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Joan Sutherland was a singer I certainly vastly appreciated, even if she was not one of my all-time very top favorites. I was always aware of her staggering technique and accomplishments. I heard her twenty-one times in as many years. I heard her in most of her great roles in New York and Chicago but the Fille de Regiment and Puritani I finally heard were in the 1980’s in the sunset of her great career. At her best she certainly was phenomenal. I was in Town Hall for her New York debut in Beatrice di Tenda along with Marilyn Horne also making her New York debut; that was “some” evening. I recall that before the performance it was announced that Miss Sutherland would sing with a heavy heart as she just learned of the death of her mother back in Australia. I recall that my friend the late Ronald Klein, an important record collector (78’s), told me that one of the old-time members of our record club, The Vocal Record Collectors Society, who hailed from Vienna and heard all the great singers who sang there since the early 1900’s, told him that he “never heard anything like THAT” in his entire life.
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If I may be personal in my tribute to Dame Joan Sutherland. Over the years as a photo and autograph collector I frequently sent photos to Dame Joan for signing. They always came back promptly, most often personalized, and very often she sent additional signed photos. I learned along the way that her husband Richard Bonynge was himself a collector of operatic ephemera and memorabilia, and that they, especially he, had amassed an amazing collection of historic images and autographs. She therefore understood the mentality of collectors and was very obliging.
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While researching the Rosa Raisa biography I acquired copies of the correspondence between the Met’s public-relations manager Francis Robinson and Raisa housed at his alma mater’s Vanderbilt University library in Nashville, Tennessee. Starting in the early 1960’s through the end of her life in September 1963 they corresponded almost weekly. The materials sent to me by Vanderbilt are only those of her hand-written letters to Francis, not copies of his letters to her, but from the context of the response letters one gets a fair idea of what he probably wrote. He told Raisa about Joan’s great success at La Scala in Gli Ugonotti, and Raisa speculated that she must have been phenomenal as the Queen. She was curious about the casting of Simionato as dramatic-soprano Valentina, one of her roles, as she thought of Simionato only as a mezzo-soprano.

Raisa, then living in southern California, went to Chicago every year for the short opera season. Sutherland had told Lyric Opera manager Carol Fox that she would like to meet Raisa. Both Sutherland and Bonynge had a good knowledge of opera history and knew of her important association with opera in that city.  They apparently had a brief encounter during Sutherland’s 1961 run of Lucias in Chicago. When I questioned Dame Joan, around 1998 about this encounter, she had no specific memory of the meeting almost thirty-seven years previous, but did say “I am glad the great Rosa Raisa liked my singing.”
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In the spring of 2001 my publisher NorthEastern University Press asked me to suggest some well-known people to “blurb” the book. If I had no recommendations they had a list of professional blurbers they could use. I was fearful that their list contained people who had no idea of or appreciation of the personalities and period about which I was writing. Remembering Dame Joan’s positive comment about Raisa, I called her old New York management (Colbert) and they in turn contacted Dame Joan and determined that she would be receptive to such a request; on that basis they gave me her fax number. In my letter to her I mentioned that there were interesting passages in the book about the early performing history of “Norma” as Raisa had studied the opera with Barbara Marchisio, a mid-nineteenth century artist who sang Adalgisa with her sister, soprano Carlotta, many times. I thought that plus additional personal information about the Marchisio sisters might pique her interest. (see exhibit). Her response was immediate and positive, and very business-like, suggesting where and when my publisher should send the advance manuscript. She met her deadline, as a true professional, and crafted some positive words that could be used.

You can imagine my surprise a year later when I received a Christmas card from Dame Joan with praise for the book after she had a chance to re-read and think about it. Only a conscientious and sincere artist would be so kind. Rest in Peace!