Obit: Who was Dame Joan Sutherland?

“La Stupenda”, as she was dubbed, led the renaissance of Italian bel canto and French romantic operas, reviving roles of extraordinary difficulty.


She was “the voice of the century”, according to Luciano Pavarotti, the late, great Italian tenor. The Spanish diva Montserrat Caballe said her voice was like heaven.

On many lists of the world’s greatest sopranos, Sutherland ranks second only to Maria Callas. Hers was probably the greater voice, though she couldn’t match Callas’ peerless emotional intensity.

Among Australians, only Nellie Melba could rival her standing.

Comparisons are difficult given Melba died when Sutherland was four. But the younger woman almost certainly made a greater contribution to the development of opera, although Melba, with her scandals and ostentations, was the greater celebrity.

Dame Joan Alston Sutherland OM AC DBE, who died in Switzerland home on Sunday local time, aged 83, was born in Sydney on November 7, 1926.

Her mother Muriel was a talented mezzo, but without the necessary ambition. When it was suggested she should go to Europe to study, she said she’d rather watch the cricket with her friends.

Sutherland’s first training, which “laid the foundations”, was sitting at her mother’s feet as she practised. She didn’t start serious voice training until she was 18.

In 1951, after winning the Sun Aria, she went to London to continue her studies with the opera school of the Royal College of Music.

Soon after, she joined the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as a utility soprano on ten pounds a week. She made her debut there as the First Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute in October 1952.

Two years later she married the Australian conductor and pianist Richard Bonynge. It was to be a life-long and mutually supportive partnership.

Early, Sutherland’s idol and model was the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. Bonynge, partly from hearing her sing around the house, steered her to her true destiny.

Sutherland has recalled: “I was all geared up to be a so-called dramatic soprano and I was singing all those heavy arias…”

“And you know, he (Bonynge) said, ‘I don’t understand you. You sing all those heavy arias and you’re being guided into the heavier repertoire, but you’ve got a real top. When you’re singing around the house you go up to the top of the voice without any problem and yet if you try to sing a high C in one of these heavy arias, it’s a bit of a difficulty for you to get there.

“So we worked on that and it didn’t take too long for me to realise that he was absolutely right.”

By 1957, with her performances of Handel’s Alcina and Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool, the critics and opera-loving public realised a very special voice, able to handle the most taxing vocal lines without losing any beauty from the sound.

This baroque ideal was confirmed when she stopped the show, with the Covent Garden crowd on its feet for 10 minutes, with a staggering performance of Let the Bright Seraphim, complete with exultant high D, from Handel’s Samson.

On February 17, 1959 she sang the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a Covent Garden production directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Tulio Serafin.

Her rendering of one of the towering bel canto roles was a triumph and launched her international career.

The world’s operatic citadels started to fall – Paris, Venice (where she was dubbed La Stupenda for Alcina), Milan and Vienna; then the major American houses, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera with Lucia in 1961.

She regularly added more of the great roles, largely bel canto, to her repertoire. They included many of the works of Bellini and Donizetti.

Her long and fruitful association with the great American mezzo Marilyn Horne began in 1961 with Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda at New York Town Hall.

Another great partnership was with Pavarotti, which developed during an Australian tour in 1965 in which she sang five of her great roles – Lucia, Semiramide, Marguerite in Faust, Violetta in La Traviata and Amina in La Sonnambula.

Pavarotti’s standing was cemented the following year when he played opposite her in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment at Covent Garden.

Perhaps her favourite role was Norma in Bellini’s druid melodrama.

“The music is so wonderful and the music of the other singers in also fantastic and Norma is a real woman,” she said. “It’s all fraught with high flown drama.”

Sutherland increasingly sang under her husband’s baton and it was he who led her to her other favourite, Massenet’s largely forgotten Esclarmonde.

He read that the French romantic composer thought Esclarmonde, a medieval chivalric tale full of stratospheric coloratura passages, his best work.

Bonynge found tattered copies of the vocal score in Paris and than managed to buy the orchestral score at an auction.

Sutherland first performed it, with Bonynge conducting, in 1974.

And of all her recordings, Esclarmonde was her favourite.

“I’m very partial to that, particularly the love duet,” she said.

“It’s so erotic. It’s definitely the most erotic piece I ever sang.”

Two other especially acclaimed recordings are her Turandot under Zubin Mehta and her 1960 The Art of the Prima Donna.