Oct 13, 2010

The Dame Joan Effect

Joan Sutherland, opera singer, born 7 November 1926; died 10 October 2010 The Celebrity Demise effect Unfortunate ol

W H Chong — Culture Mulcher

W H Chong

Culture Mulcher

Joan Sutherland, opera singer, born 7 November 1926; died 10 October 2010

The Celebrity Demise effect

Unfortunate old joke: ‘I heard he died last night.’…’But I didn’t even know he was sick.’ Tony Curtis. Walter Cronkite. Er, Don Lane. A great fame is like an immortality, making static the old and famous while the rest of us are slip-sliding away. I was surprised Joan Sutherland was only 83. She seems to have been around forever, famous forever. Famous when she was all of 33 in 1959, with most of her career before her.


The Wordsworth effect

It was in a car many years ago, driving in the countryside, going where I can’t recall. The sun was out and a softness in the air makes me think it was spring. And out of that pale washed blue came a bolt — or maybe, as Billy Collins poemed recently, it hit me like a heavy bolt of cloth. Unprepared, I was ungrounded by the Wordsworth effect. You may recall it was another poet, Philip Larkin, who defined the feeling, a mobile society version of Stendahl syndrome:

‘Wordsworth was nearly the price of me once,’ Philip Larkin said in a 1979 interview. ‘I was driving down the M1 on a Saturday morning; they had this poetry slot on the radio, “Time for Verse.” It was a lovely summer morning and someone suddenly started reading the Immortality ode, and I couldn’t see for tears. And when you’re driving down the middle lane at seventy miles an hour … I don’t suppose I’d read that poem for twenty years. It’s amazing how effective it was when I was totally unprepared for it…’

The Dame Joan effect

That’s a mite hifalutin, dramatic. It was more like Beach Boy Brian Wilson in 1967 on first hearing the Beatles’ new single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’; he was driving a car and had to pull up so he could just sit and listen to it in wonder. Just so, I was motoring along and the radio suddenly released an extraordinary phenomenon, the Dame Joan effect — a voice that sounded like a throat crammed with twenty nightingales all trilling at once. It was Dame Joan singing the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. I’d never sat and listened to opera before, then as unlikely to claim my attention as footy club songs.

After a blank second’s incomprehension, I came to, pulled over and turned it up. It was astonishing; I was astonished. It didn’t seem possible to compress so many notes into this aural cloud, so much colour — a synesthete would have recognised the feeling. It was a confounding demonstration of what a human voice can generate (I find the deep voice chanting of the Gyuto monks just as incredible). Dazzling, the clarity inside the sheer speed — how it made manifest the melodic patterns within the great rush of sound; a waterfall in flood, flashing and haloed in parhelia. It was a transfixing novelty and a complicated exercise in listening; the song fugitive, the effects overwhelming. It was actually hair-raising, specifically, the hairs on the back of the neck.

It wasn’t a surprise to discover it was Lucia and the mad scene that launched La Stupenda, that, as it were, fixed her fach. (Though I prefer the lovers’ duet in Act 1 — necessarily less histrionic, with a fine tenderness. Watch Joan do it in 1972, paired with her protege Pavarotti as Edgardo, who is rotund at 37 and smooth as an egg, castable as a genial Humpty Dumpty.) Some while later I went along to an Australian Opera production of Lucia, fell asleep after the love duet and jerked awake just in time for the mad scene.

joansutherland2One is struck by her distinctive ugliness, or as one would have said back then, plainness — that remarkable jaw, leading with her chin. Those little eyes under the massive forehead. The drag queen boxiness. (There was a little bit of her about Margaret Thatcher.) ‘I always knew,’ she would say, ‘that I just wasn’t cut out for a 15-year-old Madam Butterfly or a consumptive Mimi.’ (That quote is from the Guardian obituary, which is credited to Alan Blyth. A curious footnote informs us that the obit writer, Blyth, died in 2007.)

But here is Dame Joan performing her most famous role one last time in 1988, very impressive at 62, her flame/chestnut/russett mane making her more the lion in winter than Peter O’Toole ever was. She still gave great “mad:” the daffy schoolgirl look when she tosses on the blood spattered wedding veil. She had also kept up her licence to trill, @4:00 min. The last two minutes of this 8:36 clip is applause. (And, by the way, what is it about opera applause? People would die rather than sneeze during a performance but then will stand for four, six, ten minutes roaring madly, clapping, and all but doing a jig they’re so eager to impress each other. It’s a kind of toffy one-upmanship, a mirror world Bay 13. Ah, sport…)

The Elite Sport/Heritage Arts Funding effect

I wonder how many Australians got to see Cathy Freeman run her golden 200m? It’d be a good bet to think the percentage was at least as high as the Australian household ownership of ABBA albums in the 70s — say, about half. But how many would have watched her race in the years of effort before that mighty culminating sprint? Opera in Australia is proabably less elite than elite sport — the sport most people are unlikely to have attended, or noticed, in the four years between telecasts of the Olympic nationalism festival. But elite it is — the funding of opera in this country is fat and protected, as if opera singers were koalas or wombats.

In Marcus Westbury‘s revealing chart, we can see the Australia Council’s gold-silver-bronze funding spots taken by Orchestras & Classical Music; Opera; and Dance: Orchestras topping out at $55 million, Opera doing fine, hovering near $20 million. Writers can get fached; the Literature Board gets around $4 million.


In zoomed out context, a related chart, ‘Australian cultural funding by category,’ at Ben Eltham‘s personal think-tank, shows that Radio & Television services gets $1.279 billion, ie ABC and SBS — the cumulation of “your eight cents a day.” Art museums received not quite $300 milliion. (Internet stuff — you know, all that crazy futuristic scifi online activity — didn’t get a mention). In contrast, the entire Australia Council arts funding budget totals $175 million.

Opera caught Ben’s eye — the Heritage Arts effect:

My favourite little factoid: Opera Australia last year received more funding from the Australia Council than all the applicants for all 6 of the Australia Council’s major artform boards combined. Opera Australia alone received $18.3 million. By contrast the Australia Council’s entire competitive funds for literature ($4.2m), music ($3.6m), theatre ($2.5m), dance ($1.8m) visual arts ($4.8m) and inter-arts or cross artform projects ($0.8m) combined totaled just $17.6 million. That’s one opera company receiving more than seven hundred and eighty one separate projects, organisations and individuals competitively funded across all those forms.

To compare sports with apples, we turn to then Minister Rod Kemp: ‘the Government will provide in excess of $125 million to the Australian Sports Commission in 2006–07 to deliver excellence in sports performance by Australian athletes…’ And ‘$12.1 million in capital funding is also committed in 2006–07 to finalise the redevelopment of the Australian Institute of Sport and to establish an AIS training base in northern Italy.’ And ‘the Government will invest $67 million in 2006-07 for initiatives that offer improved participation in quality sports activities by all Australians.’

So in 2006-07 the government funding of sport added up to $204 million. Two-thirds, $137 million, for elite sports, and a third for participatory sports. Egalitarian, eh? Which almost makes one feel for the rather less-well-fed koalas and wombats in the opera enclosure.

(A bit distracting, sport. Kemp’s announcements were leading up to the 2008 Olympics. The Australian Sports Commission’s annual report notes revenue from the government of $220 million in 2008-09, of which $128 million went in grants — ie to athletes. Recall that the entire Australia Council arts funding is only $175 million. This sentence is from page 46: ‘The threat of Australia’s competitor countries continued to emerge at the Beijing Olympic Games.’ Maybe we should hold International Opera Games at the Sydney Opera House.)

If this passage seems somewhat passive-agressive, I think it’s because the funding priority given to opera, compared to other arts, is hard to rationalise. One can only assume it’s due to historical inertia, the heritage effect. Marcus Westbury again had much to say about this (and with much more nuance than the excerpt here*) recently at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, in a speech titled ‘What’s So Special About Opera?’ He pointed out that in the Australia Council’s own recent report, More Than Bums on Seats, ‘opera according to the same survey was actually the least popular form of live music in Australia. What then is the rationale then for the fact that operas and orchestras combined account for 98% of all music funding?’ You can read it for yourself — see Section 1, page 26 (pdf).

Which opens the door to philistinism — if everything were put to the test of “utility” … gulp. Opera is, after all, no more elite than elite sports. It, too, is an expensive performance art. But I suspect that Australians are not so keen to fund elite sportspeople, and much less so opera singers; then again Australians, great donators though they are, don’t really like funding anything much. (The great grassroots arts funding of the past — brought in by Whitlam for 18s and over — was called the dole.)

The sour note

One thing: I do remember being disappointed — but not much surprised — to read these remarks from Dame Joan. Quoted from the Parliamentary Library Background Paper 1995-96, The Recent Republic Debate — A Chronology:

7 October 1994 Dame Joan Sutherland addressed a lunch organised by Australians for Constitutional Monarchy and said: ‘I was brought up having a British passport and it upsets me that I don’t have a British passport now…; When I go to the post office to be interviewed by a Chinese or an Indian — I’m not particularly racist — but I find it ludicrous, when I’ve had a passport for 40 years’. She said, ‘I think it would be a great shame to go to all that trouble of changing to a republic to find that it doesn’t work. Why bother?’

You can register the blood pulsing in the veins of these phrases: ‘it upsets me that I don’t have a British passport now’ … ‘not particularly racist’ … ‘I find it ludicrous’ … ‘a great shame’ … ‘why bother?’

A last, sweet note

‘People talk a lot of nonsense,’ she once said, ‘about becoming a star. One is just given a talent, and it’s one’s duty to make the most of it.’ On his blog, Jonathan Shaw has posted a snippet about Dame Joan from a Jennifer Maiden poem. (More Maiden.) Going on the basis that the worst threat to an artist is obscurity, I am here reproducing those lines, ethical logic and all, “wrenched from their context with ragged edges”:

when I was young, I heard the great

Sutherland sing quite often and saw

how she expanded the idea

_____ of voluptuousness

with a sweep of russet hair, her diaphragm

as wide as love’s horizon, lower lip

seductively trembling with each high note, as the dawn

flutters across a mountain, while

her molten silver, complex coloratura had

such ethical logic in it



*A bigger taste of Marcus Westbury’s speech:

‘There are lies damned lies and statistics but at issue is not whether Opera Australia received more Australia Council money than all the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander artists and arts organisations — only whether they received closer to three times, ten times, or 50 times the amount. Take a second to think about that. From a policy point of view the cultural heritage that Australia sees the most urgent need to preserve, invest in and support is not an Indigenous Australian one but an imported European one.

… My point is not that Opera is not, as some earlier session titles might have proposed, either illegitimate or a “criminal waste” but it is a startling benchmark of just how undervalued everything else is … But there is an additional danger here — that is the legitimacy of the very idea of arts funding itself. I believe that one of the reasons why Australians don’t necessarily identify strongly with the idea of the funded arts is that the funded arts less and less identifies with Australians.’

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