Opera Warhorses

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Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 6

October 10th, 2014

This continues the series of conversations that I have had with British opera director John Pascoe. This is the second of three parts of the conversation that will memorialize Dame Joan Sutherland. OM. DBE, AC. who (in John’s own words (“passed into legend”) on 10th October 2010. This part follows: Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 4 and Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 5.


Wm: In our previous discussion, you mentioned that Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge had another surprise for you. What happened next?

JP Indeed, they had quite a big and important surprise for me, William! During the ‘run’ of performances, Ricky and she had invited me for tea in their flat in Cornwall Gardens as they wanted to discuss another project. ‘Norma’!  It was to be her farewell to the role and it was truly a great honour to be entrusted with directing and designing it for them.

[Below: John Pascoe’s concept rendering of sets for ‘The Temple” in Act I of the Michigan Opera Theater’s 1989 production of Bellini’s “Norma”; edited image, based on a design, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


On my arrival Richard welcomed me and said Joan would be in shortly.

We started looking at images of the period of composition, (See, above, one of my early renderings for the “The Temple”, inspired by San Quirico’s 1830s original design.)

Wm: Yet, as the production evolved, the dominant color of both the Druid temple and the opera’s costumes became red, which to me foretells the sacrifice by fire of Norma and Pollione at opera’s end.

[Below: John Pascoe’s final rendering of the sets for “The Temple” in Act I of the Michigan Opera Theater’s production of Bellini’s “Norma”; edited image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


JP: Absolutely, William. Indeed, as you observe, it changed to red, foretelling the flames which consume both Norma and Polione, but also of the blazing passions that guide virtually everyone throughout the opera as they strugge with the rules of their society.

(We must remember, of course, that the very word NORMA in Italian means the “rules” or “norms” that frame life itself).

During the conversation he mentioned something that would prove to be incredibly important for me / Joan. He asked me if I knew that Joan had sung Clothilde to Maria Callas’ Norma at R.O.H. at the beginning of her career?

Of course I knew this, but was amazed by what he said next:  He then shared with me something that I didn’t know, that Joan admired Maria so much, and further that it had almost amounted to his life’s work to help her never under any circumstances to try to imitate this very different artist, (good advice) and this was especially so in this enormous role.

Absolutely!  Of course, never. (Well hardly ever, but we’ll get to that in a moment).

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland as Norma in the 1989 John Pascoe production of Bellini’s “Norma” for the Michigan Opera Theater; edited image, based on a photograph by Valerie and Prasad, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Some moments afterwards, in came Joan, but she was covered in soot with black smears across her perspiring face. Apparently someone had left a pot on the stove, which had caught fire, and she was cleaning the kitchen.  What?  She explained that she couldn’t leave it to a cleaner to do as they wouldn’t do a good enough job.  We then discussed ‘Norma’.

Joan was sort of exhausted, with evidence of a certain amount of grime, while we drank tea (or was it something stronger? Honestly  I can’t remember) and all the while discussed one of her greatest roles. Incredible, but pure ‘Joan and Ricky’.

Wm: How did you approach this Sutherland Norma project?

JP: Well, with some considerable trepidation, William. But as usual, when scared of a projcct, I just work harder! What other choice is there? Some time later I went to Wales to present the initial concept designs for ‘”Norma” where Ricky and Joan were due to record Verdi’s “I Masnadieri” with Luciano Pavarotti. During our meeting about the “Norma”, a telephone call was received telling them that Pavarotti had cancelled. This was literally at the last minute.

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland in the final scene of the 1989 John Pascoe production of Bellini’s “Norma” for the Michigan Opera Theater; edited image, based on a Valerie and Prasad photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


This was from an artist who had received more than just a ‘start’ from them, but with whom they had chosen to create many recordings and a series of extremely important stagings, before he was famous.

But now that he was, he had apparently decided he didn’t need Joan and Richard any more. (Perhaps it just felt that way to me at the time.) During this period, Pavarotti had indeed become very famous outside of the operatic world and in Joan’s words:  “He’s started to believe his own PR”.

Clearly Joan never believed her own ….. !

Richard replied “Well dear it’s no good being upset,  we’ll just have to forgive him” and her response will always remain with me, marking as it did a vague weariness that I surmise had arrived along with a certain number of betrayals by some people whom they had helped.

She said: “Oh of course dear, I can always forgive … I very seldom forget, but I can always forgive”.  A great lady.

Wm: And that was still a year or so away from Pavarotti being swept up in “The Three Tenors” phenomenon.

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland as Norma in the 1989 John Pascoe production of Bellini’s “Norma” for the Michigan Opera Theater; edited image, based on a Valerie and Prasad photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: You made one more trip to California with the Joan and Ricky team.

JP: Yes, the staging of “Norma’ in Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall.

At the first main costume fitting I had asked that she try on all the costumes, with relevant headdresses and therefore plus wigs and makeup in order that we could get a good idea of what needed to be adjusted while we still had time.

The excellent Elsen company were doing the wigs and makeup and we had discussed pulling out all the stops to produce a dignified glamorous look for Joan who was clearly no longer in her first youth. In fact, the combined effect seemed to be rather good and laughingly Joan quipped to me “Well dear, I think I could pass for a reasonably glamorous drag queen”

JP: Everyone was happy and we settled into music rehearsals. These were to be followed by the staging once the important details of cuts etc. were agreed upon with everyone.

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland as Norm, with make up and wig by Elsen Associates, a in the 1989 John Pascoe production of Bellini’s “Norma” for the Michigan Opera Theater; edited image, based on a Valerie and Prasad photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


But to more ‘moments’: One such perfect ‘Joan moment’ comes immediately to mind.  As is always my practice, I had learned all the roles by heart in order to be able to direct without having to stop and check my score.  So, on the first day of staging I had arrived early before Joan and Ricky arrived and I was ‘fast forwarding’ – galloping through my staging in my head, and of course singing in a ‘head voice’ all of the time.

Without noticing it, Joan had arrived and she walked up to me and with her normal sense of irony said, “Oh hello dear, showing off again are we?”  I blushed and said “Well no Joan, I’m just feeling more than a bit nervous and wanted to be sure that  I can remember it all” … She smiled sweetly, touched me on the sleeve, and said “Don’t worry dear, you’re not the only one whose a bit nervous”.  Dear Joan.

[Below John Pascoe’s costume design for Georgi Seleneev as Oroveso in the 1989 John Pascoe production of Bellini’s “Norma” for the Michigan Opera Theater; edited image, based on a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Another was in the famous trio between Norma, Adalgisa, Pollione in a moment when Norma is questioning Adalgisa, “Do you mean HIM?” (Pollione) I suggested that Norma might take Adalgisa’s face and force her to look at the Roman consul.  Joan said “Well why would I do that dear? I’ve never done that.”

Wm: With a larger than life personality like Joan Sutherland, how do you as a director, persuade the artist to follow your stage directions?

JP: Well, strangely enough, actually pretty much the same way as with any other artist. I do it by appealing to their common sense, with solid references to their text and music and also very deft reference to their “motivation” (to use a word that is occasionally not too much loved by singers.) 

So, I replied that it might be nice if Adalgisa were trying not to look at either Pollione or Norma, as if she were deeply embarrassed and that Norma insists, and needs to physically force her up to acknowledge her lover.  I should say that with all artists one suggests and asks questions one never tells someone what to do.

But Joan also seemed happy to receive input even on a role that she had performed so many many times.  But in her refusal I thought we risked losing something interesting and said, “Look Joan, it’s not that it’s important because it’s in the stage directions which we all know can frequently be later accretions and in any case are just what was done once, so in fact I hardly EVER pay any attention to them, but in the score we are using it does say exactly that and I think it might be good if we tried it”.

So she looked up startled and said “Does it?” So Richard put on his spectacle again and checking his score, said “Well yes it does and  I think John’s idea might be good.”

So she said something like “Well I’ve only sung the darned role a hundred and thirty (?) times (I can’t remember how many times she said)  … so why hasn’t anyone ever told me this before? So tell me dear, when do you want  me to take Nova’s face (Adalgisa) and make her look at Cesar?” (Pollione).

Wm: After rehearsals, did you socialize?

JP: Yes, we did! Following the hugely successful opening night in Costa Mesa, the next afternoon we all went to Disney for a day off.  But during the struggle to get around without being stopped by incredulous and enthusiastic fans, finally Joan’s response to one who sort of rudely ‘shoved’ his book in her face for signing, uncharacteristically said “I’m not Joan Sutherland, I’m her sister, Joan’s back over there”…  at the same time waving to the other side of the park. The man left … somewhat perplexed.

[Below: John Pascoe’s designs for the Druid warriors in the 1989 Michigan Opera Theater production of Bellini’s “Norma”; edited image, based on a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: What other memories do you have of your work with Dame Joan?

JP: A few months later we were due to open the final run in Detroit’s Masonic Hall in what would be Joan’s farewell to the role. She came so late that she was only in time for the final dress rehearsal and had apparently had a truly terrible case of the ‘flu’.   The dress rehearsal duly started and finally when Joan arrived on stage and started singing the “Casta diva” it was clear that she was in truly terrible voice.

While in the later years of Joan’s career the first moments of an evening were never her best as she never warned up saying that either voice was there or it wasn’t, (personally I don’t think this is true but how am I to argue with a Dame Commander of the British Empire?) But this was truly something ‘other’.   She sounded well  … just plain bad.  Following this scene comes the duet with Adalgisa (sung by the young Nova Thomas) and Pollione (Cesar Antonio Suarez).

Finally the interval arrived. I galloped back to Joan’s dressing room to see if there was anything that I could say to ‘help things along’. As I approached the dressing room a rather loud ‘conversation’ was evidently going on and in somewhat lively fashion on the lines of:  (Joan) – “I just can’t sing it Richard, I should have given it up years ago”, with Ricky reminding her that she just had to pull through as the ‘world’ was arriving in few day to hear her. God!

So when I nervously knocked on the door to ostensibly check that her second act head dress and costume change were all OK, Ricky called me in and said: “John you must have her too far up stage or something. Is the stage that different here from the one in Los Angeles? She’s ‘forcing’ I’ve never heard her sing so badly”. Before I could say a word, a truly distraught Joan turned and said “Look here Richard, he’s practically got me singing it in your lap, I just can’t sing it,  so we’re all going to get what we get won’t we!

At that moment she slammed on her headdress and sort of stamped out of the dressing room. At this point I said to Ricky that I could move the altar on which she had sung the ‘Casta Diva’ down stage a little if he thought it would help, but no he didn’t feel it would really make any difference.  I turned back and saw that Joan was about to go on stage and that the train of her gown was tangled and looked like it might make her trip, so I rushed up to adjust it for her.

As I did so, Cesar Antonio (Pollione) came past and said how lovely she looked.  But the look that she gave him would have melted glass and he backed away, sort of  … horrified.  Joan in my experience had never EVER been mean to her colleagues, but she was clearly in real distress, and from how things were going was facing either a humiliating withdrawal, or if she went ‘on’, the very real probability of a rather public disaster.

(All of the world’s major critics were indeed coming of course to see her in her farewell performances (April 15th, 19th and 22nd, 1989). I had already heard that some ‘knives’ were out and being sharpened just for the occasion).  So the duet between Norma and Adalgisa started, with the young and lovely Nova Thomas a wonderfully pliant and appealing ingénue looking up to her high priestess / Joan who was evidently in real distress.

It was one of those moments when reality was perfectly expressed by art as the great diva Joan Sutherland was indistinguishable in her distress from the great priestess Norma as she is in a way caught in a kind of time – line where said time is swiftly passing her by.  Having completed the duet (in some form or other) and Adalgisa responds to Norma’s request as to which of the Druid boys has taken her heart, Pollione enters (the badly offended Cesar Antonio) and Adalgisa of course says “Lui” (Him).

I am sure that the fury that came from Joan had nothing to do with the role, and everything to do with the fact that she knew she couldn’t fight this battle and win. I am talking about singing the role, not of Norma’s battle with Pollione. He on the other hand was furious, having felt unjustly treated, and Nova Thomas who was petite and confused about where all this negative energy was coming from was looking up from one ‘power figure’ to another in a kind of desperation.

[Below: John Pascoe’s costume design for Nova Thomas as Adalgisa in the 1989 Michigan Opera Theater production of Bellini’s “Norma”; edited image, based on a drawing, courtesy of Johan Pascoe. ]


So in fact we had the perfect emotional triangle and in the rush of adrenalin, Joan’s voice came back like a steel blade. Not entirely beautiful but dangerously real and present.  But then as any singer who sings on adrenalin will tell you, finally the voice goes and the rest of the evening was well, what you would expect from a lady of 60 plus, who has had a terrible flu who is trying to sing the proverbial three Brunnhilde’s that make up ‘Norma’.

Wm: How did the evening work out?

JP: I hate to say it, William, but she sounded truly terrible and also during the rest of the rehearsal her ‘blocking’ was so all over the place so that we risked disaster not just for her but for the entire company, so I had a long list of notes to go through with her, but clearly the only real issue was the voice. Was there anything to do?

Meanwhile the all knowing Doctor David Di Chiera (or Doctor D as he is affectionately known to all) had given us an unheard of four days between dress rehearsal and opening, so two days later (Ricky had wisely said to let Joan rest) I went along to the ball room size drawing room in the apartment provided for them to discuss some of these staging notes with her.

As I arrived, Ricky was seated on a long sofa looking at the pictures of the production and was very clearly happy with how she looked (her opening night card to me in Costa Mesa, she said “Dear John, Many thanks for the beautiful production, it is without doubt the loveliest I’ve had! Toi toi and many thanks again. Affectionately, Joan.” How wonderful to hear!

[Below: a note from Dame Joan Sutherland to John Pascoe; resized image, based on a personal memoir, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Moments later Joan swept in looking well  … fabulous.  She had had her hair done, i. e., BIG, and she wore a precious Jenny Lind brooch that Ricky had given her. Her gown featured a large diagonal panel and she seemed in high spirits. Great. I hoped that the rest had helped and that Joan was once more ready for the fray. “Champagne anyone?”, she asked. A large bottle of something ‘expensive’ was opened and we sat on the sofa together looking through a series of highly glamorous images at which Joan was smiling happily.

Joan was to my left, and Richard to my right. At this stage I had known them both for some ten years and Joan had occupied a very particular place in my life, one where lying to her would have been impossible, but also a situation where I desperately wanted to say something that would help her give the performance that she so desperately needed to give.

So far nothing needed to be said as perhaps all was now well.  Richard commented that she hadn’t looked this good on stage since she was 40 and she commented that she never looked this good. I said that honestly if I had designed her costumes well it was because I had been studying all of the lines and proportions that Michael Stennet had used to such effect on her in so many of  his excellent designs for her.

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland as Norma is John Pascoe’s costume for the 1989 Michigan Opera Theater production of Bellini’s “Norma”; edited image, based on a Valerie and Prasad photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


She leaned in close towards me to point out a particularly good looking image and said, “Yes dear, you’ve made me look good, but I just can’t sing it, can I! (Strangely there was no question involved in this statement) You will understand that for the previous two days and nights – I had been thinking of nothing other than what I could possibly say to this woman to whom it would be pointless flannelling and to whom in any case I couldn’t lie.

So as has sometimes happened to me in these positions, I sort of ‘detached’ myself from my situation and told her the truth as I saw it.

A voice came out of my mouth as I looked directly back into her piercing eyes, and said “No Joan you can’t, not by your standards, but then no one else on the planet can either. (I felt Ricky sort of jolt with shock to my right) “But when you think about it, Maria Callas (I think he almost choked) couldn’t sing it in 1964 in Paris, but she acted the hell out of it and had a huge success. If you act like you did in the trio at dress rehearsal I absolutely guarantee you’ll also have a huge triumph”.

Ricky said,  “Oh for God sake’s listen to him, Joan. It was the only part where you sounded good”. Joan replied,  “Oh well if you boys both think so I’ll do my best”. Indeed.

Richard suggested I leave my staging notes with him and that he’d go through them with her, thankfully I accepted, went back to my apartment and slept. I was exhausted.

The opening night came and I both sensed and sometimes even heard mutterings from some of the less generous souls who had come along not to cheer Dame Joan’s final ‘Norma’ but to gloat at a fatal mistake in her taking on the role one last time.

The first scene sort of dragged by as everyone was waiting for the druids to just please be gone, then the duet with ‘Adalgisa’ and ‘Pollione’, and finally the moment was upon us – Norma’s entrance. I had staged Joan’s it so that she would never enter from exactly the same place every time to be sure to take the waiting ‘Druidic chorus’ by surprise. As she pushed through them exclaiming Sedizio voce a murmur went through the house.

Once she launched into the “Casta Diva”, it was clear that this was not going to be anything other than a night to remember. While the voice was not the most beautiful ever heard from Sutherland, it glittered with steely presence and in the following cabaletta, the fiercely difficult runs and leaps were dispatched well …. brilliantly.  The house went mad.

The trio was stunningly exciting, clearly everyone on stage was singing for their lives knowing that this was a historic event of which they were a part.  Cesar actually convinced as a lothario , and Joan continued to amaze throughout the long night.  In the finale I had given her a real sword with which she would threaten Pollione. Believe me she used it!

One of the reviewers commented that she was so convincingly scary as she thrust it at the Roman Consul that he feared for the tenors life. From the look on Cesar’s face he wasn’t the only one scared for the tenors life! So a huge and deserved triumph was achieved and finally I felt that maybe after all I was actually a director.

Wm: This must have been a moment of great satisfaction for you!

JP: It was indeed, William. Having started off as a designer and not have received any training in stage craft or directing I had always feared that I was perhaps somewhat of an imposter up until this time.  But with this experience I learned that maybe I had something that was really important as a director:  I had the ability to help an artist to be their best, to blaze when they felt they couldn’t.

But let no one think that any part of the eternal round of bravi that resounded in the vast space that night were for me, it was ALL for Joan and Richard and, of course, the excellent supporting cast and I must say also for Doctor David Di Chiera for his incredible vision in having mounted the production, and justly so.

That night I learnt what SUPER STAR really means. And believe you me there aren’t too many of those around. However, a certain young singer to whom I had not long before given her New York debut (as well as the accent on the é in her first name … Renée,) was also fast becoming a genuine super star and became every bit as important to me in a different and even more personal way.

I have been eternally blessed by my meeting and working with the very greatest artists on the planet, Renée Fleming, Giancarlo Menotti, Plàcido Domingo, Vittorio Grigolo are all prima inter pares. But like first love there will for me only ever be one ‘Joan’.

Wm: I have the feeling that she would have been very pleased by your tribute to her. What would you say to her?

JP: I would say “May all the stars bless you as you sail onwards into eternal legend, dear wonderful Joan: Dame Joan Sutherland OM. DBE, AC.”

Tags: William's Conversations with John Pascoe