I have always considered myself very lucky that my first two Broadway experiences, as a small child, were of two truly iconic performances — Yul Brynner's King in The King and I and Carol Channing's Dolly in Hello, Dolly! Both were, of course, late-career nostalgic revivals for their stars, but the dazzling charisma that had made their earlier portrayals famous was undimmed, and though I had nothing to compare these greats to at the time, the bar was set very high: I came to expect something special from a night at the theater, and to recognize and appreciate it when it did.
My operagoing life began in much the same way. Back in elementary school, I used to join eagerly in the annual class trips to the Met — sometimes a rehearsal, sometimes a student performance — led by my kindergarten teacher, herself a one-time Met chorister. Though I am sure at the time a large part of the draw was getting out of school for the day, I can recall several occasions on which my young ears were permanently imprinted with a level of vocal brilliance that I took for granted in my innocence but have valued more and more in retrospect. There was, for example, a student performance of La Traviata with Robert Merrill as Germont — the only time I heard the Great American Baritone live (with the exception of numerous Star-Spangled Banners at Yankee games) but more than enough to form my lasting impression of what a Verdi baritone should be.
Another memorable trip was a 1975 Puritani — a work that, needless to say, I had never heard of at the time, with a plot that, despite Mrs. Harris's best efforts, I was able to follow only in a vague, childish way. (I'm still not entirely sure I know what it is all about.) I remember a greater than usual sense of occasion — my parents were opera fans, so the names of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes were familiar to my fledgling ears even before Mrs. Harris had given us a glowing idea of what to expect. In the event, I am ashamed to confess that what remains of my first impression of the great Pavarotti is that the combination of his physique with the long cloak that hung over his long sword rendered his profile indistinguishable from that of a large duck, and that for all the ballyhoo I preferred the voice of Mr. Gross, the admirable tenor soloist in our church choir at the time.
Joan Sutherland, though, was a different matter. I remember thinking her appearance ideal — that great, imposing jaw seemed just right for an operatic heroine — but I remember most of all the astonishing accuracy of her coloratura, the awesome scale of her voice, and the sense that she was singing all her lines not because someone happened to have written some pretty music for them but because there were things she needed to express that could be communicated in no other way. Thanks to Sutherland, no one ever had to explain to me what the big deal about a "mad scene" was: the concept of music as a conveyer and enhancer of dramatic/emotional truth was unmistakable even to the merest novice. Sutherland knew how to achieve that strange operatic alchemy by which pain and suffering can be transformed through sound into transcendent beauty that touches the soul.
Her death this week was a reminder to me of how incredibly fortunate I'd been to have the privilege of hearing such once-in-a-lifetime artistry in the flesh. Much as I love listening to her recordings, I cherish much more that memory of having been there in real time.
LOUISE T. GUINTHER