At her Italian debut in 1960, the audience dubbed her “La Stupenda,” and throughout her 40-year career, few who heard Australian-born coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland sing would disagree with that assessment. With her husband, pianist/conductor Richard Bonynge, Sutherland expanded the common operatic repertoire, adding works that had not been heard for decades. She lent her artistry to some of the finest performances of opera in this century, and music critics agree that her gifts to the world of music are undeniable.
As a young child, Sutherland loved nothing better than to sit under the piano as her mother, a highly accomplished singer, practiced her craft. She also received more formal training from her mother, who very early instilled a proper understanding of the importance of breath support and vocal exercises. After graduating from high school, Sutherland went to work as a secretary by day and studied music by night.
When she was 18, Sutherland won a competition for a two-year scholarship to study voice with a locally renowned singer named John Dickens. In 1946, after her first two years with her new voice teacher, she made her public debut in German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at the Sydney Town Hall. Dickens extended her scholarship, and she began to think that her dream of singing at Covent Garden, the world-famous opera house in London, might be possible after all.
Sutherland soon joined the Affiliated Music Clubs of New South Wales, where she met a young pianist named Richard Bonynge. The pair began performing locally together, and she regularly entered—and won—many vocal competitions in her native country. Sutherland came in first in the “Mobile Quest” competition sponsored by Vacuum Oil, an Australian company, in 1950. In addition to the prize money, she received a year-long singing contract for performances all over the country. With her prize money and saved earnings, she left for England the following year.
During her first year in England, Sutherland studied at the opera school of London’s Royal College of Music. She met up with Bonynge again, who was also studying there. They began working together, and Bonynge proved to be an invaluable vocal coach. By 1952, she realized her dream and started singing at Covent Garden. For the first few years, she sang relatively small parts, taking virtually anything offered her; then, gradually, she began singing larger, more important
For the Record…
Born November 7, 1926, in Sydney, Australia; daughter of William (a tailor) and Muriel (a singer; maiden name, Alston) Sutherland; married Richard Bonynge (a pianist and conductor) 1954; children: Adam. Education: Attended Royal College of Music in London.
Stage debut in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Sydney Town Hall, 1946; operatic debut as Judith in Eugene Goossens’s Judith, 1951; London debut as First Lady in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”), Covent Garden, 1952; became international star as Lucia in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, 1959; Italian debut in George Frideric Handel’s Alcina, 1960; French debut in Lucia di Lammermoor, 1960; American debut in Ahina, 1960. Appeared in numerous other operas by Mozart, Handel, Donizetti, Bellini, Gioacchino Rossini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jules Massenet, Franz Lehár, Richard Strauss, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, and Jacques Offenbach. Retired in 1990.
Awards: Australia’s Quest Award, 1951; named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1979; Grammy Award for best classical vocal soloist, 1981; named a fellow of the Royal College of Music, 1981; Order of Merit, England, 1991, and Sydney, Australia, 1992.
Addresses: c/o Ingpen and Williams, 14 Kensington Court, London W8, England.
roles. Meanwhile, she kept working with Bonynge, whom she married in 1954, and continued to expand her vocal range.
Sutherland’s mother, a mezzosoprano, had worked with Joan to develop her middle register. Dickens thought she might be a dramatic soprano, with a voice for the large, heavy roles of late nineteenth-century music. But Bonynge, an expert on the delicate “bel canto” repertoire of the early nineteenth century, realized that Sutherland’s voice was lighter and more flexible than anyone had thought.
As her vocal coach, he encouraged her to sing in her highest register, and with his help, she became a coloratura soprano, a rarity at the time. After she received rave reviews for her first coloratura role in the Handel Opera Society’s 1957 production of Alcina, Covent Garden’s directors agreed to revive the gem of the bel canto repertoire, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, just for her.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the bel canto repertoire—eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Italian operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, which stressed vocal precision and agility—received little performance; they were simply out of fashion. World-famous coloratura Maria Callas began reviving these works in the 1950s. Although they were still not the most popular operas, when Sutherland was ready to sing bel canto, the audience was ready to listen. As Norma Major wrote in her biography Joan Sutherland, the singer “opened up the whole field of bel canto, demonstrating a style of singing thought to have vanished beyond recall.”
Sutherland’s Covent Garden premiere as Lucia in 1959 was a smashing success. The following year she carried this success to international operatic circles, debuting in various roles in Italy, France, and the United States. Having achieved worldwide fame by 1960, the following year she was given the opportunity to sing with two of the most important opera companies in the world: La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For the next three decades, Sutherland traveled all over the world, performing in the best and most famous opera houses as one of the most renowned and sought-after sopranos.
Sutherland’s success was the product of hard work and common sense. She attributes her longevity as a singer to a sound technique resulting from a long and disciplined training. Always conscious of her health, she kept “social excesses at bay,” wrote Major in Joan Sutherland. Sutherland carefully paced herself, accepted only those roles that were suited to her, conserved her voice before each performance, and tried not to exhaust herself with too many performances too close together.
Throughout her career, Sutherland was sometimes faulted by music critics for unconvincing acting and poor enunciation. Few, however, would deny her overall contributions to the world of music. As Rupert Christiansen wrote in Opera, “Sutherland’s combination of precision in scales, runs and trills with control over dynamics and tone is, on the recorded evidence, unsurpassed.” Her professionalism and hard work are legendary and have provided many budding singers with a realistic role model. As a singer, she was able to make more concrete contributions to the ephemeral world of music performance than many contemporary composers. She has enriched the lives of millions of music lovers and has left a large legacy of recordings for future generations.
In 1983 Sutherland told Christiansen, “I think I’ll be stopping soon. I’m getting a bit doddery. I can still get those top E-flats, but they give me a terrible headache. The traveling exhausts me. I want to spend more time at home gardening.” Seven years after making that statement, Sutherland finally did retire. Her last role was in the 1990 production of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots in Sydney.
Elizabeth Silsbury described Sutherland’s final curtain call in Opera: “The last act over … the curtain fell and formal bows were taken by [the six principal singers]. Then the full stage was shown, the whole company, minus one.… Then the curtain [fell] again and the whole house went dark and silent. Slowly the velvets parted, very slowly the lights came up, and there was the Great Dame, alone, center stage.… The house went berserk and exploded to attention, shouting wildly, pelting the Diva with daffodils and streamers until she was ankle deep in them. The whole company of the Australian Opera—artists, mechs and techs, wigs and wardrobes, management and make-up—joined her while we yelled and wept and beat our hands together.”
In her introduction to Major’s biography, Sutherland wrote: “I was the fortunate choice for this wonderful life—I have loved it and it has brought me rich rewards in every sense.… I am quite incredulous and profoundly grateful that I was able to accomplish such an amount of work.”
On Decca, except where noted
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor, 1962.
Wagner: Siegfried, 1962.
Bizet: Carmen, 1963.
Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, 1975.
Verdi: La Traviata, 1983.
Verdi: Requiem, 1984.
Verdi: Rigoletto, 1985.
The Art of the Prima Donna, 1985.
Joan Sutherland: Bel Canto Arias, 1986.
Handel: Athalia, L’Oiseau-Lyre, 1986.
Sutherland, Home, and Pavarotti: Live from Lincoln Center, 1987.
Mozart: Don Giovanni, EMI, 1987.
Rossini: Semiramide, Nuova Era, 1989.
Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia, 1989.
Joan Sutherland’s Greatest Hits, 1989.
Joan Sutherland: Command Performance, 1991.
Joan Sutherland: Grandi Voce, 1993.
Also appeared in video productions of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Home Vision, 1990, and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, Virgin Classics Video, 1992.
Eaton, Quaintance, Sutherland and Bonynge: An Intimate Biography, Dodd, Mead and Co., 1987.
International Dictionary of Opera, St. James Press, 1993.
Major, Norma, Joan Sutherland, Queen Anne Press, 1987.
The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Volume 4, edited by Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1992.
Sutherland, Joan, The Joan Sutherland Album, Thames and Hudson, 1986.
Billboard, September 6, 1986; May 20, 1989.
Gramophone, December 1991.
New Yorker, December 15, 1986.
Opera, November 1990; February 1991.
Opera News, December 6, 1986; March 2, 1991; January 22, 1994.
Ovation, September 1984, p. 10.
Joan Sutherland (born 1926) is widely considered one of the best opera singers of her time, a soprano who specialized in the bel canto repertoire. Known for her lovely voice, excellent range, and commanding stage presence, Sutherland was dubbed "LaStupenda" by Italian critics.
Sutherland was born on November 7, 1926, in Sydney, Australia, to William and Muriel (Alston) Sutherland. Her father, a Scottish immigrant and tailor, died of a heart attack on Sutherland's sixth birthday. Joan and her elder sister Barbara were raised by their mother, an amateur singer and music teacher, and members of her family.
Early Musical Education
While attending St. Catherine's Girls' School in Waverly, Sutherland received her first education in music, primarily piano, from her mother. Muriel Sutherland had been taught in the bel canto tradition which her daughter would later help revive interest in. However, her mother would not allow her to be trained vocally until after the age of 18. One of the most important lessons Sutherland's mother taught her was the importance of breathing correctly. Despite a promising future in music, after leaving school at 16, Sutherland took a secretarial course and worked as a secretary at Sydney University as she trained for her singing career.
In 1946 when Sutherland was 19 years old, she won a two-year scholarship for vocal training with John and Aida Dickens in Sydney in 1946. The couple helped Sutherland develop the upper range of her voice, which would prove important in her development as an opera singer. In 1947, Sutherland made her concert debut in Sydney as Dido in Dido and Aeneas. That same year, she met fellow music student Richard Bonynge, a pianist and her future husband, who would play a significant role in Sutherland's opera career.
Continued Education in London
Sutherland's future was determined by several important singing competition wins. In 1949, she won the Sun Aria competition and the 1950 Mobil Quest, among other singing competitions. Her successes allowed her to attend the Royal College of Music in London on scholarship in the early 1950s. With her mother, Sutherland moved to London and studied with Clive Carey at the prestigious institution. Sutherland also received some training at London's Opera School.
Sutherland made her debut with Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1952, as the First Lady of The Magic Flute. She appeared as part of the company of the Royal Opera, which made its home at Covent Garden a number of years, essentially serving as its leading soprano. Among her early appearances were roles in Aida (1954) and Rigoletto. Sutherland first drew significant critical attention when she created the role of Jennifer in Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage in 1955. Though Sutherland was not altogether pleased with her performance, by this time, her basic characteristics as a vocalist were there. Being a member of company allowed Sutherland to learn solid technique, which played into her vocal agility and purity.
Learned Bel Canto Repertoire
In 1954, Sutherland and Bonynge were married. He had come to London in 1950 to study. The couple had become reacquainted and married when Sutherland's mother made a trip back to Australia. The couple later had one son, Adam. Bonynge and Sutherland also formed a musical partnership. He helped her learn how to reach higher notes in her flexible range as a lyric-coloratura soprano. It was through Bonynge's influence and tutelage that Sutherland learned the bel canto repertoire.
At this time, the bel canto repertoire was relatively unfashionable. Bel canto (Italian for "beautiful singing") operas were primarily of the Italian romantic variety of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such operas featured roles that often used the kind of high range that Sutherland had successfully developed. Sutherland and Bonynge had been influenced by Maria Callas, who had first revived the bel canto repertoire. The couple attended many of her rehearsals and performances at Covent Garden, and Sutherland modeled her vocal stylings on Callas. Sutherland performed in such bel canto operas by Vincenzo Bellini, Geatano Donzietti, Gioacchino Rossi, and others. Sutherland appeared in a 1952 production of Bellini's Norma as Clothide with Callas as the Druid priestess
Sutherland had wanted to do more Wagner, as was regularly put on at Covent Garden, but Bonynge talked her out of it. He believed such heavy works did not suit her voice and vocal strengths. Though Sutherland did perform some Wagner and similar works, Sutherland later believed that she would not have had such a long career if she had focused on such operas. Because of her and her husband's enthusiastic embrace of works in the bel canto repertoire, the genre was revived. By the 1960s, Bonynge began conducting her productions and the pair eventually came as a package. This subjected the couple to criticism over the years.
Received International Acclaim
In 1959, Sutherland cemented her reputation as a superior coloratura soprano in her acclaimed turn as Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden. With her husband, Sutherland studied the source material for the opera, a novel by Sir Walter Scott. She grew to love this role, which she would play over 100 times, though her interpretation of Lucia would change as she matured.
The 1959 production was directed by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli who gave Sutherland some acting training. Sutherland herself was more concerned with her vocals and stage presence than acting. As she told Susan Heller Anderson of the New York Times, "If you want to see a wonderful actress, you go to see a straight play. … You can't be as emotionally involved when you sing as when you're acting. There are many singing actresses who do the sort of roles that don't demand the vocal techniques of bel canto."
Despite a brief setback when Sutherland had to have an operation on her sinuses, she made her first of many appearances in the United States, as Alcina in Alcina in Dallas, Texas, in 1960. Though her voice continued to evolve, her range and tone were especially noted. In 1961, Sutherland made her debut at New York City's Metropolitan Opera, again as Lucia in Lucia. That same year, Sutherland had a triumphant appearance at Milan's famous La Scala. It was here that she was given the honored nickname of "La Stupenda." This was arguably the best appearance on stage in her career.
From the early 1960s to the end of her career, Sutherland regularly appeared in the major opera houses in the United States and Europe, as well as other countries in the world. But she did not forget her roots in Australia. She brought her own opera company there between 1965 and 1974. Sutherland then regularly appeared with Sydney's Australian Opera because Bonynge served as music director there between the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. Though the couple's legal residence was in Montreaux, Switzerland— where they lived since 1964 and could exist relatively anonymously—she still lived in Sydney for a number of months during the year. Sutherland often played roles that she had done well before in works like Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata, and The Tales of Hoffmann.
Sutherland continued to challenge herself as an artist, even late in her career. In the 1970s, she took on more dramatic soprano roles in operas like Maria Stuarda and Lucrezia Borgia by Donzietti and Leonora in Il trovatore. Though Sutherland's voice and its flexibility remained strong points throughout her stage life, critics had often criticized her poor diction, a common problem for coloratura sopranos. Sutherland addressed this issue with some success by the early 1980s. Even as Sutherland entered her sixties, she was able to take on new roles because of her dedication and skill, even though learning new roles was hard for her because of a relatively poor memory. As her range changed with age, however, she did had to have some parts rewritten in a lower key.
Retired from Opera Stage
By the late 1980s, Sutherland had decided that she would retire in the early 1990s. On October 2, 1990, she made her last appearance in an opera, singing Margaret de Valois in a Sydney production of Les Huguenots. Her last song was an operatic version of "Home Sweet Home." Over the course of her career, she had sung in 48 operas and had recorded 60 albums.
After retirement, Sutherland has remained active in a number of arenas both related and not related to opera. She is involved in the opera world by acting as a judge in major singing competitions like the Queen Elisabeth in Brussels, Belgium. She also taught, often with her husband, some master classes, though she did not like the limited possibilities of the format.
Made Screen and Literary Debuts
Though Sutherland's acting was often a weak point for many critics, she tried her hand at film acting in a 1994 release. It was not the first time that she was offered a role in a movie. When Sutherland was in Italy in 1959, Federico Fellini wanted to cast her in his film La Dolce Vita, without even knowing who she was. She was advised against it by Zeffirelli and Anita Ekberg took on the role. Sutherland later regretted her decision. After a year of convincing by Anthony Buckley, Sutherland agreed to play the unglamorous role of Mother Rudd in On our Selection, a film based on an Australian play based on sketches by Steele Rudd. Sutherland was still eager to learn during the production and improve herself as an actress, though she did not prepare for the role.
Three years later, Sutherland published her autobiography, The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland: A Prima Donna's Progress. Sutherland wrote the book herself instead of working with ghost writer, beginning soon after her retirement. Though critics chided her for not revealing more of herself and found the book hard to read because it was bogged down in details, Sutherland hoped to show aspiring opera singers how to train properly and what it takes to have a long career. As she told Chris Pasles of the Los Angeles Times of her own experiences in opera, "I've had a wonderful career. It outran everything I expected… ."
Arnold, John, and Deidre Morris, editors, Monash Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Australia, Reed Reference Publishing, 1994.
Atkinson, Ann, The Dictionary of Famous Australians, Allen & Unwin, 1992.
Greenfield, Edward, Joan Sutherland, Drake Publishers, Inc., 1973.
Guinn, John and Les Stone, editors, The St. James Opera Encyclopedia, Visible Ink, 1997.
Kuhn, Laura, Baker's Dictionary of Opera, Schirmer Books, 2000.
Kuhn, Laura, compiler, Baker's Student Encyclopedia of Music, Vol. 3, Schirmer Books, 1999.
The Advertiser, November 1, 1997.
Associated Press, March 8, 1998.
The Australian, October 25, 1997.
Daily Telegraph, January 16, 1996; October 9, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1989; June 19, 1990.
New York Times, October 31, 1982; November 10, 1996; January 22, 1998.
Opera News, September 1994; June 1995; October 1995; February 28, 1998; March 28, 1998; November 1998.
Time, January 14, 1991.
Toronto Star, October 3, 1990. □
Sutherland, Dame Joan
Sutherland, Dame Joan
Sutherland, Dame Joan celebrated Australian soprano; b. Sydney, Nov. 7, 1926. She first studied piano and voice with her mother; at age 19, she commenced vocal training with John and Aida Dickens in Sydney, making her debut there as Dido in a concert performance of Dido and Aeneas in 1947; then made her stage debut there in the title role of Judith in 1951; subsequently continued her vocal studies with Clive Carey at the Royal Coll. of Music in London; also studied at the Opera School there. She made her Covent Garden debut in London as the first Lady in Die Zauberflöte in 1952; attracted attention there when she created the role of Jenifer in The Midsummer Marriage (1955) and as Gilda (1957); also appeared in the title role of Alcina in the Handel Opera Soc. production (1957). In the meantime, she married Richard Bonynge (1954), who coached her in the bel canto operatic repertoire. After making her North American debut as Donna Anna in Vancouver (1958), she scored a triumph as Lucia at Covent Garden (Feb. 17, 1959). From then on she pursued a brilliant international career. She made her U.S. debut as Alcina in Dallas in 1960. Her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Lucia on Nov. 26, 1961, was greeted by extraordinary acclaim. She continued to sing at the Metropolitan and other major opera houses on both sides of the Atlantic; also took her own company to Australia in 1965 and 1974; during her husband’s music directorship with the Australian Opera in Sydney (1976–86), she made stellar appearances with the company. On Oct. 2, 1990, she made her operatic farewell in Les Huguenots in Sydney. Sutherland was universally acknowledged as one of the foremost interpreters of the bel canto repertoire of her time. She particularly excelled in roles from operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti; was also a fine Hande–lian. In 1961 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and in 1979 was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1992 she was honored with the Order of Merit. With her husband, she publ. The Joan Sutherland Album (N.Y., 1986). Her autobiography appeared in 1997.
R. Braddon, J. S.(London, 1962); E. Greenfield, J. S.(London, 1972); B. Adams, La Stupenda: A Biography of J. S.(London, 1981); Q. Eaton, S. & Bonynge: An Intimate Biography (N.Y., 1987); M. Oxenbould, J. S.: A Tribute (1991); N. Major, J. S.: The Authorized Biography (Boston, 1994).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire