Saturday, September 29, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: La Stupenda

Opera is perhaps the art form most at home with camp, best able to tread the fine, fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime.  Here we have an excellent example of that balancing act:  the "Bell Song" from Lakmé (a number that I prefer to think of by its alternative, far more camp title, "Ou va la jeune Hindoue?"), starring that one-woman Camp Explosion Diva, Dame Joan Sutherland.

A festival of orientalist kitsch, brownface aplenty, extreme coloratura, and a style of acting that can most kindly be referred to as gestural, it manages to be laughably silly (impersonating the dainty teenage daughter of an Indian priest, the statuesque Dame Joan looks like nothing so much as a drag queen dressed as the Duchess of Windsor en route to an ashram) and simultaneously quite marvelous (the woman can sing).  It's the sort of thing that in this day of headline operas and disposable "stars" is mostly just a memory, kept alive in the fever dreams of Opera Queens.

It's fine to be solemn and serious, to promote against all odds spiky new works in "transgressive" new settings - but sometimes, all you really want is a big lady in a bigger dress, being adored by a crowd of supernumeraries, singing loud.  Dame Joan, as always, comes through.  There's a treasurable moment round about 6:25, in which she assumes an attitude of almost superhuman self regard, as if the thought just struck her: Damn, I'm good.  She is.


  1. Your line "a drag queen dressed as the Duchess of Windsor en route to an ashram" made me hoot! The late, dearly departed Dame Joan certainly was the absolute epitome of camp, opera-style. Best of all? She bloody well knew it, and never took herself too seriously - a lesson her contemporaries such as Callas should have learned, and several modern-day wannabees should take note of.

    One of my greatest, campest treasures is her album with none other than Sir Noel Coward(!). It's the gayest thing ever! Jx

  2. I had occasion to meet her a few times back in the day. As observed, very self aware, and a sense of humour somewhere between 'arch' and 'wicked'. Favourite conversational topics were knitting and gardening. She generally loathed the starstruck fan (but hubby didn't), and the only time I heard her comment on specific roles was to say how much she loved 'doing' Lucia (and Norma), but the throwing herself backwards down the stairs was getting ever more difficult.

    1. Lucky man! She does seem to have been a singularly sensible gal - and therefore a nice foil for her husband. I only ever saw her once, gracing a balcony at a Carnegie Hall gala - even in that setting, she seemed to be of a completely different scale to everyone around her. Magnificent. She earned her nickname...

    2. She was a regular performer in Sydney during the late 70's/early 80's. Coloratura wasn't popular, but it was 'special' to see her, if not a huge deal if that makes sense. Later in life I was peripherally involved in the yartz, hence the more casual encounters. Another funny story was a friend posing for a pic with her at dinner. He later used it as a birthday invite, a copy of which his mum took to an autograph session. Joan looked at it, laughed and boomed "I remember this - how is "X", recalling not only the occasion, but my mates name! cheers.