On 2 October 1990, opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland announced her retirement. She was an Australian dramatic coloratura soprano known for her contribution to the renaissance of the bel canto repertoire from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.
She possessed a voice combining extraordinary agility, accurate intonation, “supremely” pinpoint staccatos, a trill and a tremendous upper register, although music critics often complained about the imprecision of her diction.
Sutherland was the first Australian to win a Grammy Award, for Best Classical Performance – Vocal Soloist (with or without orchestra) in 1962.
Dame Joan Alston Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE was born on 7 November 1926 in Sydney, Australia to Scottish parents 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 a production of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in 1947. After winning Australia’s most important competition, the Sun Aria (now known as the Sydney Eisteddfod McDonald’s Operatic Aria) in 1949, she came third after the baritone Ronal Jackson in radio 3DB’s Mobil Quest, which she won a year later, in 1950.
In 1951, she made her stage debut in Eugene Goossens’s Judith. 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 opera 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 Jenifer 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. 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.
In 1960, she recorded the album The Art of the Prima Donna: the double LP set won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance – Vocal Soloist in 1962. The album was added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry in 2011.
Sutherland sang Lucia to great acclaim in Paris in 1960 and, in 1961, at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. For her Met performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, standees began lining up at 7:30 that morning. Her singing of the Mad Scene drew a 12-minute ovation.
In 1960 she sang Alcina at La Fenice. 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.Sutherland in 1962
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 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 added the heroines of bel canto 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.
In 1965, Sutherland toured Australia with the Sutherland-Williamson Opera Company. Accompanying her was a young tenor named Luciano Pavarotti.
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 Esclarmonde. With Pavarotti she made a 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.
During the 1980s, Sutherland 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, when Sutherland commented: “It also upsets me that it is such a damned job to get an Australian passport now – you have to go to be interviewed by a Chinese or an Indian. I’m not particularly racist, but I find it ludicrous.” Her criticism caused controversy.
On 3 July 2008, she fell and broke both legs while gardening at her home in Switzerland.
Sutherland had a leading role as Mother Rudd in the 1995 comedy film Dad and Dave: On Our Selection opposite Leo McKern and Geoffrey Rush.
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.”