Obituary: Dame Joan Sutherland, OM AC, opera singer
Dame Joan Sutherland OM AC, opera singer. Born: 7 November, 1926, in Sydney, Australia. Died: 10 October, 2010, in Switzerland, aged 83.
'LA STUPENDA", as the Italians dubbed Joan Sutherland, was a phenomenon. Not only did she sing like an angel and tackle the great bel canto operas, but she remained a thoroughly practical and uncontroversial diva. With Sutherland, there were no tantrums, problems or dramatic exits during rehearsals. She was, quite simply, an exceptional and superbly gifted artist. She had a vocal technique that was unaffected and genuine. In her greatest roles (especially in Lucia di Lammermuir, the role that rocketed her to stardom) she had a total authority. The vocal and dramatic demands of the Mad Scene in Lucia never seemed to worry Sutherland. From 1959, when she first sang it, to her final performance (again at Covent Garden) in 1985, her flawless technique was such that she was as fresh and brilliant as 30 years earlier.
Joan Sutherland was a canny and sensible diva. She knew what she could sing and never accepted roles that strained her voice: thus giving her a lengthy and distinguished career. Much of that husbanding of the voice was learned from her mother - a noted mezzo in Australia. Sutherland attended St Catherine's School in Sydney and studied singing there. In 1949, she won a competition to study in London and went to the Royal College of Music.
She was noticed as a special talent and given a contract in 1951 by the Royal Opera, earning 10 a week. Her debut with the company came that year in the small role of First Lady in Mozart's Magic Flute. The management carefully controlled her early career and for seven years she gained valuable stage experience. Sutherland herself thought she should concentrate on the Wagner repertoire, but her friend (and later husband) Richard Bonynge steered her to the bel canto repertory. In 1952, she sang the minor role of Clothilde in Bellini's Norma (Callas triumphed in the title role), but it was the following year that saw Sutherland hit the headlines. She sang Amelia in Ballo in Maschera and then in the world premiere of Benjamin Britten's Gloriana.
Sir David Webster, artistic director at Covent Garden, slowly eased Sutherland into principal roles - Eva in Meistersinger and Desdemona in Otello and the shrewd Webster then proposed to the opera board that Sutherland be offered Donizetti's Lucia - based on the Walter Scott novel. The proposal was not greeted with particular enthusiasm and many thought the opera should be performed in English. But after the great Italian maestro Tullio Serafin had been signed to conduct and Franco Zeffirelli to direct, Sutherland was told the opera would be in Italian. Serafin coached the soprano in Venice for a week and then quietly said to her: "That is fine.We will meet for the rehearsals."
The first night was one of those historic nights of opera. Maria Callas sneaked in to the dress rehearsal ("That didn't help my nerves, I can tell you," Sutherland was heard to mutter when informed) but her triumph was never in doubt. The audience went wild after the famous Mad Scene and, truly, a star had been born.
Zeffirelli then directed Sutherland in Handel's Alcina in Venice, where she was hailed as, "La Stupenda". Important debuts followed in all the international houses, with a particularly splendid premiere of Lucia at the Metropolitan in New York in 1961, and her singing of the hugely taxing central role in Bellini's Norma - very different from that of Callas - was hailed worldwide.
Sutherland was often criticised for preferring to have regular friends in supporting roles. She preferred to be always conducted by Bonynge and he helped another young singer: Luciano Pavarotti. He already had a flourishing career, and in 1966, the two joined forces to inject much fun into a new production of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment at Covent Garden. The light-hearted musical romp makes huge vocal demands on the singers, but the two young stars scored a hit around the world. Sutherland's first entrance is heralded by a roll on the drums and Pavarotti's character asks, "Qui est la?" ("Who is there?"). A voice from the Gods shouted, "It's our Joanie!"
The two - never exactly the most dramatically athletic performers - formed a close friendship and often sang together in New York and on several tours of Australia.
Sutherland had strong Scottish connections. Her father had been born in Port Skerra and emigrated to Sydney. There, he practised his trade as a master tailor and made kilts and tweed jackets for the Scottish community. He proudly wore his kilt on a Sunday and to the annual Sydney Highland Gathering.
The first occasion that Sutherland came to Scotland professionally was with the Royal Opera in 1953, when she sang in The Marriage of Figaro and Aida in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Scotsman critic, writing of "the comparative newcomer" in Aida, complemented Sutherland on her singing, which was described as "sensitive and compellingly beautiful".
In 1987, Sutherland gave a series of concerts with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and then visited (very suitably) Abbotsford.
She graced the Edinburgh Festival with three barnstorming visits. In 1960, she joined a star quartet for Verdi's Requiem (under Carlo Maria Giulini) and also sang I Puritani with the Glyndebourne company.
The following year, she set the Festival alight as Lucia with the Royal Opera and in 1967 joined Nicolai Gedda for Haydn's Orfeo ed Eurydice.
Sutherland often toured Scotland when she was at the Festival and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the performances, staying with friends overlooking the Firth of Forth.
He recordings (usually conducted by Bonynge) are among the most popular in the catalogue.The classic recordings - Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann with Domingo, La Fille du Regiment with Pavarotti, Norma with Marilyn Horne - are all wonderful legacies of an unforgettable artist. She also made a disc of Noel Coward songs, with Coward at the piano. The two were neighbours in Les Avants, Switzerland, and spent many joyous family Christmases around the piano.
Sutherland decided to end her stage career with The Merry Widow in Sydney, a gala in New York and by joining in the party scene of Die Fledermaus at Covent Garden with two friends, Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne, on New Year's Eve 1990. Sutherland arrived in a voluminous green dress (a surprise gift from Bonynge) and the trio were a treat: Sutherland went out with an operatic bang. She returned to judge some singing competitions and was at a friend's farewell party at Covent Garden two years ago. Although somewhat frail after a fall in her garden, she greeted everyone in typically ebullient fashion. She wrote her autobiography but, one suspects, she rather enjoyed being out of the limelight
Sutherland's technique was such that she could still float the high E Flat at the end of the Mad Scene after 30 years on stage. The voice was crystal clear: her diction was often criticised, but on stage, she was vocally commanding. She brought to everything she did an honesty, charm and authority that made all her performances utterly engrossing.
I was at a rehearsal of The Messiah at London's Royal Festival Hall one Sunday morning in the Seventies. Most of the soloists were half singing their arias to preserve their voices for the evening. Not Sutherland. She sat waiting to sing I Know That My Redeemer Liveth doing her crochet. She sang the aria in full voice, the orchestra clapped and she smiled that broad, friendly smile. She then returned to her crochet with a beguiling nonchalance. She was, indeed, the most enchanting and unpretentious of artists.
Sutherland married Richard Bonynge in 1954. He and their son Adam survive her.
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