COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Sills, Sutherland and other opera divas

Grand opera has its share of fallen women, betrayed women and women who are victims of their devoted love for an unfortunate loser.

Occasionally, there is a heroine who is a sweet girl, someone you would like to take home to meet your mom, but they are few and far between. The double-crossed women seemed to be the most popular characters created by opera composers in the 19th century.

During 50 years of San Diego Opera productions, audiences have witnessed classic examples of each of these divas — used in the original meaning of a distinguished female singer — often sung by famous artists, or those about to become famous.

The company has been fortunate to present star sopranos divas — Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland — interpreting their famous roles.

Both Sills and Sutherland appeared on the Civic Theatre stage at the same time in a joyous 1980 staging of “Die Fledermaus” — a major triumph for SDO and its director, Tito Capobianco.

He had a dream to bring the two reigning superstars to the stage, which ended up being their only time together. Because each sang the same coloratura repertory as a principal artist, there was no previous occasion for the two to perform in the same production.

Opera mavens across the land called it “The Duel of the Divas.” Actually, there was no bloodshed or even hostility when Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland were joined in the gala production that created international attention.

The Johann Strauss opera offered the roles for two sopranos of equal artistic renown to show their stuff. The original plan was to have them switch roles with a flip of the coin before curtain time to keep the audience in suspense. Then the roles would switch back at the next performance and so on for five shows.

Due to scheduling pressures, Beverly Sills was unable to prepare the Rosalinda role, usually sung by Joan Sutherland. As an accomplished singing actress, Sills was better suited for the comic role of the maid Adele. So that’s the way it was done with great aplomb under the direction of Capobianco.

The performances were also the first time they met. They bonded instantly, resulting in great synergy on the stage. Martin Bernheimer, then music critic for the Los Angeles Times, was impressed.

“There they were on the same stage,” he wrote, “smiling, hugging, kissing, singing — it was unnerving.”

Two other leads in the cast were Regina Resnick (as Prince Orlofsky) in the sunset of her illustrious opera career and Alan Titus as Eisenstein at the dawn of his career as an international artist performing at Bayreuth.

A surprise appearance by Sherrill Milnes at Prince Orlofky’s party on opening night stunned the audience. The conductor was Richard Bonynge, who deftly led his wife, Sutherland, yet giving equal attention to Sills.

In spite of the radiant glamour and historic first, there was an undertone of nostalgia for Sills’ fans. Her appearance in “Die Fledermaus” was her last on the opera stage. She chose this occasion as her valedictory performance.

Superstar Sutherland brought her widely acclaimed interpretations of the betrayed Lucia di Lammermoor to San Diego in 1974.

Lucia goes mad as her brother pressures her to enter an arranged marriage. Sadly, she loves another, who was sent into exile.

Bonynge and Sutherland returned for concerts in 1975, 1981 and 1987, and a rare production of “Adriana Lecouvreur.”

Sills appeared in productions at SDO under both general directors Walter Herbert and Capobianco; the world premiere of “La Loca” (1979) supervised by composer Gian Carlo Menotti; a flamboyant “Merry Widow” (1977); an intense rendition of “Norma” (1975) paired with Tatiana Troyanos; a brilliant staging of “The Daughter of the Regiment” (1973); and a trendsetting “Tales of Hoffmann” (1970), when she sang all four soprano roles.

The title role in “Madame Butterfly” is the poster child of betrayed and abandoned women. Patricia Racette brought her interpretation in 2009 after three prior appearances that began with her debut as Mimi in a 1995 production of “La Bohème.”

Superstar Renée Fleming played a love-sick Tatiana in the 1994 “Eugene Onegin” and returned in 1995 as the legendary Rusalka, a water nymph who is unable to fulfill her love for the mortal king.

For 50 years, San Diego Opera has featured many of the celebrated divas who have dominated the opera stage.



Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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