Joan Sutherland’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey: a reminder of mortality

Joan Sutherland was a year younger than Jennifer Vyvyan, born in 1926. But that was close enough for their careers to run side by side for a while. And although Sutherland’s career soared to incomparable heights – not for nothing was she dubbed The Voice of the Century – one of her early Covent Garden roles was stepping in for Vyvyan in the cast of Britten’s Gloriana.

Gloriana premiered in 1953 with Vyvyan as Lady Rich. Sutherland had made her Covent Garden debut the year before, but she was still singing small roles and wouldn’t hit the headlines until six years later with her historic 1959 Lucia di Lammermoor.

Meanwhile, the Gloriana production was scheduled to tour to Rhodesia; and although Britten wrote Vyvyan a flattering letter begging her to stay with the show on tour, she didn’t. So the role of Lady Rich passed to Sutherland – who was clearly not Britten’s choice. The incident may well have contributed to the not so flattering parody of Sutherland’s Lucia success that Britten incorporated into A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1960.

I was pondering all this yesterday at Sutherland’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey where, unsurprisingly, the music included nothing by Britten. But there sure was a lot of music.

The Royal Opera orchestra played bel canto medleys under Antonio Pappano. A fine young Australian soprano, Valda Wilson, sang Mozart and Faure. The hymns focused on the theme of vocal praise – with Vaughan Williams’ ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’ as the perfectly appropriate choir anthem. And the first lesson – read by Norma Major who once wrote a lame but well-intentioned Sutherland biography – was the power-of-music passage where Saul is troubled and calls for the aural balm of ‘a man who is a cunning player on an harp’.

What stays in my mind, though, was a small but understandable slip in one of the prayers. A member of the Sutherland family was giving thanks for the great lady’s ‘gift of friendship and loyalty to those she loved’ – except the reader stumbled into the present tense and said ‘loves’. And that, I thought, summed up the paradox of people dying on you.

If you were at all close to them, you know they’re gone but feel they haven’t. And although most of us in the Abbey yesterday can only have had limited contact with Joan Sutherland, she was a presence in the world that doesn’t disappear.

I never saw her sing onstage, except in cameo at the end of her career when the show was over; and to be truthful, her bel canto repertoire has never been one of my passions. But there was no denying the glory of that voice. And thanks to Mr Edison’s miracle, the voice is still there.

It was there in the Abbey yesterday, on two recorded extracts that played on not such a miraculous sound system and didn’t seem to me to represent her at her best (an early Let the Bright Seraphim where there are moments of vocal vulnerability before the triumphant flourish at the end, and a Casta Diva that sounded sepulchral: a bit too obviously from the far side of the grave). But in every other respect it was an affirmatively wonderful occasion.

Memorials, though, are always a reminder of mortality. The music establishment turned out in force for this one, some of them looking fragile. Lord Harewood – who features in the photo at the top of this page, second from the left – was there in a wheelchair. Sir John Tooley, who ran the Royal Opera House in its glory days of the 70s and 80s, gave the address but had to be helped to the pulpit by a wandsman: always a dignified figure, he doesn’t walk so well now. And of course, there was Sutherland’s life partner Richard Bonynge – who read the second lesson, haltingly but also with enormous dignity.

My dealings with Joan Sutherland were happy ones but few and far between, and I don’t know if she had deep belief or if she’d have appreciated this kind of grand Anglican remembrance. But she could only have appreciated being loved – who wouldn’t? – and there was a lot of love in this service. It was the church at its best, celebrating humankind at its best. A kind of human whose place in our musical experience will always feel distinctly present-tense.

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3 Responses to Joan Sutherland’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey: a reminder of mortality

  1. cna says:

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  2. viamallow says:

    Any effects created before 1975 were done with either tape or echo chambers or some kind of acoustic treatment. No magic black boxes!

  3. Michael Willoughby says:

    Just saw MND at the ENO. Thisbe is a parody of Donizetti, got that. Pyramus is surely Verdi pastiche. Or is it Rossini? Or no one? Can’t find reference to it anywhere. Thanks

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