Dame Joan Alston Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE (born 7 November 1926, died 10 October 2010) is an Australian dramatic coloratura soprano noted for her contribution in the renaissance of the bel canto repertoire in the late 1950s and 1960s.
One of the most remarkable female opera singers of the 20th century, she was dubbed La Stupenda by a La Fenice audience in 1960 after an Alcina performance. She possessed a voice of beauty and power, combining extraordinary agility, accurate intonation, a splendid trill and a tremendous upper register, although music critics often complained about the imprecision of her diction. Her friend Luciano Pavarotti once called Sutherland the “Voice of the Century”, while Montserrat Caballé described the Australian’s voice as being like “heaven”.
Early life and career
Sutherland as Handel’s Rodelinda
Joan Sutherland was born in Sydney, Australia, where she attended St Catherine’s School. She began training her voice as a child with her mother, a mezzo-soprano who had given up her career, and with whom she learned singing by listening to recordings. Sutherland was 18 when she started studying voice seriously with John and Aida Dickens. She made her stage debut in Sydney, as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Æneas, in 1947. In 1951, after winning Australia’s most important competition, the Sun Aria, she went to London to further her studies at the Opera School of the Royal College of Music with Clive Carey. In 1951, she made her London debut in Eugène Goossens’sJudith. She was engaged by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as a utility soprano, and made her debut there on 28 October 1952, as the First Lady in The Magic Flute, followed in November by a few performances as Clotilde in Bellini’s Norma, with Maria Callas as Norma.
During her early career, she was training to be a Wagnerian dramatic soprano, following the steps of Kirsten Flagstad, whom she greatly admired. In 1953, she sang her first leading role at the Royal Opera House, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, other roles included Agathe in Der Freischütz, the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Desdemona in Otello, Gilda in Rigoletto, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Pamina in The Magic Flute. In 1953, she sang in the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, and created the role of Jennifer in Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, on 27 January 1955.
Sutherland married Australian conductor and pianist, Richard Bonynge, on 16 October 1954. They had a son, Adam, born in 1956. Bonynge gradually convinced her that Wagner may not be her Fach after all, since she had such great ease with high notes and coloratura, and that she should perhaps explore the bel canto repertory.
In 1957, she appeared in Handel’s Alcina with the Handel Opera Society, and in Donizetti’sEmilia di Liverpool, in which performances her bel canto potential was clearly demonstrated, vindicating her husband’s judgement.
Joan Sutherland in her celebrated role of Lucia di Lammermoor, in the Mad Scene
In 1959, she was invited to sing Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House in a production conducted by Tullio Serafin and staged by Franco Zeffirelli. It was a breakthrough for Sutherland’s career, and, upon the completion of the famous Mad Scene, she had become a star. In 1960, she recorded the album The Art of the Prima Donna, which remains today one of the most recommended opera albums ever recorded: the double LP set won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance – Vocal Soloist in 1962. The album, a collection consisting mainly of coloratura arias, provides an opportunity to listen to the young Sutherland at the beginning of her international career. It displays her seemingly effortless coloratura ability, high notes and opulent tones, as well as her exemplary trill, which she is identified by and for which she is widely admired.
By the beginning of the 1960s, Sutherland had already established a reputation as a diva with a voice out of the ordinary. She sang Lucia to great acclaim in Paris in 1960 and, in 1961, at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. Also in 1960, she sang a superb Alcina at La Fenice, Venice, where she was nicknamed La Stupenda (“The Stupendous One”). Sutherland would soon be praised as La Stupenda in newspapers around the world. Later that year (1960), Sutherland sang Alcina at the Dallas Opera, with which she made her US debut.
Her Metropolitan Opera debut took place on 26 November 1961, when she sang Lucia. After a total of 217 performances in a number of different operas, her last appearance there was on 19 December 1987, when she sang in Il trovatore. During 1978–82 period her relationship with the Met severely deteriorated when the company declined to stage the operetta The Merry Widowespecially for her, as requested; subsequently, she did not perform at the Met during that time, but later returned there to sing in other operas, triumphally.
During the 1960s, Sutherland had added the greatest heroines of bel canto (“beautiful singing”) to her repertoire: Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani in 1960; Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda in 1961; Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and Semiramide in Rossini’s Semiramide in 1962; Norma in Bellini’sNorma and Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in 1963. She later added Marie in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, which became one of her most adored roles, because of her perfect coloratura and lively, funny interpretation.
In 1965, Sutherland toured Australia with the Sutherland-Williamson Opera Company. Accompanying her was a young tenor named Luciano Pavarotti, and the tour proved to be a major milestone in Pavarotti’s career. Every performance featuring Sutherland sold out.
During the 1970s, Sutherland strove to improve her diction and increase the expressiveness of her voice. She continued to add dramatic bel canto roles to her repertoire, such as Donizetti’sMaria Stuarda and Lucrezia Borgia, as well as Massenet’s extremely difficult Esclarmonde, a role that few sopranos attempt. She even recorded a successful Turandot in 1972 under the baton of Zubin Mehta, though she wisely never performed that taxing, heroic role on stage.
Sutherland’s early recordings show her to be possessed of a crystal-clear voice and excellent diction. However, by the early 1960s her voice lost some of this clarity in the middle register, and she often came under fire for having extremely poor diction. Some have attributed this to sinus surgery; however, her major sinus surgery was done in 1959, immediately after her breakthroughLucia at Covent Garden. In fact, her first commercial recording of the first and final scene ofLucia reveals her voice and diction to be just as clear as prior to the sinus procedure. Her husband, Richard Bonynge stated in an interview that her “mushy diction” occurred while striving to achieve perfect legato. According to him, it is because she earlier had a very Germanic “un-legato” way of singing. She clearly took the criticism to heart, as, within a few years, her diction improved markedly and she continued to amaze and thrill audiences throughout the world.
In the late 1970s, Sutherland’s voice started to decline and her vibrato loosened to an intrusive extent. However, thanks to her vocal agility and solid technique, she continued singing the most difficult roles amazingly well. During the 1980s, she added Anna Bolena, Amelia in I masnadieriand Adriana Lecouvreur to her repertoire, and repeated successfully Esclarmonde at The Royal Opera House performances in November and December 1983. Her last performance was as Marguerite de Valois (Les Huguenots) at the Sydney Opera House in 1990, at the age of 64. Her last public appearance, however, took place in a gala performance of Die Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve, 1990, at Covent Garden, where she was accompanied by her colleagues Pavarotti and the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.
According to her own words, given in an interview with The Guardian newspaper in 2002, her biggest achievement was to sing the title role in Esclarmonde. She considers those performances and recordings made as her best, being particularly fond of love duets.
Since her retirement, she has made relatively few public appearances, preferring a quiet life at her home in Montreux. One exception was her 1994 address at a lunch organised by Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. In that address, she complained at having to be interviewed by a clerk of Chinese or Indian background when applying to renew her Australian passport. Her comments caused considerable controversy at the time, and she has since publicly apologized for the remarks.
In 1997 she published an autobiography A Prima Donna’s Progress. While it received generally scathing reviews for its literary merits, it does contain a complete list of all her performances, with full cast lists.
In 2002 she appeared at a dinner in London to accept the Royal Philharmonic Society’s gold medal, and gave an interview to The Guardian in which she lamented the lack of technique in young opera singers, and the dearth of good teachers. She no longer gives master classes herself and when asked why by Italian journalists in May 2007, she replied: “Because I’m 80 years old and I really don’t want to have anything to do with opera anymore, although I do sit on the juries of singing competitions.” The competition that Sutherland has been most closely associated with since her retirement is the Cardiff Singer of the World. She began her regular involvement in the competition in 1993, serving on the jury five consecutive times and later, in 2003, became its patron.
Dame Joan Sutherland passed away 10 October 2010.
Honours and awards
During her career and after, Sutherland received many honours and awards. In 1961, Sutherland was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was named the Australian of the Year in 1961. On 9 June 1975, Dame Joan was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. She was further elevated from Commander to Dame Commander on 30 December 1978. On 24 November 1991, the Queen bestowed on Dame Joan the Order of Merit.
In 2004, she received a Kennedy Center Honor for her outstanding achievement throughout her career. In January of that year she also received the Australia Post Australian Legends Awardwhich honours Australians who have contributed to the Australian identity and culture. Two stamps featuring Joan Sutherland were issued on Australia Day 2004 to mark the award.
Both Sutherland House and the Dame Joan Sutherland Centre at St Catherine’s School, Sydney, and The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre (JSPAC), Penrith, are named in honour of her.