Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Nook, Opera Queen Division

Looking for a good read? I hate to be anything but a total enthusiast about someone so fabulous, but I'm afraid that after ten days of slogging, I can recommend one book to avoid.

A Prima Donna's Progress, the autobiography of the redoubtable Dame Joan Sutherland, the Antipodean sensation known to opera lovers everywhere as La Stupenda, is less a memoir than a semi-guided tour of the world's most detailed datebook. It chronicles seemingly every event in the lady's long and varied career, one that should be - one might think - absolutely chockablock with incident, drama, and anecdote.

Instead, we get a relentless listing of every flight, every rehearsal, and Lord knows every performance that took place in a career that stretched from the end of the Second War almost to the end of the century. In fits of enthusiasm, people she encounters are described as "clever", "kind", or (in a rare spasm of enthusiasm) "talented"; otherwise, she remains singularly and obdurately silent on questions such as personality, aesthetics, or even the occasional on-the-fly observation of the goings-on about her.

Even so, it must be admitted, something of the magnificent absurdity of a diva's existence does float to the surface, apparently despite the authoress's best intentions. There is, for instance, the evocation of a vanished world conjured up by the juxtaposition of the lady's activities during a single week in the early '70s, in which she combined rehearsals at the Met with a quick stop at the book launch for Cole Lesley's tome on his life as Noël Coward's amanuensis and companion, with a (one presumes) lengthier appearance at a record signing in her honor - at Korvette's.

Still - it's a long haul, and the occasional gems are few and far between. It's frustrating to spend time with someone who's met everyone from Marjorie "Interrupted Melody" Lawrence to the Queen Mother but who doesn't have an interesting thing to say about anyone, a certain sniffy dismissal of Pavarotti's starstruck ways possibly excepted.

Instead, why don't you read Cole Lesley's book, or the brief and touching memoir by Graham Payn, who was also Coward's intimate? The latter writes movingly on how much it meant that Sutherland - unlike many of the Master's other friends and toadies - kept up her relations with the eccentric band of companions Coward called "the family" even when the great man was no more (rarely has any widow been more thoroughly and completed dropped than Payn, and by people who really ought to have known better).

Reading Dame Joan, one senses that there is a fascinating, sympathetic soul in there somewhere lost in the rush to get from place to place; reading about her, one learns with satisfaction that there truly is.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for mentioning a book I enjoyed reading very much. Love Joan Sutherland's creamy tones, and the repertory she sang.
    After reading the book, I couldn't help but admire her all the more: It read like a travelogue, what incessant travelling -- you have to admire her all the more for having the constitution to be able not only to keep up with the hectic pace, but to excel at the peak of one's profession despite the less-than-ideal circumstances created by so much travel.
    Anyway, glad I discovered your blog; very nice indeed.
    Have a great weekend,