I was fortunate to see her perform many times in her 'bel canto' roles at the Sydney Opera House whose white sails grace Sydney Harbour. Many of these roles had not been presented for 70 years or more at Covent Garden when, in 1959, under the singing tuition of her husband Richard Bonynge and dramatic direction of Franco Zefferelli,she stunned the opera world in Donizetti's "Lucia de Lammermoor", effortlessly reaching notes that no one had ever tried to reach, as she literally ran and sang them in the famous mad scene. The audience erupted and this
unassuming and very down-to-earth young woman was given a barrage of curtain calls.
Russell Braddon's 1962 biography, so close to those groundbreaking events, really captures the atmosphere of an awkward newcomer without dramatic ability and decidedly unglamorous,being reluctantly taken on by Covent Garden, and gradually utterly transformed.It was the voice that remained the constant.It was immediately recognised by the administrator as belonging to "the first singer we have had here since the war who is capable of becoming a star." What makes it really comically enchanting is Joan's total unpretentiousness, down-to-earth quality which she never lost and which endeared her to colleagues and fans. A Prima Donna who didn't behave like one except in the best sense. This is a first-rate 'ugly duckling' tale.
And that Memorial Service? Of course I had tears running down my face like a tap turned on, realising that astounding voice was silent, that warm, earthy person we all loved had run her course, but so grateful for being there when it all happened.
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