Picture this: The Metropolitan Opera, Nov. 14, 1986. I was there, at the opera of operas. Soprano Dame Joan Alston Sutherland took the stage to deafeningly rapturous applause in a gala performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece “I Puritani di Scozia” (The Puritans of Scotland). The soprano from Australia—the most distinctive voice of the 20th century—caused riotous reactions wherever she went. From the first glimpse of her, everyone knew that night would be unforgettable.

Will they let her sing, or not?

The plot: Elvira’s betrothal to a politically correct suitor will be announced today. Turbid music denotes Elvira’s turmoil—she loves someone else. Joan Sutherland’s little toe scarcely touches the stage when the audience lets loose an unabating, deafening roar. Faithfully in character, the soprano keeps pacing back and forth, as Elvira musters courage to broach the unwanted nuptials with her beloved uncle in a fantastic duet. All the while the roaring continues.

After 20 seconds, Kimball Wheeler—a dramatic mezzo-soprano, sitting next to me—said, “I wonder if she can even hear her music.”

Breaking character

She couldn’t. Not the distraught Elvira, but the humbly gratified Joan Sutherland stops pacing, stands perfectly still, the roaring unrelenting, then slowly shrugs her shoulders with hands slightly spread, as if to say, “What can I say? I’ve lost me place, thanks to all you lovely, loud people.” The break in character prompts yet-more-boisterous cheering.

After three minutes of this adoration, Miss Sutherland slips offstage and the audience mercifully quiets. The orchestral introduction commences again. Elvira enters afresh, and this time the audience lets her sing. And oh, does she ever sing!

Three acts later …

Fast forward. The Act III curtain drops. Out step individual singers—exceptional, without exception—who had interpreted main and secondary characters, all to deservedly tumultuous applause after a fantastic performance.

Then, the stage remains bare an unusually long while. The applause continues. Mere teasing? When Joan Sutherland finally emerges, you know what they say about pandemonium. Well, it broke loose.

‘We’re not leaving—not yet’

Joan Sutherland curtsied and bowed deeply for fully two minutes before disappearing behind the golden curtain. With no letup from the audience, she appeared again for another two-minute ovation. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. After her fourth curtain-call, accruing an exhausting eight minutes, stagehands closed the golden curtain and purposely made loud stage-clearing noises.

Not buying it

Undeterred, this crowd would have nothing of it. They rhythmically stamped their feet, clapped and thumped the rich rosewood panels that line the legendary auditorium. The hall pulsated. It felt like the building might collapse. Indeed, the riotous behavior evoked definite mental images of Samson bringing down the temple of Dagon.

All right already!

Stagehands reopen the golden curtain. Emerging again to an even greater roar, this time the revered soprano heads stage left, acknowledging all those until-now-overlooked, clamoring fans, who ramp up their clamor. Confetti—strictly forbidden at the Met—flutters from the highest balconies while Joan Sutherland takes fully two minutes with the folks stage left.

Kimball Wheeler said, “I bet the only thing she wants is to get a good drink of water backstage.”

History in the making

Now, six years after her passing, she is sorely missed. Even if you don’t frequent the opera, likely you can imagine that Nov. 14, 1986, marked a place in history, at least for the 3,995 audience members fortunate enough to afford gala-priced tickets. Yet this was just one of countless sold-out occasions when Joan Sutherland caused this sort of furor uniquely hers. Another article will explore this phenomenon.

“I Puritani” opens at the Met Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, for six performances.

The eminent German soprano Diana Damrau has huge shoes to fill, to say nothing of the lungs.

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