It ain't over till the fat lady signs

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Dame Joan Sutherland, the Sydney-born soprano whom the Italians once called 'La Stupenda', is back in Britain, reminiscing and signing copies of her new autobiography. Nick Kimberley went along to hear her in the flesh

The voice was stunning, but somehow Joan Sutherland was always the sort of soprano to have Norma Major as her biographer (that book appeared in 1987). That wonderful jawline bespeaks solid virtue and sound sense, even as the voice told quite a different story. Now Dame Joan, who celebrates her 71st birthday next month, has written her own autobiography, and it bears a distinct resemblance to a shopping list: this many performances of that opera in City X then City Y; recitals here, recording sessions there, friends everywhere.

In 485 pages, there are only the scantest traces of an emotional life. Her father's death on her sixth birthday gets 18 lines; her sister's suicide in 1949, 13 lines; her mother's death in 1961, 17 lines - but then, that event clashed with her New York debut (in Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda at Carnegie Hall): "The big debut night was February 21, and on that Tuesday morning Richard [Bonynge, her Svengaliesque husband and chiefconductor] had to break the news to me that Mother had died the day before in London... When I spoke with Auntie Blos by telephone, she was adamant that Mother would have wanted me to stay and fulfil my obligation." Hairdressers, costumiers and dentists, on the other hand, get numberless mentions. And, as for music qua music, it's almost an incidental detail. In 1958, when Sutherland was singing a leading role in Francis Poulenc's French Revolutionary opera Les Dialogues des Carmelites at Covent Garden, the composer himself attended rehearsals, and all we learn from Sutherland's account is that he made a couple of changes in the music for her, and it was "wonderful" to work with him. It's as if the book were reconstructed from notes, rather than from memory.

Sutherland more or less admitted as much in conversation with Edward Greenfield at the Wigmore Hall on Monday night. She also remarked that one criticism she'd had was that the book lacked emotion: "I thought I showed emotion," she said wistfully. Given the chance, though (and Greenfield, an adoring fan, gushed rather too profusely), she proved livelier in the flesh than on the page. Proclaiming the book as "all me own work", she cited the Master himself, Noel Coward: "He said he wrote every morning from nine until lunchtime, and it didn't matter if he wrote twaddle, he could polish it later. That seemed a good idea, so I got up every morning and wrote twaddle."

She swiped at "modern" producers with their "modern rubbish", drawing cheers from her audience. But then, Dame Joan was always one of those singers who carried her own costumes around from production to production. Nor does the woman who once created the role of Jenifer in Sir Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage back in 1955 seem to have much time for contemporary music these days: "You're stabbing at notes here and there, and it becomes orchestral. It's not vocal at all." Seven times out of 10, it would be hard to disagree with her. There was admonishment for the Royal Opera House too - "It was a company then, the way it should be now, and isn't" - and a warning for today's young singers, who "haven't spent enough time on technique".

Predictable enough, but delivered with good humour, some of it directed at herself. Sutherland's speaking voice is delicious, pitched slightly deeper than you might expect of a coloratura soprano, and with just a trace of Australian piquancy. She showed an easy rapport with her fans, and we all applauded wildly whenever Greenfield played one of her recordings (reproduced somewhat muddily). We got Verdi, Meyerbeer and Bellini, but no Donizetti, which seemed somewhat perverse given that it was in his Lucia di Lammermoor that the woman whom the Italians dubbed "La Stupenda" first made her name.

Where the autobiography drags on endlessly, the talk was over almost before it had begun. A quick standing ovation, and then it was time to queue for her autograph. It's that kind of autobiography.

'The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland: A Prima Donna's Progress' is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson at pounds 20. Dame Joan will be 'in conversation' again tomorrow evening at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (tickets from Waterstone's, Deansgate) and will be signing copies of her book at Hatchard's, 187 Piccadilly, London W1, between 12.30 and 1.30pm on Friday