BBC man disses Dame Joan

The BBC’s flagship Ten O’clock News had nine hours yesterday to prepare a tribute to the ‘voice of the century’ and disgraced itself on every count.

The report was fronted by the Beeb’s geek-spectacled arts/news editor, Will Gompertz, a former Tate staffer whose lack of interest in the performing arts has been evident from day one. Gompertz apparently spent most of his day preparing a report on the new Ai Wei Wei installation at – guess where? – the Tate. Old loyalties die hard.

The report Gompertz cobbled together for the Ten O’Clock was perfunctory. It showed the Sydney house where Joan Sutherland was born, her mum, an interview clip and curt comments from director John Copley and the English soprano Leslie Garrett, whose foot has never trodden on the world stages commanded by Dame Joan. Credit for the diva’s success was given only to her husband, Richard Bonynge.

No mention was made of Covent Garden’s David Webster, who nurtured her for eight years, of Franco Zeffirelli who directed her breakthrough production, of Rafael Kubelik who cast her as Lucia or of Luciano Pavarotti, who stood mute and unidentified beside her in a closing clip and who was her careerlong stage partner. Gompertz wound up his report with the assessment that she was ‘a remarkable human being’.

She was, of course, nothing of the sort. Joan was a very ordinary woman of no great intellect or genral interests whose single soaring attribute was a voice to die for, the most powerful coloratura we are ever likely to hear.

When a journalist writes off a subject as ‘a remarkable human being’, any editor will know that the hack has failed to research the subject and lacks the verbal agility to disguise that ignorance. Will Gompertz shamed the dead diva and the BBC by his deficiency.

The fault was not his alone. The editor of the Ten, knowing the Gomp was busy and bored by opera, should have assigned another reporter – perhaps the deposed Razia Iqbal, who is floating around the department without a defined role. Or called in an expert from Radio 3. Or done something to make sure that the news had authority.

Gomp’s appointment last year was an institutional failure of nerve. Now the BBC is cutting executive costs, sacking its deputy DG, this might be a good time to drop the imported Gomp and reinforce core values.

Dame Joan Sutherland was a universal legend, born in Australia, made in England and adored the world over. BBC News marked her passing shabbily, skimpily, ignorantly and with wanton lack of imagination.

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  • I didn’t see this report – but I’m assuming she didn’t get the 45 minutes of wall-to-wall coverage with every talking head who’d ever spoken to him, that the late Norman Wisdom got last week.

  • This made me hopping mad. Joan S was a major major figure, one of the Greats. But what do you expect, Tate Modern now has an in to the BBC. They take precedence over everything.

  • This made me hopping mad. Joan S was a major major figure, one of the Greats. But what do you expect, Tate Modern now has an in to the BBC. They take precedence over everything.

  • Dave B, thank you so much for taking the time to post the link to Channel 4’s report.
    As for the BBC, they have been far too impressed with themselves for a long time now,and more then one “sacking” is overdue there….

  • How absolutely spot on your analysis is – I was appalled to be quite honest – none of the attention given to Pavarotti’s passing, who very much owed his prominence to the recognition and opportunity afforded him by JS & RB.
    Dame Joan was a legend from the moment she performed in Zeffirelli’s production of Lucia – I recall my parents talking about queueing for tickets for it when they were still students at Guildhall – and their excitement when dad sang Enrico with her. You are quite right about David Webster too – his vision of a company and nurturing his singers was what made the RoH.
    Throughout my teens – and still – if I want the ultimate emotional trip I play The Art of the Prima Donna – there is nothing so sublime. And my fondest memory is of working Front of House at Covent Gordon during my BA finals whilst Joan Sutherland sang her last full opera there: Anna Bolena. The queues were immense – I queued for a friend to have a ticket and recall Dame Ninette de Valois early in the morning, walking nonchalantly to the front of the box office queue much to her delight and the annoyance of those who did not recognise her. The respect enjoyed by Dame Joan Sutherland for being a talent beyond compare was recognised far and wide and the BBC’s coverage was paltry. Leslie Garrett? Pah! And for this we pay salaries in the hundreds of thousands.

  • How absolutely spot on your analysis is – I was appalled to be quite honest – none of the attention given to Pavarotti’s passing, who very much owed his prominence to the recognition and opportunity afforded him by JS & RB.
    Dame Joan was a legend from the moment she performed in Zeffirelli’s production of Lucia – I recall my parents talking about queueing for tickets for it when they were still students at Guildhall – and their excitement when dad sang Enrico with her. You are quite right about David Webster too – his vision of a company and nurturing his singers was what made the RoH.
    Throughout my teens – and still – if I want the ultimate emotional trip I play The Art of the Prima Donna – there is nothing so sublime. And my fondest memory is of working Front of House at Covent Gordon during my BA finals whilst Joan Sutherland sang her last full opera there: Anna Bolena. The queues were immense – I queued for a friend to have a ticket and recall Dame Ninette de Valois early in the morning, walking nonchalantly to the front of the box office queue much to her delight and the annoyance of those who did not recognise her. The respect enjoyed by Dame Joan Sutherland for being a talent beyond compare was recognised far and wide and the BBC’s coverage was paltry. Leslie Garrett? Pah! And for this we pay salaries in the hundreds of thousands.

  • BBC handled it correctly –
    she was long out of he field
    and remembered mostly by
    the strange contingent that live
    and die for the high”E” mostly
    wannabe sopranos for whom opera is only about sopranos .
    Gompertz was kind to a past
    that was of interest only to opera goers. She had her day .

  • Newsnight’s ignorant tribute to the great Dame Joan was along the same lines. On Monday they played a clip from her farewell appearance during Fledermaus at the ROH – a bit of the Traviata duet with Pavarotti. Then last night Jeremy Paxman told us we were all ignorant and should be ashamed of ourselves as only one viewer had noticed that the clip from Die Fledermaus was actually from La Traviata.
    I suspect many viewers were less ignorant about the significance of that particular clip than anyone at Newsnight.

  • Newsnight’s ignorant tribute to the great Dame Joan was along the same lines. On Monday they played a clip from her farewell appearance during Fledermaus at the ROH – a bit of the Traviata duet with Pavarotti. Then last night Jeremy Paxman told us we were all ignorant and should be ashamed of ourselves as only one viewer had noticed that the clip from Die Fledermaus was actually from La Traviata.
    I suspect many viewers were less ignorant about the significance of that particular clip than anyone at Newsnight.

    • I was that one viewer but only just caught up with these posts because SD unaccountably and irreparably disappeared from my email years ago and I have to access it from Linkedin, when I remember. The point was that JP announced that she would be singing from Fledermaus (in Italian?!) and I felt it needed correcting with a clarifying explanation. He was perfectly charming about it, as indeed on two subsequent occasions when I have met him by chance at social functions, claiming in defence that he “doesn’t do culture”, which of course is nonsense as his books are full of it.

      A glimmer of the recognition he deserves was yesterday accorded to Dame Joan’s husband, Richard Bonynge, when he was appointed an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music. Not only was he the power behind his wife’s career, but has been at the forefront of the rediscovery of many of opera’s unjustly neglected masterpieces, as well as ballet scores. Yet he remains largely ignored by the musical establishment, to its disgrace. Yesterday’s ceremony went some way towards repairing that injustice.

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