An extraordinary thing happened to Joan Sutherland recently.
As the most enduring coloratura soprano of our time made her way onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, the audience sent up such a storm of shrieking and stamping that "I Puritani," the work in progress, came to a standstill.
It was the 25th anniversary of Dame Joan's Met debut and the celebrants who grabbed up $350 orchestra seats did not intend to let the occasion pass without a proper uproar. But they may not have known that their tribute caused the honoree to despair.
"There was no way I could find my pitch after all that racket," says the 60-year-old diva in a telephone interview from her New York home--a two-story apartment in an old, elegant Brooklyn mansion overlooking Prospect Park.
"It would have been hopeless to try. And I was feeling slightly emotional, a bit staggered by the noisy reception. So I simply left the stage and made my entrance a second time."
With typical simplicity Sutherland, who will appear in concert at 8 tonight at Pasadena Civic Auditorium, makes light of the evening's subsequent outbursts--according to all reports, these far exceeded the normal definition of applause.
"It (the wild hollering and whistling) happened at every performance (of 'Puritani')," she explains. "They all felt obligated to live up to the opening-night crowd."
Those operatic die-hards would seem to lend credence to Sutherland's sobriquet, "La Stupenda"--an addition to the official title, Dame Commander of the British Empire, conferred upon her. But the Met management, which over the years has enjoyed a box-office bonanza, thanks to the Australian songbird's presence, has not always accommodated its prize talent agreeably.
In 1979, for instance, an artistic impasse ensued over repertory--Sutherland bowed out of Mozart's "Entfuehrung aus dem Serail." She says she did not want to tackle its high tessitura and "certainly could not sing 13 'Seraglios' in a row. At that stage, I didn't have to prove anything. Tough. I let them get on without me."
Responding in kind, the Met denied her request for a production of Lehar's "The Merry Widow," claiming it would preclude a worthier vehicle's staging. Only after a three-year lapse, and much media hullabaloo, did she return.
But the soprano with the trademark jutting jaw and crown of red hair still battles for her priorities.
Everyone, it seems, including husband-coach-mentor-accompanist-conductor Richard Bonynge, wants her to go on singing those bel-canto specialties (like "Puritani") that commonly drove Sutherland audiences to a frenzy. She will sing a good share of such arias tonight in her Pasadena concert, sponsored by the Ambassador Foundation.
"I really don't prefer these roles anymore," she says in somewhat thick tones, referring to the heroines of Bellini and Donizetti--loony ladies who bounce back and forth between madness and gladness via an extravagantly ornamented vocal line that requires boundless agility and high extensions.
"Comedies like 'Fledermaus' and 'Merry Widow' appeal to me more. There's no trauma. I get to stay alive at the end. And it's a happy time for all. Anyway, how can a 60-year-old woman portray a teen-ager like Elvira ('Puritani')? Ridiculous what they ask me to do.
"I've nearly always agreed in the past to choices made by the house. Now it should be my turn to call the shots."
Bonynge, however, continues to exert certain pressures, she says--thus her bel-canto-heavy program. In fact, the man acknowledged as Sutherland's vocal Svengali took charge nearly four decades ago. Had it not been for him, many observers speculate, the singer from Sydney might never have combined her assets--an extraordinary flexibility needed for florid music as well as a range and size of voice that define the true dramatic coloratura.
"Ricky (Bonynge) used to trick me," explains the soprano, who used to think of herself as a mezzo and sang a wide repertory during the 1950s at Covent Garden.
"I would go around dusting the furniture while practicing and he would accompany me at the piano. Because my pitch is only relative, I couldn't tell that he was transposing higher. He told me that I put a lid on the sound by forcing the middle."
His trickery not only worked, it's history. So much so that Sutherland and Bonynge are an inseparable package--he conducts all her performances, despite some criticism that the helpmate bonus could at the same time be an artistic limitation.
"I just don't believe it," says Bonynge's undoubting diva. "For the first 10 years I sang with Serafin, Giulini and Klemperer, and conductors like Kubelik and Solti also made their impact on me.
"But now we travel together everywhere and I don't have to be lonely. Besides, I can't imagine anything better than collaborating with the most sympathetic musician, the person who reads your mind and vice versa. If worse came to worse and we'd had a wild night of partying, we could get by without any rehearsal at all."