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 20 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.