the FBI Zinn was a dangerous subversive. His criticism of U.S. policy posed “a high security risk.” Essayist Chris Hedges, writing for the online Truthout, notes: “Genuine intellectual thought is always subversive. It always challenges prevailing assumptions.”

Hedges cited Zinn’s “fierce moral autonomy and personal courage,” concluding that Zinn was a threat “because he was fearless and told the truth.”

The FBI file stretches from 1948 to 1974. At one point five agents were tailing Zinn. Agents made frequent phone calls to his employers, colleagues and landlords seeking evidence of subversion. 

They obviously found none. It was  an outrageous waste of time and money. And it reveals the paranoia of the national security state that hasn’t changed one iota since the unlamented reign of J. Edgar Hoover.

Boobus Italianus

This columnist has railed for years against boobus Americanus, made-up Latin for the American boob.

But the Italians also suffer from boobitis. They constantly re-elect Premier Silvio Berlusconi despite his corruption, abuse of office, penchant for teenage girls and prostitutes,  divorce proceedings against him and his macho anti-gayism.

However, even Italian tolerance has its limits.  Parliament has passed a no-confidence resolution after members of Berlusconi’s own center-right coalition government cried “basta!”

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Contact him at
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