Dame Joan Sutherland and the fallacy of “Forward Placement”

While I never heard her sing live in an opera house, I was fortunate enough in 1998 to travel to New York City on a special visit to the Metropolitan Opera to meet Dame Joan Sutherland in person for a book signing.  I knew that if I didn’t go to NYC to meet her that I would probably never have the chance, given that Miss Sutherland lived in Australia.

So I flew to NYC with my friend Shala, and we both queued to meet her at the Met Opera Gift Shop.  It was my first time in New York, as well as my first time at the Metropolitan Opera, and I was so excited! I remember that I teared up when we rounded the corner and I got a glimpse of the Met for the very first time.

Joan was warm in person and very funny. I had painted a portrait of her as Lucia di Lammermoor, which she signed and remarked on her blood-soaked nightdress “Don’t you wake up in a fright looking at that?” Joan was slotted to sign autographs for about 2 hours, and she stayed for 4-5 until all those fans got to meet her. She was a prima donna of the first rate, and a very gracious lady.

Sutherland was an inspiration to me as a young singer, encapsulating so much of what I loved in great singing: a beautiful legato sound coupled with a dazzling flexibility.  I loved the sound of her voice, as well as the excitement of hearing this big voice singing coloratura.

While reading Daniela Bloem-Hubatka’s book “The Old Italian School of Singing” I ran across this marvelous section on Ms. Sutherland:

The greatest coloratura soprano of the twentieth century, Joan Sutherland, is a striking example of the possible link between health and forward-production singing.  She also makes us question the validity of twentieth-century concepts of resonance in voice production.  In her biography we read the detailed description of her chronic sinus and antrim infections, from a very young age, developing later on abscesses in her ears, causing deafness.  Several times such an abscess would burst in performance when she hit a high note in alt. “Then in the middle of Elvira’s Mad Scene, on a forbidding and vibrating high E flat, the abscess burst…Blood was running from the ear down her neck.  Without losing a note, she turned her head away from the audience and completed the scene.”

She often suffered from colds and sore throats but sang her performances brilliantly in spite of “the fact that every vital resonance chamber was clogged with sponge-like polyps.”  She was treated regularly by a specialist who used to bring her relief by puncturing her sinuses.  Just after her great breakthrough with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden that turned her overnight into a star, she was due to undergo major surgery to clean out her sinuses and remove the polyps.  Her surgeon, however, was reluctant to operate, realizing the responsibility he took upon himself now that she was famous, depending on her voice to fulfill the demands of a heavy career, saying: “Now look, Joan, you’ve got to the top – God knows how, because with sinuses and antrums like yours it isn’t possible; but you have. You’ve learned to sing like an angel with all that muck in your head.  How do we know you’ll still be able to sing like an angel without it?  Every resonance chamber will be different.”

The operation went ahead and we shiver reading how the surgeon performed his cutting, hammering, and scraping out of sinus cavities.  He advised a period of rest after her stay in the hospital and told her to start singing again after that period. “She started practising her singing; and her voice felt terrible – dry and hard, with no resonance at all.”  On the advice to sing softer she exclaimed: “I don’t seem to be able to get any resonance at all.”  It turned out that this great singer, who emitted the most extraordinary high notes, never sang with a clear head, for soon enough she caught cold again; her sinus trouble returned and with it the abscesses in her ears.  She apparently had the sensation that she used her “resonance” when all those cavities were “full of muck”, as her doctor stated.  When her cavities were cleaned, her sensations were different and she experienced the inability to get resonance.

Joan was interviewed by Jerome Hines and answered his question on “placement” of the voice: “Placement is projecting into the correct sinus cavities.  One feels as if the sound were being projected against the front of the hard palate…the dome of the palate, the front of the dome.”  This statement, of course, applies to her middle voice that she says takes her up to A or B below high C, higher up than most sopranos, describing the placement of the acuti (high notes) in a conversation with a colleague; “Deary, they come right out of the back of my head – just stand straight up there.”

Joan Sutherland seems destined to defy all followers of nasal and sinus resonance, emitting her most beautiful and ravishing sounds with these resources completely blocked, and she can certainly set us thinking about their value for singing.  If we look at her generous lower jaw and long solid neck, we realize she must have had great pharynx-resonance at all times.  When she sings we see that her head is thrown back, showing us her wonderful neck surrounding her spacious throat, which is wide open with this head position.  Singers who rely mostly on forward production and projection of the sound tend to throw their heads forward, thereby contracting the throat.  Her recordings from 1955 have the same qualities as those after the operation in 1959; the Joan Sutherland sound is present and unaltered.

Daniela Bloem-Hubatka (2012). The Old Italian School of Singing: A Theoretical and Practical Guide. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-8895-7.