Tuesday 26 October 2010


I am returned from the Surrey International Writer’s conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Once again I feel it was time and money well spent. I learned so much. My brain feels a size too big for my skull. I hope I can retain at least the majority of what I learned.

If you are a beginning writer, or someone who wants to get started but needs the nuts and bolts (me two years ago at my first conference), or a writer who has something to sell – I highly recommend this particular conference.

I attended the Master’s Classes on Thursday, then every class I could work in for the following three days. I’m exhausted! There is no end to topics, no matter what you need, they will have it there.

Now, for my big news – several things actually.

If you recall two years ago, I went on and on about how brilliant I think Hallie Ephron to be, that opinion has not changed. What a good teacher. She is a writer of mystery (has a book out that will be a movie – Never Tell a Lie – I’ve just downloaded it to my Kindle). This year I was able to have a couple of ‘real person’ conversations with her, and drinks after one of our long days. May I tell you she is as lovely up close and personal as she is behind a podium? I know, I know, I’m gushing; well, I do that! I also had my appointment with her for my Blue Pencil session (where an author gives you an opinion and advice on your writing); that was very exciting.

Next – not one, not two, but THREE agents want me to send them the first three chapters of my book! Ahhhhhhhhhh! All that means is that they will read it, hopefully. They may one or all think it’s crap and that’s the end, or… one or all may love it and offer me a deal! It’s terrifying.

I am spending the rest of this week polishing those chapters one more time before sending them out so I’ll take any good wishes, hopes, crossed fingers, whatever you’re offering.

It was lovely and cool in Vancouver the few times I was able to venture out of the hotel. I was unable to visit Nobody Important and her wonderful Scientist Guy this year as I was rushing in and out of town. Back in Houston it’s still bloody summer! At least it is out of the nineties – so that’s something eh? The adorable husband, in spite of his black thumb, did very well with not killing my garden, everything looks quite well.

We are off to Carmel in a couple of weeks and that will be fun I’m sure. Meanwhile I am at the keyboard and my favourite holiday, Samhain, is coming up soon. I must get my spider up!

I shall do my best to be here more and not ignore my blog as I have of late. I owe “Powder Room Graffiti” several articles as well – as I said, I’ll be here at my keyboard!


Saturday 16 October 2010

and I am...

writing, and writing, and writing.... three more days to go... writing...

Tuesday 12 October 2010

A real artistic legend leaves us

Joan Sutherland is dead at age 83 years. My first reaction I must admit, is "she was 83?!". For me and millions of other opera lovers she will be forever young and fixed on the stage, taking us with her on a musical journey of extraordinary beauty. I am an opera lover. I say it with no apology. She was one of the greats and the world is less without her in it.

October 11, 2010
Joan Sutherland, Flawless Soprano, Is Dead at 83
Joan Sutherland, one of the most acclaimed sopranos of the 20th century, a singer of such power and range that she was crowned “La Stupenda,” died on Sunday at her home in Switzerland, near Montreux. She was 83.

Her death was confirmed by her close friend the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

It was Italy’s notoriously picky critics who dubbed the Australian-born Ms. Sutherland the Stupendous One after her Italian debut, in Venice in 1960. And for 40 years the name endured with opera lovers around the world. Her 1961 debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” generated so much excitement that standees began lining up at 7:30 that morning. Her singing of the Mad Scene drew a thunderous 12-minute ovation.

Ms. Sutherland’s singing was founded on astonishing technique. Her voice was evenly produced throughout an enormous range, from a low G to effortless flights above high C. She could spin lyrical phrases with elegant legato, subtle colorings and expressive nuances. Her sound was warm, vibrant and resonant, without any forcing. Indeed, her voice was so naturally large that at the start of her career Ms. Sutherland seemed destined to become a Wagnerian dramatic soprano.

Following her first professional performances, in 1948, during a decade of steady growth and intensive training, Ms. Sutherland developed incomparable facility for fast runs, elaborate roulades and impeccable trills. She did not compromise the passagework, as many do, by glossing over scurrying runs, but sang almost every note fully.

Her abilities led Richard Bonynge, the Sydney-born conductor and vocal coach whom she married in 1954, to persuade her early on to explore the early-19th-century Italian opera of the bel canto school. She became a major force in its revitalization.

Bel canto (which translates as “beautiful song” or “beautiful singing”) denotes an approach to singing exemplified by evenness through the range and great agility. The term also refers to the early-19th-century Italian operas steeped in bel canto style. Outside of Italy, the repertory had languished for decades when Maria Callas appeared in the early 1950s and demonstrated that operas like “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Bellini’s “Norma” were not just showcases for coloratura virtuosity but musically elegant and dramatically gripping works as well.

Even as a young man, Mr. Bonynge had uncommon knowledge of bel canto repertory and style. Ms. Sutherland and Mr. Bonynge, who is four years younger than she, met in Sydney at a youth concert and became casual friends. They were reacquainted later in London, where Ms. Sutherland settled with her mother in 1951 to attend the Royal College of Music. There Mr. Bonynge became the major influence on her development.

Ms. Sutherland used to say she thought of herself and her husband as a duo and that she didn’t talk of her career, “but of ours.”

In a 1961 profile in The New York Times Magazine she said she initially had “a big rather wild voice” that was not heavy enough for Wagner, although she did not realize this until she heard “Wagner sung as it should be.”

“Richard had decided — long before I agreed with him — that I was a coloratura,” she said.

“We fought like cats and dogs over it,” she said, adding, “It took Richard three years to convince me.”

In her repertory choices Ms. Sutherland ranged widely during the 1950s, singing lighter lyric Mozart roles like the Countess in “Le Nozze di Figaro” and heavier Verdi roles like Amelia in “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Even then, astute listeners realized that she was en route to becoming something extraordinary.

In a glowing and perceptive review of her performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” at Covent Garden in London in late 1957, the critic Andrew Porter, writing in The Financial Times, commended her for not “sacrificing purity to power.” This is “not her way,” Mr. Porter wrote, “and five years on we shall bless her for her not endeavoring now to be ‘exciting’ but, instead, lyrical and beautiful.”

She became an international sensation after her career-defining performance in the title role of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Covent Garden — its first presentation there since 1925 — which opened on Feb. 17, 1959. The production was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by the Italian maestro Tullio Serafin, a longtime Callas colleague, who elicited from the 32-year-old soprano a vocally resplendent and dramatically affecting portrayal of the trusting, unstable young bride of Lammermoor.

Mr. Porter, reviewing the performance in The Financial Times, wrote that the brilliance of Ms. Sutherland’s singing was to be expected by this point. The surprise, he explained, was the new dramatic presence she brought to bear.

“The traces of self-consciousness, of awkwardness on the stage, had disappeared; and at the same time she sang more freely, more powerfully, more intensely — and also more bewitchingly — than ever before.”

This triumph was followed in 1960 by landmark portrayals in neglected bel canto operas by Bellini: Elvira in “I Puritani” at the Glyndebourne Festival (the first presentation in England since 1887) and “La Sonnambula” at Covent Garden (the company’s first production in half a century).

Ms. Sutherland’s American debut came in November 1960 in the title role of Handel’s “Alcina” at the Dallas Opera, the first American production of this now-popular work. Her distinguished Decca recording of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” with an exceptional cast conducted by John Pritchard, was released in 1961, the year of her enormously anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in that same work, on Nov. 26.

At Ms. Sutherland’s first appearance, before she had sung a note, there was an enthusiastic ovation. Following the first half of Lucia’s Mad Scene in the final act, which culminated in a glorious high E-flat, the ovation lasted almost 5 minutes. When she finished the scene and her crazed, dying Lucia collapsed to the stage floor, the ovation lasted 12 minutes.

Reviewing the performance in The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote that other sopranos might have more power or a sweeter tone, but “there is none around who has the combination of technique, vocal security, clarity and finesse that Miss Sutherland can summon.”

Even for some admirers, though, there were limitations to her artistry. Her diction was often indistinct. After receiving steady criticism for this shortcoming, Ms. Sutherland worked to correct it, and sang with crisper enunciation in the 1970s.

She was also sometimes criticized for delivering dramatically bland performances. At 5-foot-9, she was a large woman, with long arms and large hands, and a long, wide face. As her renown increased, she insisted that designers create costumes for her that compensated for her figure, which, as she admitted self-deprecatingly in countless interviews, was somewhat flat in the bust but wide in the rib cage. Certain dresses could make her look like “a large column walking about the stage,” she wrote in “The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland: A Prima Donna’s Progress” (1997).

Paradoxically, Mr. Bonynge contributed to the sometimes dramatically uninvolved quality of her performances. By the mid-1960s he was her conductor of choice, often part of the deal when she signed a contract. Trained as a pianist and vocal coach, he essentially taught himself conducting. Even after extended experience, he was not the maestro opera fans turned to for arresting performances of Verdi’s “Traviata.” But he thoroughly understood the bel canto style and was attuned to every component of his wife’s voice.

Yet if urging her to be sensible added to her longevity, it sometimes resulted in her playing it safe. Other conductors prodded Ms. Sutherland to sing with greater intensity: for example, Georg Solti, in an acclaimed 1967 recording of Verdi’s Requiem with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Chorus, and Zubin Mehta, who enticed Ms. Sutherland into recording the title role in Puccini’s “Turandot,” which she never sang onstage, for a 1972 recording. Both of these projects featured the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who would become an ideal partner for Ms. Sutherland in the bel canto repertory. Ms. Sutherland’s fiery Turandot suggests she had dramatic abilities that were never tapped.

Joan Alston Sutherland was born on Nov. 7, 1926, in Sydney, where the family lived in a modest house overlooking the harbor. The family garden and the rich array of wildflowers on the hillside near the beach inspired her lifelong love of gardening.

Her mother, Muriel Sutherland, was a fine mezzo-soprano who had studied with Mathilde Marchesi, the teacher of the Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Though too shy for the stage, Ms. Sutherland’s mother did vocal exercises every day and was her daughter’s principal teacher throughout her adolescence.

Ms. Sutherland’s father, William, a Scottish-born tailor, had been married before. His first wife died during the influenza epidemic after World War I, leaving him with three daughters and a son. Ms. Sutherland was the only child of his second marriage. He died on the day of Ms. Sutherland’s sixth birthday. He had just given her a new bathing suit and she wanted to try it out. Though feeling unwell, he climbed down to the beach with her and, upon returning, collapsed in his wife’s arms. Joan, along with her youngest half-sister and their mother, moved into the home of an aunt and uncle, who had sufficient room and a big garden in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra.

Although Ms. Sutherland’s mother soon recognized her daughter’s gifts, she pegged her as a mezzo-soprano. At 16, facing the reality of having to support herself, Ms. Sutherland completed a secretarial course and took office jobs, while keeping up her vocal studies. She began lessons in Sydney with Aida Dickens, who convinced her that she was a soprano, very likely a dramatic soprano. Ms. Sutherland began singing oratorios and radio broadcasts and made a notable debut in 1947 as Purcell’s Dido in Sydney.

In 1951, with prize money from winning a prestigious vocal competition, she and her mother moved to London, where Ms. Sutherland enrolled at the opera school of the Royal College of Music. The next year, after three previous unsuccessful auditions, she was accepted into the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and made her debut as the First Lady in Mozart’s “Zauberflöte.”

In the company’s landmark 1952 production of Bellini’s “Norma,” starring Maria Callas, Ms. Sutherland sang the small role of Clotilde, Norma’s confidante. “Now look after your voice,” Callas advised her at the time, adding, “We’re going to hear great things of you.”

“I lusted to sing Norma after being in those performances with Callas,” Ms. Sutherland said in a 1998 New York Times interview. “But I knew that I could not sing it the way she did. It was 10 years before I sang the role. During that time I studied it, sang bits of it, and worked with Richard. But I had to evolve my own way to sing it, and I would have wrecked my voice to ribbons had I tried to sing it like her.”

In 1955 she created the lead role of Jenifer in Michael Tippett’s “Midsummer Marriage.”

During this period Ms. Sutherland gave birth to her only child, Adam, who survives her, along with two grandchildren and Mr. Bonynge, her husband of 56 years.

Immediately after her breakthrough performances as Lucia in 1959, Ms. Sutherland underwent sinus surgery to correct persistent problems with nasal passages that were chronically prone to becoming clogged. Though it was a risky operation for a singer, it was deemed successful.

In the early 1960s, using a home in southern Switzerland as a base, Ms. Sutherland made the rounds, singing in international opera houses and forming a close association with the Met, where she ultimately sang 223 performances. These included an acclaimed new production of “Norma” in 1970 with Ms. Horne in her Met debut, singing Adalgisa; Mr. Bonynge conducted. There was also a hugely popular 1972 production of Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment,” with Pavarotti singing the role of Tonio.

Though never a compelling actress, Ms. Sutherland exuded vocal charisma, a good substitute for dramatic intensity. In the comic role of Marie in “La Fille du Régiment,” she conveyed endearingly awkward girlishness as the orphaned tomboy raised by an army regiment, proudly marching in place in her uniform while tossing off the vocal flourishes.

Ms. Sutherland was plain-spoken and down to earth, someone who enjoyed needlepoint and playing with her grandchildren. Though she knew who she was, she was quick to poke fun at her prima donna persona.

“I love all those demented old dames of the old operas,” she said in a 1961 Times profile. “All right, so they’re loony. The music’s wonderful.”

Queen Elizabeth II made Ms. Sutherland a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1978. Her bluntness sometimes caused her trouble. In 1994, addressing a luncheon organized by a group in favor of retaining the monarchy in Australia, she complained of having to be interviewed by a foreign-born clerk when applying to renew her passport, “a Chinese or an Indian — I’m not particularly racist — but find it ludicrous, when I’ve had a passport for 40 years.” Her remarks were widely reported, and she later apologized.

In retirement she mostly lived quietly at home but was persuaded to sit on juries of vocal competitions and, less often, to present master classes. In 2004 she received a Kennedy Center Honor for outstanding achievement throughout her career. In 2008, while gardening at her home in Switzerland, she fell and broke both legs, which led to a lengthy hospital stay.

Other sopranos may have been more musically probing and dramatically vivid. But few were such glorious vocalists. After hearing her New York debut in “Beatrice di Tenda” at Town Hall, the renowned Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão, herself beloved for the sheer beauty of her voice, said, “If there is perfection in singing, this is it.”

Thursday 7 October 2010

The adventure continues..

What a brilliant time I am having in New York with my child. On Wednesday we did a hard-core walk about and shopping in the city and rewarded ourselves with a late lunch at Grenouille. It’s like eating inside a jewel box. Apparently it is “the place to go to see old money in New York”. I can believe it; I saw more Chanel suits than on a rack in Paris!

The service was impeccable! Just enough attention but not so much you can’t enjoy your meal. They treated us like we had been coming there for years, and the food! Oh boy the food was luscious! We both had the calf’s liver and it was done with sweet onions and spinach – perfectly cooked. I had the green pea soup, which was made with real crème and so rich it could have paid for the meal. Q had terrine de campagne, equally good. For desert I had, yes you guessed it – 18-year-old McAllan’s, and Q had melt in your mouth chocolate mouse’ and café’.

The portions were just right, European and just right. We were satiated but still able to walk back to the hotel.

Yesterday Q was off to teach and try to enlighten the youth of America, and I worked in the hotel room, taking a long walk about the downtown in the afternoon.

Last night we went to the New York City Ballet at Koch Theatre at the Lincoln Center and it was SPECTACULAR! We both have husbands who will take us to the opera but draw the line at the ballet, so they were happy we were there as well. The adorable husband, the go to guy for tickets, got us front row center orchestra seats, and I mean front row! We were right behind the conductor, like sitting behind home plate at a Yankees game!

The first act was “The Magic Flute” and was well done, big cuteness factor when they brought out all the future company (ages 8 to 10 years) to join in the fun. The second and third act was quite well done, but the pie’ce de re’sistance was the fourth and last act.

We were on our feet and shouting Brava! The chap was quite good, very athletic and engaging. The featured ballerina, Sara Mearns, was brilliant! It’s very difficult to be sensuous when you are a ballerina, most of them have no hips and no breasts, and their attention is not on the audience but the movement. This young woman took our breath away, not only was she technically on point but she was delightful to watch. We could not take our eyes off her. She flirted with the audience and then followed a beguiling look with a round of perfect pirouettes that covered the entire stage! It was the perfect ending to a wonderful show.

After managing to snag a taxi, no mean feat after a major event, we came back to the hotel and had drinks down in the piano bar. We decided dinner would be room service, where we could dress down and watch “Robin Hood” with Russell Crowe – so not worth the time to watch! They mangled history, the legend, and the characters and gave you nothing to replace it with as believable or just plain old entertaining. Awful, awful, movie. Dinner however was yummy, quick to the room, and fun to eat in pajamas!

Today Q is off to run Central Park while I work on my book, then are going walk about and have tea at Alice’s Tea Cup, Chapter Three.

After this trip I shan’t be able to eat for a week!


Tuesday 5 October 2010

The Big Apple

Hello New York City! Yesterday proved a lucky day all ‘round. First I got an Exit seat on the aisle, for free, with an empty seat beside me on the non-stop flight from Houston to JFK. Granted the plane was a crop duster and normally I don’t care for the smaller jets but this one was quite satisfactory. The flight attendants, for a change, were friendly and helpful.

I arrive in NYC where it is drizzling and cool – some of my favorite weather conditions. I pulled in at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue (quickly becoming an old friend) and asked to upgrade to a small suite since our Katie may be able to come over from Boston to visit us for a day, and that would give us room for her to stay overnight.

“I’m sorry Mrs. H but all our suites are booked up,” said the lovely young woman at check-in.

“Oh that’s fine then, no worries. I’m sure the ‘superior room’ I have booked will be fine.”

“Now wait just a moment and let me see if we have one of our ‘boudoir rooms’ available, it’s a bit more room and has a large bathroom.”

She found me the room AT NO EXTRA CHARGE. And here is where the luck continues, the room number is 1313! 13 is one of my lucky numbers! The room is lovely. A large bedroom, an equally sized boudoir room with two extra closets and a dressing table, and the bathroom is almost as big as the dressing room!

I was starved, having been up since three a.m. and having nothing but Red Bull and water with a small latte. I rang Q but she was still knee deep in students who desperately needed her help apparently. I ordered a Cobb salad from room service and I swear it was here before I finished unpacking! And it was delicious, as well as so huge that when Q did arrive, she had the rest of it for her dinner! She arrived after six, starving and exhausted. She had been having office hours all afternoon with her students who are apparently in need of quite a bit of help.

Housekeeping arrived with my supply of extra pillows and a refrigerator and I was set.

We divested ourselves of clothing, washed up and watched “Iron Man 2” which was as advertized – explosions and broad humor, just the thing for a nighttime story.

Today is workday, find the great French restaurant for lunch day after the gym, and get a manicure day. We shall see what else falls out and I will get some photographs for you!


Saturday 2 October 2010


Just checking in to say, 'I'm not dead.' Writing is LONELY work. Writing a book once you have done the story part is work-work. Especially if the book began life as a simple romantic tale and turned into a blow 'em up with hot sex and tortured love!

Thanks to the adorable husband, who put in more time than I can tell you, reading through the rough draft and giving me his perspective (he is a very good editor) I have an idea of just how much work there is to do! Backstory! Backstory is tough. I mean you have to tell the reader who this person who has entered the story is, but not too much, and not too early; but if you wait too long they are confused and won't care about the character.

"Show, don't tell!" Arghhh. You must make your characters engage in actions that demonstrate to the reader their personalities; you can't just say she was sexy but prissy, tough but delicate, sad but optimistic - that would be too easy aye?

So that's where I am - at my keyboard, with occasional breaks on the treadmill and for laundry!

I am off to New York City on Monday for a week with my daughter! Huzzah! I shall still be at my keyboard, but in the Waldorf Astoria hotel and with long walks about the city! We are also going to the ballet, and thanks to the adorable husband, he's the 'go-to tickets guy', we have brilliant seats. I also intend to make use of my child's most excellent brain power if she has the time.

After that I have one more week at home before the Surrey conference and my deadline! whimper....