Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 4

This continues the series of conversations that I have had with British opera director John Pascoe. The following three parts of the conversation will memorialize Dame Joan Sutherland. OM. DBE, AC., who passed into legend on 10th October 2010:

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland in the final act of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” in the 1988 Royal Opera House production directed and designed by John Pascoe; redited image, based on a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: John, in your roles as stage director and production designer, you are closely associated with soprano Dame Joan Sutherland. We are nearing the fifth anniversary of her death on October 10, 2009. What are your thoughts about her?

JP: Well, many, and all of them are entirely positive, William. Hearing a recording of Joan Sutherland for the first time at the age of 13 in a music class at School St Brendan’s College for boys in Bristol England, I was swept away by the technical bravura of Sutherland’s technique and decided that I wanted to become an opera designer and to design principally for Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas.

18 years later,  while Callas had unfortunately died in 1977,  I embarked on an international career that started with designing the sets for Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” at London’s Royal Opera House, which featured Dame Joan Sutherland in her thirtieth anniversary production.

Never has a boyhood dream been so clearly and precisely met!

Wm: It was that production that established the bond between you and her?

JP: Yes! From that date forward I was frequently involved in creating productions featuring Dame Joan and in the process had the privilege of getting to know both her and her husband Maestro Richard Bonynge, AC, CBE.

Wm: What was it like, working with her and Maestro Bonynge?

JP: The sheer commitment and brilliance of this extremely ‘normal’, deeply compassionate and eternally humble woman, made one love her.  My relationship with Joan and Ricky remains one that served to illuminate everything around it and I would be prepared to bet that you will find that I am but one of many artists who could be said to be a grateful part of the ‘Joan and Ricky team’. They will inevitably all say that they feel pretty much the same.

So William, you might ask what it was like meeting her? What were the first words to me from this singer who had occupied something like artistic ‘Goddess’ status in my life for nearly 20 years? On my being introduced to her by the wonderful costume designer Michael Stennett,  I started to mutter something pretty incoherent and no doubt blushed furiously. Smilingly she said, “Hello dear, I’m sure the sets are going to be lovely, but just don’t give me too many steps to climb, as my knees are killing me. Alright?”

From then on, Dame Joan Sutherland was “Joan” and Maestro Richard Bongyne always suggested being called ‘Ricky’ (but mostly I just couldn’t manage it as a Maestro is always ‘Maestro’ for me.)

What was extraordinary was that this eminently approachable, deeply humble woman was with Richard’s constant support, able to create such incredibly exciting performances over a career that lasted well over 40 years. And one that supplied a virtual textbook example of great singing to a whole generation of both listeners and singers.

Wm: Let’s start at the beginning. What are your recollections of the “Lucrezia Borgia”?

JP: Indeed, so to continue with the beginning of my career with them both, and to give you an idea of what Dame Joan was like personally, perhaps we can move to the opening night of March 27th 1980 of the R.O.H. production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”  for which I had designed said scenery (without too many steps)!

It was a gala for H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and H.R.H. Prince Charles and during the line up after the final curtain had come down, we were all to be presented to the royal party in the R.O.H’s gorgeous cream and gold “Crush bar” and had (thankfully at least for me) been given clear instructions on how to behave with the royal personages.

[Below, H. R. H. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; image of photograph from the program of the Gala opening night at the Royal Opera House by Anthony Buckley.]


My parents Roma and Rick Pascoe had had a way cleared for them through the pressing crowds by the indomitable ‘Front of House Manager’ – Sergeant Martin – in order to be able to be present at this royal occasion and to witness son Johnny (that would be me) being presented to the royal guests.

Having been told to bow, smile and to say nothing other than “Thank you, your majesty” to the pro forma compliments that would inevitably be offered by the royals I heard Michael Stennett, who had designed Joan’s truly stunning costumes, standing to my left replying smoothly as such to the compliments from the HRH’s. While sadly I have no memory of what HRH Charles said to any of us, I do clearly remember what his grandmother uttered to us all.

Smilingly ‘majesty’ wearing a huge formal gown that looked like she had just slipped out of one of the many famous Cecil Beaton portraits of her and who was also wearing what looked like a complete parure of the Czar of Russia’s table cut emeralds and diamonds (!) smiled and said that she so liked the scenrie’ (pronounced as though it were a word she had had to learn). I mumbled, again blushed furiously, but apparently managed to say something approximating the required format. My parents however smiled enormously, so I think all was probably viewed as being …  OK.

Next and to my right was the shows indefatigable director (in UK we call that role ‘producer’), the extremely confident John Copley.  Smilingly ‘Maesta’ said that she liked his ‘groupings’ and that she was pleased to see him again. (Clearly John was WAY more used to these Royal greetings than was I). “Thank you Ma-am” came the required gallantry from John, together, if memory serves me rightly, with a perfectly executed kiss of H.R.H.s hand.

(I later learnt the trick of such kisses, never to actually kiss the person’s hand but instead to offer the said ‘bacio’ to the back of one’s own thumb that is gently placed over the offered royal appendage, thus the imminence is not sullied by contact with us mere mortals)!

Then finally to Dame Joan …

While both H.R.H.’s compliments were clearly elegant pro forma, the fact was that Dame Joan’s performance had been nothing less than stupefying, had been greeted by a shower of what must have been thousands of flowers that had been strewn at her feet during her endless solo curtain calls, plus as the world’s reigning Bel Canto prima donna, it was to be expected that at least one of the H.R.H.s would say something about this virtually miraculous performance.  (Especially so as the production had been mounted by The Royal Opera House  – to celebrate Dame Joan’s’ 30the] anniversary at the ROH.)

Wm: Indeed! So in fact what did  The Queen Mother and Prince Charles actually say to Dame Joan?

JP: I don’t remember what HRH Charles said, but ‘H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’ said:

“Dame Joan, we were SO happy to see you tonight and we especially loved your jewels” (Michael Stennett’s famous costumes for Joan had featured a great array of stage jewelry that while clearly fake, had nevertheless been pretty stunning)

Joan laughingly said:  “Oh thank you Maam, I’ll exchange them for yours any night!”

Stunned silence briefly followed until thankfully H.R.H also laughed and then said “Oh very good!” Clearly both ladies were relieved to avoid the formality of such situations and as both were also ‘Queens’ in their own right, a certain intimacy was apparently allowed.  But only Dame Joan would or could have said it and the memory remains for me at the center of this great artist’s character.

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland in the second act of the Royal Opera House production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” in a costume designed by Michael Stennett; image, based on a photograph for the Royal Opera House, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


She never took herself too seriously or half as seriously as everyone around her took her.  As the great visionary film director Terry Gilliam said to me after an opening night of my production of Handel’s “Ariodante” in 2007 at the Spoleto Festival Italy “Most ‘opera people’ (as he called them) are so ‘up themselves’.”

Joan was very definitely not!

Wm: What was the aftermath of the ROH Covent Garden “Lucrezia” production?

JP: Thankfully, the “Borgia” production received unanimous praise, and John and I started preparing our next production together which was  a new “Tosca” for Welsh National Opera. A few weeks after the opening of the “Borgia”, I was working in our office in Titos’ (my first partner) and my home in #2 Dericote Street in London’s Hackney, which at the time was what one could describe as being a ‘transitional’ neighborhood.

The ‘phone went and a ladies voice said “Oh hello, is that John?”  The line was somewhat crackly, and she then said “Hello dear, it’s Joan here”. My aunt Joan hardly ever called me, so I was pleased but surprised and said “Hello Auntie Joan how are you?

The reply was “No dear it’s not your auntie, it’s Joan Sutherland”. (Private gasp from John) “Listen what are you doing next month, can you come to Rome to supervise the “Borgia” scenery?” Quite why Dame Joan was asking me and not the R.O.H. management. I never found out, but indeed I was free!  So we were all apparently going to Rome. Apparently she and Richard  threatened to cancel going if  Rome Teatro Del Opera wouldn’t take the ROH production.

Before leaving London, she and Richard accepted our invite to come for dinner with us in our VERY small home.  So Titos and I spent the two weeks before they arrived trying to bring our half restored house into some kind of order, and indeed on the night that they were due to arrive we had to keep quite a few doors open to try to let out the strong smell of paint that was still wet.

On arriving Richard, whom I had warned that Hackney was shall we say not ‘Cornwall Gardens’, (where they had their London flat) said “Good God John, we expected Hackney to be different but it’s actually a different country”.  Now of course the address is worth millions which is clearly just progress of gentrification – nothing to do with “This was the home of Titos Argyris and John Pascoe”.

Wm: Your next task was introducing the production to Rome. What happened there?

JP:  Well, William, it was really endlessly exciting. During a break in rehearsals there, Michael Stennett and I were invited to spend a weekend with Joan and Richard in the lovely villa that they had taken above that of the Pope at Castel Gandolfo.

On being shown into one of the guest rooms, Joan suggested a rising time to me for next morning and asked if I drank tea or coffee first thing.  At something like rising time, a knock came on the door and in came Joan with a tray of tea (Hello. Is that Room service? May I have Joan Sutherland bring me tea on a silver tray please? GOD!)

As she entered she was singing in a quiet head voice, part of the stunning aria from ‘I Puritani’ “Son vergin vezzosa” This  was then following by the perfectly normal question:  (As if any part of this were perfectly normal for me)  “Good morning dear, did you sleep OK? We’ve got breakfast ready on the terrace  – whenever you’re ready”. Heaven!

Wm: Did you start to get used to this new kind of reality?

JP: Well, somewhat, William, but it was all happening so incredibly fast. For instance, during a dip in the pool later on that day, Richard asked me if I liked the baroque period (this was starting to become a leit motif in my career with Lord Harewood having asked me the same question only a few months previously)

Replying of course that I did, he asked me if I’d like to do sets and costumes for another Handel opera “Alcina” in Sydney with him next year.  Indeed I’d love to! He explained that Joan wasn’t due to sing the opening performances but would take up the role two seasons later in 1983.

[Below: John Pascoe’s costume design for Dame Joan Sutherland in the 1983 Australian Opera production of Handel’s “Alcina”‘; edited image based on a production photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


This would be my first international venture as both set and costume designer and the famous Australian ballet dancer Sir Robert Helpmann was due to produce and choreograph it.

Wm: Up until this point, you might be considered as part of John Copley’s team. Accepting an Australian commission had to be a career milestone”

JP: Honestly I was somewhat nervous of the fact that it would be a production that was not to be directed by John Copley of whom I was extremely fond, plus he had so far guided me in making what appeared to be viewed as good design choices, so, being ‘out there’ on my own without his sure guiding hand was . . . scary. However, it was not to be.

But as the opera has a strong ballet element, having Sir Robert as director / choreographer was clearly potentially a brilliant choice.  Sadly, as it happened he was by this time rather ancient and was frankly, well … past it.

[Below: John Pascoe’s 1980 costume designs for the Act II ballet in the  Opera Australia production of Handel’s “Alcina”; image, based on designs, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


In fact, during rehearsals I was aware of the fact he become rather unkindly known in Opera Australia as Sir Robot Hopeless.  Margaret Elkins (who sang the Ruggiero) one day confided to me that all of the singers were grateful that I had given them elaborate silk cloaks or trains, as it gave them something to do other than stand there and sing, as he didn’t give them any direction at all.  Ummmm!

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland is Alcina and Margreta Elkins is Ruggiero in the 1983 Opera Australia production of Handel’s “Alcina” with sets and costumes by John Pascoe; resized image, from an historical print, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


But we had a massive success and I loved every second of creating the elaborate baroque world of this fascinating piece. Richard conducted brilliantly and it was one of the times when the musical focus was entirely on him as opposed to being divided between him and Joan.

He clearly deserved every plaudit that came his way and way more in my opinion. (One only has to listen to his many excellent recordings of ballet scores to hear him purely as orchestral conductor).

[Below Dame Joan Sutherland as Alcina and Narelle Davidson as Morgana in the Australia Opera production of Handel’s “Alcina”; based on a image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Fortunately for posterity there are a few excerpts of the Alcina available on YouTube with Joan Sutherland singing the title role, with his subtle conducting that as always allows space for the artist, while maintaining forward drive, perfect line and creating music drama.

I am hoping that I may be forgiven this personal rant! I am talking as if I were a musician, when I clearly am not, I am purely talking as someone who has been blessed with ears to hear who has been fortunate to have heard from up close, some of the very greatest artists sing, play and conduct – and have been fortunate enough to have been able to do so for a lifetime.

Wm: Indeed!

[Below: photograph of the finale of the 1980 Australia Opera production  Handel “Alcina”, whose sets and costues were designed by John Pascoe; image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


JP: In my experience one only has to actually read some of the occasionally severe critics of both Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas during their life times to realize that when they were both singing, though much applauded they were also at times seriously under-appreciated. But with distance, world opinion has arrived at a more measured position.

These were two great artists who in my opinion form two facets of a golden ‘jewel’, which in my mind I would call the ‘Bel Canto Soprano’.  Neither is better than the other as both have strengths and flaws, but together they form a kind of summation of what is humanly possible.

One only has to add in the other greats of their period, Rosa Ponselle, Montserrat Caballe, and Beverly Sills, (and other people would no doubt justly add in other superb artists) and you have the ‘gold standard’ tradition by which todays great artists are justly measured.  OK rant over!

[Below: John Pascoe’s costume design for the warriors in the 1980 Australia Opera production of Handel’s “Alcina”; image, based on designs, courtesy of John Pascoe.] 


The conversation continues at: Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 5