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Dame Joan Alston Sutherland, OM, DBE, AC, (7 November 1926 – 10 October 2010) was an Australian dramatic coloratura soprano noted for her contribution to the renaissance of the bel canto repertoire from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.
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 a performance of the title role in Handel's Alcina. She possessed a voice of beauty and power, combining extraordinary agility, accurate intonation, "supremely" pinpoint staccatos, 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"; Montserrat Caballé described the Australian's voice as being like "heaven".
Joan Sutherland was born to Scottish parents in Sydney, and attended St Catherine's School in the suburb of Waverley, New South Wales. As a child, she listened to and imitated her mother's singing exercises. Her mother, a mezzo-soprano, had taken voice lessons but never considered making a career as a professional singer. Sutherland was 18 years old when she began seriously studying voice with John and Aida Dickens. She made her concert debut in Sydney, as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, in 1947. In 1951, she made her stage debut in Eugene Goossens's Judith. In 1951, after winning Australia's most important competition, the Sun Aria, now known as the Sydney Eisteddfod McDonald's Operatic Aria in 1949. She then went to London to further her studies at the Opera School of the Royal College of Music with Clive Carey. 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 Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, with Maria Callas as Norma.
Being an admirer of Kirsten Flagstad in her early career, she trained to be a Wagnerian dramatic soprano. In December 1952, 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, Desdemona in Otello, Gilda in Rigoletto, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Pamina in The Magic Flute. In 1953, she sang the role of Lady Rich in Benjamin Britten's Gloriana a few months after its world premiere, 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. Their son, Adam, was born in 1956. Bonynge gradually convinced her that Wagner might not be her Fach, and that since she could produce high notes and coloratura with great ease, she should perhaps explore the bel canto repertoire. She eventually settled in this Fach, spending most of her career singing dramatic coloratura soprano.
In 1957, she appeared in Handel's Alcina with the Handel Opera Society, and sang selections from Donizetti's Emilia di Liverpool in a radio broadcast, in which performances her bel canto potential was clearly demonstrated, vindicating her husband's judgement. The following year she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in Vancouver.
In 1959, Sutherland was invited to sing Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House in a production conducted by Tullio Serafin and staged by Franco Zeffirelli. The role of Edgardo was sung by her fellow Australian Kenneth Neate, who had replaced the scheduled tenor at short notice. 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, displays her seemingly effortless coloratura ability, high notes and opulent tones, as well as her exemplary trill. The album was added to the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia registry in 2011.
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. In 1960, she sang a superb Alcina at La Fenice, Venice, where she was nicknamed La Stupenda ("The Stunning 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 223 performances in a number of different operas, her last appearance there was a concert on 12 March 1989. During the 1978–82 period her relationship with the Met severely deteriorated when Sutherland had to decline the role of Constanze in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, more than a year before the rehearsals were scheduled to start. The opera house management then declined to stage the operetta The Merry Widow especially for her, as requested; subsequently, she did not perform at the Met during that time at all, even though a production of Rossini's Semiramide had also been planned, but later she returned there to sing in other operas.
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; the title role in Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda in 1961; Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and the title role in Rossini's Semiramide in 1962; Norma in Bellini's Norma and Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare in 1963. In 1966 she added Marie in Donizetti's La fille du régiment, which became one of her most popular 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, which had often been criticised, and increase the expressiveness of her interpretations. She continued to add dramatic bel canto roles to her repertoire, such as Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Lucrezia Borgia, as well as Massenet's extremely difficult Esclarmonde, a role that few sopranos attempt. With Pavarotti she made a very successful studio-recording of Turandot in 1972 under the baton of Zubin Mehta, though she never performed the 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 unclear diction. Some have attributed this to sinus surgery; however, her major sinus surgery was done in 1959, immediately after her breakthrough Lucia at Covent Garden. In fact, her first commercial recording of the first and final scene of Lucia 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, Amalia in I masnadieri and Adriana Lecouvreur to her repertoire, and repeated Esclarmonde at the Royal Opera House performances in November and December 1983. Her last full-length dramatic performance was as Marguerite de Valois (Les Huguenots) at the Sydney Opera House in 1990, at the age of 63, where she sang Home Sweet Home for her encore. 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 Luciano 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 considered those performances and recordings her best.
After retirement, Sutherland made relatively few public appearances, preferring a quiet life at her home in Les Avants, Switzerland. One exception was her 1994 address at a lunch organised by Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. In that address, she complained about having to be interviewed by a clerk of Chinese or Indian background when applying to renew her Australian passport. Her comments caused controversy among some sections of the community at the time.
In 1997 she published an autobiography, The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland: A Prima Donna's Progress. It received generally scathing reviews for its literary merits, but 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. She gave an interview to The Guardian in which she lamented the lack of technique in young opera singers and the dearth of good teachers. By this time she was no longer giving master classes herself; when asked by Italian journalists in May 2007 why this was, she replied: "Because I'm 80 years old and I really don't want to have anything to do with opera any more, although I do sit on the juries of singing competitions." The Cardiff Singer of the World competition was the one that Sutherland was most closely associated with after her retirement. She began her regular involvement with the event in 1993, serving on the jury five consecutive times and later, in 2003, becoming its patron.
On 3 July 2008, she fell and broke both of her legs while gardening at her home in Switzerland. She completely recovered and attended a 2009 luncheon hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in honour of members of the Order of Merit.
On 11 October 2010, Sutherland's family announced that she had died at her home at Les Avants in Switzerland the previous day of cardiopulmonary failure – "the heart just gave out...When it came to the point that she physically couldn't do anything, she didn't want to live any more. She wanted to go, she was happy to go, and in the end she died very, very peacefully." Though she recovered from her fall in 2008, it led to more serious health problems. A statement from her family said "She's had a long life and gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people." Sutherland had requested a small, private funeral service. Her funeral was held on 14 October and Opera Australia planned a tribute to her. Artistic director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, said "We won't see her like again. She had a phenomenal range, size and quality of voice. We simply don't hear that any more." Sutherland is survived by her husband, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, "She was of course one of the great opera voices of the 20th century," adding that Dame Joan showed a lot of "quintessential Australian values. She was described as down to earth despite her status as a diva. On behalf of all Australians I would like to extend my condolences to her husband Richard and son Adam and their extended family at this difficult time. I know many Australians will be reflecting on her life's work today."
A State Memorial Service on 9 November 2010, arranged by Opera Australia, was held at the Sydney Opera House. Speakers at the service were Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia; Professor Marie Bashir, the Governor of New South Wales; Moffatt Oxenbould, the former Artistic Director of Opera Australia; and Sutherland's son, Adam Bonynge. The service was broadcast live by both ABC1 television and ABC Classic FM (radio) and streamed globally by ABC News 24. Further memorial services were held in Westminster Abbey on 15 February 2011, and in New York City on 24 May 2011, which was hosted by Marilyn Horne with an appearance by Richard Bonynge. In attendance were Sherrill Milnes, Norman Ayrton, Regina Resnick, and Spiro Malas.
Described as "fresh," "silvery" and "bell-like" until 1963, Joan Sutherland's voice, later became "golden" and "warm", music critic John Yohalem writes it was like "molten honey caressing the line." In his book Voices, Singers and Critics, John Steane writes that "if the tonal spectrum ranges from bright to dark, Sutherland's place would be near the centre, which is no doubt another reason for her wide appeal." According to John Yohalem, "Her lower register was a cello register, Stradivarius-hued." Her voice was full and rounded even in her highest notes, which was brilliant, but sometimes "slightly acid."
Originally bright and youthful-sounding, her voice darkened as she transformed herself into a coloratura. There is a suggestion of Callas' famous middle register in Sutherland's vocal center—a tone that sounds as if the singer were singing into the neck of a resonant bottle. Today the Sutherland voice towers like a natural wonder, unique as Niagara or Mount Everest. Sills' voice is made of more ordinary stuff; what she shares with Callas is an abandon in hurling herself into fiery emotional music and a willingness to sacrifice vocal beauty for dramatic effect. Sutherland deals in vocal velvet, Sills in emotional dynamite. Sutherland's voice is much larger, but its plush monochrome robs it of carrying power in dramatic moments. Sills' multicolored voice, though smaller, projects better and has a cutting edge that can slice through the largest orchestra and chorus. Sometimes, indeed, it verges on shrillness. [...] In slow, legato music, Sills has a superior sense of rhythm and clean attack to keep things moving; Sutherland's more flaccid beat and her style of gliding from note to note often turn song into somnolence. Sills' diction in English, French and Italian is superb; Sutherland's vocal placement produces mushy diction in any language, but makes possible an even more seamless beauty of tone than is available to Sills.
Describing Sutherland's voice, John Yohalem writes:
On my personal color scale, which runs from a voluptuous red (Tebaldi) or blood-orange (Leontyne Price) or purple (Caballé) or red-purple (Troyanos) to white-hot (Rysanek) or runny yellow-green (Sills), Sutherland is among the "blue" sopranos – which has nothing to do with "blues" in the pop sense of the term. (Ella Fitzgerald had a blue voice, but Billie Holiday had a blues voice, which is very different.) Diana Damrau is blue. Mirella Freni is blue-ish. Karita Mattila is ice blue. Régine Crespin was deep blue shading to violet. Sutherland was true blue (like the Garter ribbon). There is a coolness here that can take on the passion in the music but does not inject passion where the music lacks it, could possibly use it.
Although she is generally described as a dramatic coloratura soprano, "categorizing Sutherland's voice has always been extremely difficult, both the size and the sound present definitional problems [...] Aside from singing some roles popular amongst coloratura sopranos, Sutherland’s voice could not be more different."
In a 1961 profile in The New York Times Magazine, Sutherland said she initially had "a big rather wild voice" that was not heavy enough for Wagner, although she did not realise this until she heard "Wagner sung as it should be."
Regarding the size of Sutherland's voice, Opera Britannia praise "a voice of truly heroic dimensions singing bel canto. It is doubtful if any soprano in this repertoire has fielded quite so much power and tone as Dame Joan, and this includes Callas and Tetrazzini. The contrast with other sopranos who sing the same roles is appropriately enough stupendous, with rival prima donnas producing small pin points of sound as compared to Sutherland's seemingly endless cascades of full tone." In 1972, music critic Winthrop Sargeant describes her voice "as large as that of a top-ranking Wagnerian soprano" in the The New Yorker. French soprano Natalie Dessay states, "She had a huge, huge voice and she was able to lighten suddenly and to take this quick coloratura and she had also the top high notes like a coloratura soprano but with a big, huge voice, which is very rare."
During her career and after, Sutherland received many honours and awards. In 1961, she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). That year she was named the Australian of the Year.
In the Queen's Birthday Honours of 9 June 1975, she was in the first group of people to be named Companions of the Order of Australia (AC) (the order had been created only in February 1975). She was elevated within the Order of the British Empire from Commander to Dame Commander (DBE) in the New Year's Honours of 1979.
On 29 November 1991, the Queen bestowed on Dame Joan the Order of Merit (OM). In January 2004 she received the Australia Post Australian Legends Award which 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. Later in 2004, she received a Kennedy Center Honor for her outstanding achievement throughout her career.
John Paul College, a leading private school in Queensland, Australia, dedicated its newly established facility the Dame Joan Sutherland Music Centre in 1991. Sutherland visited the centre for its opening and again in 1996.
Sutherland performed live the following complete roles.
|20 June 1947||Handel||Acis and Galatea||Galatea||Eastwood Masonic Hall, Sydney||Concert performance|
|30 August 1947||Purcell||Dido and Aeneas||Dido||Lyceum Club, Sydney||Concert performance|
|15 July 1950||Handel||Samson||Dalila and Israelite woman||Sydney Town Hall||Concert performance; Sutherland made her professional role debut as the Israelite woman on 14 October 1958|
|9 July 1951||Goossens||Judith||Judith||Sydney Conservatorium of Music||Goossens||Sutherland's first complete staged opera|
|16 July 1952||Puccini||Il tabarro||Giorgetta||Parry Theatre, RCM||Richard Austin||Peter Rice/Pauline Elliot|
|28 October 1952||Mozart||The Magic Flute||First lady||ROH, Covent Garden||Pritchard||Messel||Sutherland's professional debut|
|3 November 1952||Verdi||Aida||High Priestess||ROH, Covent Garden||Barbirolli||Cruddas|
|8 November 1952||Bellini||Norma||Clotilde||ROH, Covent Garden||Gui||Barlow|
|29 December 1952||Verdi||Un ballo in maschera||Amelia||ROH, Covent Garden||Pritchard||Barlow/Stone||Sutherland's first leading role|
|24 February 1953||Mozart||The Marriage of Figaro||Countess Almaviva||ROH tour, Edinburgh||J Gibson||Gerard|
|13 May 1953||Strauss||Elektra||Overseer||ROH, Covent Garden||Kleiber||Lambert|
|11 August 1953||Britten||Gloriana||Lady Rich||ROH tour, Bulawayo|
|19 October 1953||Wagner||Die Walküre||Helmwige||ROH, Covent Garden||Stiedry||Pemberton|
|2 November 1953||Bizet||Carmen||Frasquita||ROH, Covent Garden||Pritchard||Wakhévitch|
|4 February 1954||Verdi||Aida||Aida||ROH, Covent Garden||E Young||Cruddas|
|23 March 1954||Weber||Der Freischütz||Agathe||ROH, Covent Garden||Downes||Furse|
|30 April 1954||Piccinni||La buona figliuola||Lucinda||Mackerras||BBC radio broadcast|
|27 May 1954||Wagner||Der Ring des Nibelungen||Woglinde and Woodbird||ROH, Covent Garden||Stiedry||Hurry||Sutherland also sang the role of Helmwige, which she had sung previously; the other dates of the cycle were 2, 8, and 17 June|
|17 November 1954||Offenbach||Les contes d'Hoffmann||Antonia||ROH, Covent Garden||Downes||Wakhévitch|
|27 January 1955||Tippett||The Midsummer Marriage||Jenifer||ROH, Covent Garden||Pritchard||Hepworth||World premiere; Sutherland created the role|
|28 February 1955||Offenbach||Les contes d'Hoffmann||Giulietta||ROH tour, Glasgow||Downes||Wakhévitch|
|19 June 1955||Offenbach||Les contes d'Hoffmann||Olympia||ROH, Covent Garden||Downes||Wakhévitch|
|30 September 1955||Weber||Euryanthe||Euryanthe||Stiedry||BBC radio broadcast|
|30 October 1955||Bizet||Carmen||Micaela||ROH, Covent Garden||Downes||Wakhévitch|
|11 March 1956||Mozart||La clemenza di Tito||Vitellia||Pritchard||BBC radio broadcast|
|10 November 1956||Mozart||The Magic Flute||Pamina||ROH, Covent Garden||J Gibson||Messel|
|28 January 1957||Wagner||Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg||Eva||ROH, Covent Garden||Kubelík||Wakhévitch|
|19 March 1957||Handel||Alcina||Alcina||St Pancras Town Hall||Farncombe|
|8 June 1957||Verdi||Rigoletto||Gilda||ROH, Covent Garden||Downes||Gellner|
|5 July 1957||Mozart||Der Schauspieldirektor||Mme Hertz||Glyndebourne Festival Opera||Balkwill||Rice|
|16 August 1957||Scarlatti||Mitridate Eupatore||Laodice||Appia||BBC radio broadcast|
|8 September 1957||Donizetti||Emilia di Liverpool||Emilia||Pritchard||BBC radio broadcast|
|21 December 1957||Verdi||Otello||Desdemona||ROH, Covent Garden||Downes||Wakhévitch|
|16 January 1958||Poulenc||Dialogues of the Carmelites||Mme Lidoine||ROH, Covent Garden||Kubelík||Wakhévitch|
|24 May 1958||Haydn||Applausus Musicus||Temperantia||Newstone||BBC radio broadcast|
|26 July 1958||Mozart||Don Giovanni||Donna Anna||Vancouver Opera||Goldschmidt||Maximowna|
|17 February 1959||Donizetti||Lucia di Lammermoor||Lucia||ROH, Covent Garden||Serafin||Zeffirelli||This performance marked the beginning of Sutherland's international career|
|24 June 1959||Handel||Rodelinda||Rodelinda||Sadler's Wells Theatre||Farncombe||Pidcock|
|8 January 1960||Verdi||La traviata||Violetta Valéry||ROH, Covent Garden||Santi||Fedorovitch|
|24 May 1960||Bellini||I puritani||Elvira||Glyndebourne Festival Opera||Gui||Heeley|
|19 October 1960||Bellini||La sonnambula||Amina||ROH, Covent Garden||Serafin||Sanjust|
|21 February 1961||Bellini||Beatrice di Tenda||Beatrice||New York Town Hall||Rescigno||Concert performance; Sutherland first performed this role on stage on 10 May 1961|
|4 January 1962||Mozart||The Magic Flute||The Queen of the Night||ROH, Covent Garden||Klemperer||Eisler|
|28 May 1962||Meyerbeer||Les Huguenots||Maguerite de Valois||La Scala||Gavazzeni||Nicola Benois|
|17 December 1962||Rossini||Semiramide||Semiramide||La Scala||Santini|
|20 June 1963||Handel||Giulio Cesare||Cleopatra||Sadler's Wells Theatre||Farncombe||Warre|
|17 October 1963||Bellini||Norma||Norma||Vancouver Opera||Bonynge||McLance/Mess|
|9 March 1965||Gounod||Faust||Marguerite||Connecticut Opera||Bonynge||Rome/Brooks van Horne|
|2 June 1966||Donizetti||La fille du régiment||Marie||ROH, Covent Garden||Bonynge||Anni/Escoffier|
|10 April 1967||Delibes||Lakmé||Lakmé||Seattle Opera||Bonynge|
|21 May 1967||Haydn||L'anima del filosofo||Euridice||Theater an der Wien||Bonynge||Ludwig|
|12 November 1971||Donizetti||Maria Stuarda||Maria Stuarda||San Francisco Opera||Bonynge||Pizzi|
|26 October 1972||Donizetti||Lucrezia Borgia||Lucrezia||Vancouver Opera||Bonynge||Varona|
|23 October 1974||Massenet||Esclarmonde||Esclarmonde||San Francisco Opera||Bonynge||Montressor|
|12 September 1975||Verdi||Il trovatore||Leonora||San Francisco Opera||Bonynge||Hager/Skalicki|
|22 April 1976||Lehár||The Merry Widow||Hanna Glavari||Vancouver Opera||Bonynge||Varona|
|16 July 1977||Puccini||Suor Angelica||Suor Angelica||Sydney Opera House||Bonynge||Digby|
|23 September 1977||Massenet||Le roi de Lahore||Sita||Vancouver Opera||Bonynge||Mariani|
|4 July 1979||Mozart||Idomeneo||Electra||Sydney Opera House||Bonynge||Truscott|
|2 July 1980||Verdi||I masnadieri||Amalia||Sydney Opera House||Bonynge||Lees/Stennett|
|22 May 1983||Cilea||Adriana Lecouvreur||Adriana||San Diego Opera||Bonynge||O'Hearn/Mess|
|22 June 1984||Donizetti||Anna Bolena||Anna Bolena||Canadian Opera Company, Toronto||Bonynge||Pascoe/Stennett|
|4 October 1985||Thomas||Hamlet||Ophélie||Canadian Opera Company, Toronto||Bonynge||Shalicki/Digby/Stennett|
Sutherland made various recital and lieder recordings, usually with Bonynge, many of them double-LPs. Decca in 2011 re-released a 23-CD set of these recitals comprising: Operatic Arias, The Art of the Prima Donna, Command Performance, The Age of Bel Canto (with Marilyn Horne and Richard Conrad), Joy to the World, The Noël Coward Album, Love Live Forever, Romantic French Arias, Songs My Mother Taught Me (album) (1975), Operatic Duets, Serate Musicali, Wagner Recital, Mozart Recital, Bel Canto Arias, Talking Pictures, Romantic Trios.
Opera recordings include:
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