Dame Joan Sutherland
Virtuoso coloratura soprano known as 'La Stupenda' who dazzled audiences and critics, but never behaved like a diva
Published 17/10/2010 | 05:00
DAME Joan Sutherland, who died last Sunday aged 83, was known to her adoring fans as "La Stupenda" and was widely regarded as the greatest coloratura soprano of her -- and, indeed, of any -- generation.
Joan Sutherland enjoyed a singing career as long as that of Adelina Patti or Nellie Melba, but her arrival as an international star was unique -- the achievement of total success in a single performance. On February 17, 1959, the first time she sang Lucia di Lammermoor in Franco Zeffirelli's production at Covent Garden, no one in the audience was in any doubt that a major operatic figure had arrived.
Her performance left critics struggling to find adequate superlatives. "No soprano of our century has recorded the great scenes of Lucia with so rare and precious a combination of marvellously accomplished singing and dramatic interpretation of the music," one wrote.
Tall, sturdily built, and with the characteristic square jaw of her native Australia, Joan Sutherland did not look the wilting 'bel canto' heroine. She was not a natural actress and was often criticised for her poor enunciation. Yet, as a singer, she swept all before her as supernatural top Cs, Ds, Es and even Fs -- with fantastical trills, runs and flourishes -- poured from her throat. No one ever combined such power with such agile and apparently effortless virtuosity. Though never beautiful, she acquired a huge, glamorous stage presence and a massive following.
She was the most self-effacing of prima donnas: totally unpretentious; always uncomfortable with what she called the "hoo hah" of acclaim; firmly resistant to the label of operatic goddess, but always infinitely obliging to the armies of autograph hunters who besieged the stage door when a performance was over.
In Australia she was loved for her embodiment of all the national virtues -- stoicism, humility, good humour and sheer ordinariness. Her public loved the down-to-earth and cheerful, but self-deprecating and vulnerable, personality which shone through even the most tragic or imperious of operatic roles.
She was, by all accounts, a delight to work with. She never complained about the inconveniences of life on tour; never wasted energy on tantrums; never criticised another singer or took advantage of being a star. She formed lasting friendships with many fellow singers, notably Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne.
Robert Merrill, the American baritone who confessed to "falling in love" with her, described her simply as "a natural, lusty girl who likes to sing". She had little time for experimentation, once venturing the heartfelt wish that directors would stage Wagner "in the way Wagner wanted".
When Australian Opera unveiled some abstract gauzes painted by Sir Sydney Nolan for a production of Il Trovatore, she was less than impressed. "What's that meant to be?" she asked of a yellowish blur. It was the moon, someone told her. "Looks like a fried egg to me," she muttered.
Joan Sutherland retired from the operatic stage in 1990 after an emotional farewell celebration at Covent Garden. But she never stopped singing: "I'm very happy to sing whatever I'm singing. I've always enjoyed any role I've been given. They've all been favourites."
Joan Sutherland was born on November 7, 1926, at Point Piper, overlooking Sydney Harbour. She did not have an easy childhood. Her father, a Scottish tailor, died unexpectedly on her sixth birthday, leaving the family hard up and, as a child, Joan was dogged by bouts of tonsillitis, earache and blocked sinuses.
But she grew up surrounded by music. Her mother, an amateur singer and piano player, encouraged her to sing, a cousin introduced her to the recorded voices of Melba, Galli-Curci and Caruso; and an uncle entertained her with his extensive repertoire of Edwardian music hall songs.
When she left school, she learned shorthand and typing because singing was too precarious, and took a job working for an agricultural-supplies firm.
She was 18 before she sought training as a singer, when she auditioned for a scholarship with John and Aida Dickens at their studio in Sydney.
She made her public debut in 1946 in Bach's Christmas Oratorio at Sydney Town Hall. She then sang Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. In 1951 Eugene Goossens chose her for the role of Judith in the premiere of his opera of the same name at the Sydney Conservatorium.
In 1950 she had won the Mobil Quest Prize as a mezzo-soprano. With the prize money, she and her mother sailed to England the following year to try their luck at Covent Garden. She was turned down at her first audition. Refusing to give in, she presented herself to Clive Carey at the Royal College of Music (RCM) and studied for a year at the opera school. She succeeded at the fourth attempt in 1952, becoming a member of the Covent Garden Company at £10 a week.
She made her debut in The Magic Flute, and afterwards she sang Clotilde in Norma when Maria Callas made her Covent Garden debut in the title role.
By then she had renewed an acquaintance with her fellow Australian Richard Bonynge, who was studying piano at the RCM. Bonynge had first heard her singing at the Sydney Conservatorium, and perceived a quality in her voice ideally suited to the neglected bel canto repertoire which so fascinated him.
Encouraged by Clive Carey, Bonynge attended her lessons and soon became her coach. They married in 1954, when Joan was 28 and he four years her junior.
Realising that she did not have perfect pitch, Bonynge began hiding the piano keys and transposing tunes to encourage her to sing higher notes than she realised, cunningly raising her voice from mezzo to coloratura soprano.
After a sensational performance as Alcina with the Handel Opera Society at St Pancras Town Hall, Covent Garden was obliged to recognise that her facility for Italian coloratura roles should be exploited.
Covent Garden had arranged for her to take acting lessons with Norman Ayrton, who found her self-conscious and defensive; it was Franco Zeffirelli who really helped her to overcome her inhibitions on stage. He coaxed her to lose weight and persuaded her that she could look beautiful, enabling her to achieve a confident and glamorous stage presence. Her performance at the dress rehearsal of Lucia brought Maria Callas rushing to her dressing room with congratulations and it also reduced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to tears.
After her triumph in the role, invitations came flooding in. At La Fenice her Alcina earned her the title "La Stupenda", and she was a public and critical success in New York, Milan and Paris.
Her international career accelerated and she took on more bel canto roles -- Elvira in I Puritani, Amina in La Somnambula, and Norma. With her husband, she helped to revive interest in forgotten works such as Beatrice di Tenda, Rodelinda, Esclarmonde, Le Roi de Lahore and I Masnadieri, setting the modern standards for the Italian bel canto and French romantic repertoires.
She also had huge success as Rosalinde in Strauss's Die Fledermaus; Anna Glavari in Lehar's The Merry Widow; Violetta in La Traviata; Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots; Marguerite in Faust; Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare; and as Semiramide and Maria Stuarda. Typically, her own favourite role was that of Marie, the tomboy soldier in Donizetti's light-hearted romp La fille du regiment.
Most of her performances were, at her insistence, conducted by her husband though, in her earlier days, there were other conductors. Bonynge was often criticised for keeping her away from the heavy Wagnerian roles to which she might have been more suited as she grew older, though no one denied his achievement as a vocal trainer, or his role in giving her the security and confidence she needed to perform.
As late as the mid-1980s, Joan Sutherland was still taking on new roles and singing her old ones.
Joan Sutherland retired from opera in 1990 at the age of 64, ending a career that had spanned almost four decades. In 1959, days after her triumph as Lucia, Decca entered into an exclusive recording contract with Joan Sutherland, and as a result all the important stages of her career have been preserved on disc.
Joan Sutherland was appointed a Dame in 1979 and she was given the Order of Merit in 1991.
Her husband and their son survive her.