Is Dame Joan the greatest Aussie of the last century?
Strangely enough I associate Dame Joan Sutherland with failed attempts to use a Coke machine.
My grandfather studied and sang with Dame Joan at the Sydney Conservatorium and later on briefly at the Sydney Opera House. One story he used to tell about Dame Joan was finding her in a corridor frustrated and confused by a new fangled invention from the seventies that would allow you to purchase drinks via a machine. Nonno (as we call him) had recently familiarised himself with the functioning of the drink machine and instructed her upon its complex operation. The thought of two practitioners of this high Baroque art, puzzling over a coke machine – one very large soprano and one short Italian tenor – was always an amusing image.
But upon hearing about her death this morning Nonno also said another thing that he would often repeat about Dame Joan: “She was a really lovely person. Really humble, just like everybody else, never acted like she was a big star.” This is something that has been repeated in numerous obituaries about the great Australian singer, and leads me to think whether she is the greatest Australian of the last century?
My understanding of opera is pretty limited. I know enough to know that Dame Joan is pretty extraordinary but not enough to tell you with any real competence why.
Opera is an art form as demanding as any elite sport, possibly more so. You may not have to do laps of an oval every morning, but you do have subject yourself as many hours of physically demanding activity to reach an elite level. Once you’re there, that’s if you get into a company, rehearsals for productions are incredibly intensive: often seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
This comparison of opera to sport is not facetious, it’s because if we were to discuss other great Australians of the last century a good percentage would be sportspeople: Don Bradman, Dawn Fraser, Cathy Freeman, Margaret Jackson and Richie Benaud would all get a mention, and deservedly so.
Sportspeople have greater appeal than any artist – there’s a reason why the Opera house doesn’t have a capacity of 110,000. But I’d argue appeal doesn’t mean you leave the same contribution or legacy as an artist like Sutherland.
It’s also true to say that contributions to art aren’t superior in this regard. Adventurers (before they became 12-year-olds competing to hop across Africa first) also have their place. Hands down the greatest New Zealander of the last century was Edmund Hillary, and I’d argue that our Kingsford Smith could also be regarded as the greatest Australian man of the century.
Medicine leaves a legacy like few others, so for this reason Nobel Prize winning Howard Florey could well be considered the greatest Aussie of the last century for discovering (along with Ernst Chain and Alexander Flemming) some handy stuff called penicillin. Menzies once said “in terms of world well-being, Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia.”
But for Sutherland to leave and contribute something to art that is actually beautiful, something that anyone can draw upon in the future, it may well be the greatest contribution anyone from our country has made to the rest of the world over the last century.
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