Grace and Being Great

Opinions - June 5th, 2009

by Ian de Stains OBE

More years ago than I care to count, when I was nine years old and feeling unwell, my mother kept me home from school. I have a vivid memory of that day. There was a coal fire burning and my mother was doing the ironing. As always when she was about such tasks, she had on the radio. The World at One was a news round-up that would hardly appeal to a nine year old but suddenly there came a voice of the most astonishing clarity singing what was until then the most beautiful music I had ever heard. The aria was the Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma. The voice belonged to a young newcomer who the previous night had astounded the audience at Covent Garden in her debut there. Her name was Joan Sutherland.

I could not have imagined then that Dame Joan would feature in my later life and that in doing so would teach me a valuable lesson in humility and grace.

In 1970 as a raw BBC producer-presenter, I was sent to the Edinburgh Festival to interview the great diva. I was thrilled. I was also nervous. Greeted warmly by Dame Joan and her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge, I began setting up my equipment: a reel-to-reel tape recorder of studio quality. As soon as I did so, I realized to my horror that I did not have a reel of tape in the machine. Nor did I have a spare. There was really no time to run out and buy a tape (even if I had known where to find one) and I felt I couldn’t confess my carelessness, so I plowed on with the interview, the tapeless spool spinning in the machine and thoughts of the end of my career spinning in my head.

But I survived, finding myself in the mid-1970s in Tokyo, seconded to NHK, a number of well-received interviews behind me. So I was overjoyed to be given another chance to meet the Bonynges when Dame Joan was giving a recital in Hibiya. This time I had a plentiful supply of tape and secured a very satisfactory piece. As I was packing up, I decided to share my Edinburgh experience. To my great surprise Dame Joan replied that she recalled the occasion (though admittedly not that I had been the witless interviewer), and that they had indeed known all along that I didn’t have a tape, but didn’t want to embarrass me. She added that they were very concerned after I’d gone about how I would explain myself.

I have often reflected on this lesson. They were, at the time, the superstars of the opera world. I was a totally unknown and untried broadcaster. It would have been so easy for them to accuse me of wasting their time. Instead they gave me room to learn from my mistake and refrained from making me feel worse than I already did.

Ian de Stains, OBE is the Executive Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan. He is also the author of The Business Traveller’s Handbook to Japan, published by Stacey International and available from Amazon.

External Link:
Dame Alston Sutherland, Wikipedia