Monday, April 2, 2012

A link to Charlotte's history

As one of the world's leading opera stars of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Joan Sutherland received a lot of tributes. But I doubt there's an accolade that quite equals the one at Winthrop University: the Joan Sutherland Memorial Toilet.

The name may not be engraved on a tablet, but that what Kassie Minor called it. Here's the story as she told it:

Winthrop booked Sutherland to perform at Byrnes Auditorium in 1981, celebrating the 20th anniversary of a concert she gave there when she was just becoming a star. By '81, the Australian soprano's career wasn't the only thing about her that was large.

Ahead of her visit, Byrnes' then-manager thought about the fact that the backstage area had no restroom at the stage level. He figured that trekking up and down stairs would be a chore for the substantial soprano. So he had a closet in his office converted. Voila: the Sutherland Memorial Toilet.

Kassie recounted that with gusto, which tells you something: Kassie, who died March 24 at 90, didn't put anyone on a pedestal (not even a diva being supplied with a throne). That's why the photo above, from a beach trip, is one of her family's favorites pictures of her.

The story also shows how Kassie loved her decades on the front lines of Charlotte's cultural scene.

She was closest to the Charlotte Symphony -- bonding with players, chauffeuring guest artists, cooking for after-concert shindigs at her home. Yet that wasn't the limit of what she did. When the Community Concert Association -- now called Charlotte Concerts -- was in its heyday, bringing big-name soloists and ensembles to town, Kassie pitched in there, too.

The New York Philharmonic once had a day off here on tour, and Kassie helped organize a picnic at a nearby farm. The day included a softball game between Charlotte Symphony players and the Philharmonic. Even though it took place years ago, Kassie reported the outcome as if it were hot news:

"They killed us! They were like pros!"

Kassie was a link to a time when the arts in Charlotte -- as in other yet-to-boom cities -- relied a lot on volunteers who gathered at their dining-room tables do the work behind cultural events. But she wasn't the sentimental type. A few years ago, when artist fees had inflated to the point that the concert association could rarely afford top performers, Kassie was ready to shut it down.

"It isn't quality," she said.

By that time, Kassie was leaving the work to others. Even though her oxygen machine -- or her "damn nose hose," as she called it -- made concertgoing a hassle, she went out when she was motivated. In the past few years, the Metropolitan Opera's movie-theater showings were one of her main musical pursuits. (I have to give her credit for telling me the handiest way to get to Stonecrest from Charlotte proper -- by driving straight out Colony Road.)

The last Met showing I saw her at was "Boris Godunov" last fall. It starred the German bass Rene Pape, who may have been Kassie's favorite singer of today. She thought he was hot stuff. And she wasn't just talking about his voice.