Sutherland, Joan (1926—)

views updated

Sutherland, Joan (1926—)

Australian-born singer, particularly renowned for her work in bel canto operas, who became one of the most celebrated opera stars of the 20th century. Name variations: Dame Joan Sutherland. Pronunciation: SUH-thur-land. Born on November 7, 1926, in Sydney, Australia; daughter of William Sutherland (a tailor and businessman) and Muriel (Alston) Sutherland; attended St. Catherine's School, Waverly, Australia; Metropolitan Secretarial School, Sydney; Rathbone School of Dramatic Art, Sydney; Covent Garden Opera school, London; married Richard Bonynge, on October 16, 1954, in Ladbroke Grove, Great Britain; children: one son, Adam.

Made public debut as singer in chorus of Bach's Christmas Oratorio (1946); made solo debut the same year in concert performances of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Handel's Acis and Galatea; won Mobil Quest Vocal Contest (1950); moved to London (1951); hired by Covent Garden Opera, London (1952); debuted at Paris Opera (1960); debuted at La Scala Opera in Milan, Italy, and New York City's Metropolitan Opera (1961); triumphed in her first return tour of her native Australia (1965); named Dame Commander of the British Empire (1979); named "Australian of the Year" (1989); retired from performing (1990).

Notable roles:

Lucia in Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor; Donna Anna in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni; Alcina in George Friedrich Handel's Alcina; Amina in Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula (her favorite role); Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani; Norma in Bellini's Norma; Marie in Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment.

"Success is one thing, sustaining it is something else," Dame Joan Sutherland wrote in her autobiography. One of the premier opera sopranos of the 20th century, Sutherland, who was raised in an Australian family impoverished after the death of her father, overcame numerous obstacles to reach the pinnacle of the world of international opera. In order to stay there, she had to struggle with still more obstacles, battling constant health problems while she maintained the globe-hopping schedule typical of opera stars in the late 20th century.

Sutherland's roots were in Australia. Her father William Sutherland, a Scottish immigrant to Australia at age 22, became a respected businessman in Sydney, running a tailor shop. His first marriage, to his cousin Clara McDonald , produced four children. After Clara died during an influenza outbreak in 1919, he married Muriel Alston, who gave birth to two children, Sutherland's sister Barbara in 1922 and Joan in 1926. At a birth weight of more than 11 pounds, Joan was described by her mother as a "plump baby with a sunny disposition." As she grew, she was described as having a "big boned frame" like Muriel.

Some of Joan Sutherland's early memories were of hearing her mother sing. A mezzo-soprano who would "have made an opera singer," Muriel Sutherland was urged, in her youth, to move to Europe in order to study in London or Paris. Although she chose to stay in Australia, she practiced singing nearly every day, even as a mother. As young as age three, Sutherland loved to sit next to her mother at the piano while Muriel sang. Joan tried to sing along, and it was said that by age seven she knew arias from operas such as Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia .

From the family's home, with its beautiful view, she "could see the sparkling waters of Sydney harbor," Sutherland later reminisced, "and those unreal blue skies." The family frequently went swimming at a nearby beach. When William's business was adversely affected by the Depression, so that even the lawyers and physicians among his customers fell behind in paying for their tailor-made suits, the family struggled to keep the beach house. When Joan was six years old, her father collapsed on the beach while returning from a swim and died from a massive heart attack. He left behind two mortgages on the family house and a stack of uncollected bills. Only then was the family forced to move. The children of her father's first marriage, three girls and a boy, chose to establish their own household. Barbara, Joan, and Muriel moved to live with a maternal grandmother at Woollahra.

In 1934, Joan and Barbara were sent by their mother to St. Catherine's, a school for girls in Waverly. Their tuition was paid for by scholarships, including an endowment from a local Freemasons organization to which their father had belonged. Although she felt gauche and overweight as a teenager and was embarrassed by her frequent bouts with infected sinuses, Sutherland showed some interest in performing in school plays. She admired the young American singer and motion-picture actress Deanne Durbin and the opera singer Grace Moore . She talked of appearing one day on the stage of Covent Garden, the main London opera house.

Yet Sutherland was often denied the lead roles in school plays because of her size, and she was devastated to be told that she could not remain in the school choir because her voice

drowned out the others. Muriel, who feared that her daughter's voice could be ruined if it were "forced" prematurely, would not even allow her to have private voice lessons until she was 18.

Sutherland attended Metropolitan Secretarial College after leaving St. Catherine's, and during World War II became a typist at Sydney University, where she transcribed military-related reports on radios, weather forecasting, and missiles. She volunteered to work at military canteens in her spare time. For awhile it appeared that her half-brother Jim was missing in action, but the family was relieved when word came that he was, instead, a prisoner of war. The family did experience tragedy after the war, when Barbara Sutherland, believing herself to be a schizophrenic, committed suicide by jumping from a cliff.

In 1945, Sutherland pushed her mother into allowing her to enter a national vocal music contest, created by voice teachers John and Ada Dickens , which offered free music lessons to the winner. With Muriel as accompanist, Joan sang arias from Camille Saint-Saen's Samson and Delilah. Although she appeared in a shapeless dress, with poorly done hair and makeup, the judges were impressed with the power and richness of her voice, and she was declared the winner.

The Dickenses worked with Sutherland, attempting to extend the upper range of her voice by putting her through endless repetitions of scales. At their suggestion, she began to learn French, and an elocution teacher worked to rid her of her Australian accent. She was also enrolled in the Rathbone Academy of Dramatic Art, where teachers tried to overcome her self-consciousness about her size, telling her, "On stage, small people look small. Tall people fill the stage."

Sutherland made her debut as a singer in 1946, when she performed in the chorus for a presentation of Bach's Christmas Oratorio. Her solo debut quickly followed the next year, as she performed, to good reviews, in concert performances of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and George Friedrich Handel's Acis and Galatea. In order to gain further performing experience, Sutherland joined amateur music clubs, including the Affiliated Music Clubs of New South Wales, which gave performances in an assortment of Australian cities. She also attended a variety of other musical events, including performances by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. At one of the orchestra's performances, she met a young music student named Richard Bonynge. Although he was four years younger, they became friends. It was the beginning of a relationship that would make Bonynge, in one writer's words, both her staunchest defender and her severest critic.

Sutherland began entering music contests which offered cash prizes, with the thought that she might accumulate enough money to study in Europe. Although she was disappointed that she came in fourth in the Vacuum Oil contest of 1949, she won first place the next year in the Mobil Quest contest. Part of the prize was a stipend to allow her to tour much of Australia, giving concerts in selected cities. By 1951, Sutherland had saved enough money to move to Great Britain. Not only did her mother go along, but so did Bonynge, who enrolled in the Royal College of Music in London.

At first, things did not go well in Britain for Sutherland. She was able to secure an audition at Covent Garden, the main London opera house. But she was not hired, and the administrator who held her audition wrote that although she had a nice "ring" to her voice, she had "very little gifts by nature." To prepare for a future audition, she enrolled in the company's opera school. She made a negative impression on some of her teachers, partly because of her self-consciousness and partly because of her notoriously poor memory: she was unable to remember all the words at her first public recital. She also had not learned to move around the stage in a graceful or dignified way, and she would sometimes bend her knees to appear shorter than she was. One of her teachers, Edward Downes, secretly tried to have her dismissed from the opera school because he considered her clumsy and incapable of direction.

Bonynge, who began taking an interest in Sutherland's career, frequently argued with both Sutherland and her mother. Muriel envisioned her daughter as a dramatic soprano of great power, and she wanted Joan to practice Wagnerian music. Bonynge, who had been influenced by the recordings of reigning opera diva Maria Callas , wanted Sutherland to sing the bel canto operas of the early 19th-century composers Giacchino Rossini and Bellini. Meaning, literally, "beautiful singing," bel canto is a demanding style featuring expressive and spectacular vocals. With its emphasis on rapid runs and florid musical passages, usually written for lead sopranos, it is often described as "coloratura" singing. Bonynge conceded that bel canto was not an easy path for Sutherland to take, describing it as a "vocal circus … [where] … the singers have to tread the high wire…. [T]hey are doing vocal gymnastics … and there is always an element of doubt whether they will make it." But he worked to convince Sutherland that she could be at least the equal of the two most famous operatic sopranos of the 1950s and 1960s, Callas and Renata Tebaldi .

To extend Sutherland's range, Bonynge would position her so that she could not see his hands on the piano keys, then begin other scales higher and higher up, without telling her what he was doing. Muriel feared that Bonynge's ideas would be the ruination of her daughter's voice, and even Joan had her doubts. "We fought like cats and dogs over it," she said. "It took Richard three years to convince me to stop singing Wagner and start singing the early nineteenth century operas by Rossini and Donizetti." Bonynge responded, "I learned as much from her as she learned from me."

The debate between Bonynge and Muriel Sutherland occurred because Joan's voice, a large voice with an expanding range, was difficult to classify. It had become evident, as one critic would write, that her voice could "carry over the orchestra." Was she a lyric soprano suited to Handel or Mozart, or a dramatic soprano whose talents lay in heroic Wagnerian roles? Or did her talents lie in between, in the bel canto operas which demanded both an agile voice and extraordinary stamina? It would take time for both Richard and Muriel to realize that Sutherland's most outstanding virtue as a singer was her versatility. She would be distinctive among 20th-century operatic sopranos for the extraordinary range of music she could sing well. It was a gift she shared with Callas.

Sutherland appeared in the periodic productions of the Covent Garden opera school, and she also earned enough money to help pay her tuition by appearing in the school's opera radio productions. She held three auditions for Covent Garden staff members, but she was not hired into the opera's "stable" of regular singers until after her fourth audition, in 1952.

In her early appearances with the opera's company, her extraordinary abilities, as well as the need for her to work on certain areas, became apparent. Her first appearances in opera school productions included roles in Mozart's The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. Her appearance in The Magic Flute drew a review which noted that she was a "dramatic soprano" capable of singing "either Italian or Wagnerian" roles. But the reviewer also noted that she had "much to learn about style."

Like many aspiring opera singers, Sutherland had discovered that she produced the most musically pure singing when she was allowed to stand motionless on stage, as if in concert-hall performance of an opera. Callas, however, had forever ended that possibility; although Callas' voice was sometimes criticized as thin in her highest range, her formidable acting ability had made her a groundbreaking soprano. Callas had integrated singing and acting, and her emphasis was on performance as much as music. The result was performances often described as "mesmerizing" or "compelling." In the world of opera, it was generally conceded that Callas had raised the standards of opera "acting" to new heights.

When Muriel returned to Australia in 1953, Richard moved into their London-area house with Joan; they were married in 1954. Bonynge worked with Sutherland to convince her that she could both sing and move dramatically across the stage at the same time. He argued that her very size would make her appear unusually dramatic on the huge stages of opera houses. Bonynge assumed a major role in shaping Sutherland's career, insisting that she had to show "dignity" even when appearing in public outside of an opera house. He wanted no news photographers to catch her eating an ice cream cone. He is given credit for convincing Sutherland to lose weight—eventually some 40 pounds—and to change her bleached blonde hair to red, which would become her "signature" look on stage.

Sutherland's dramatic coach, Norman Ayrton, also worked to make her into a singing actress. He taught opera as the art of movement and "concentration" on stage, and he was frank and direct in criticizing the way Sutherland moved across a stage. In rehearsing one scene, he told her that while she was supposed to be a young girl overcome by grief, she moved about the stage as if she were the captain of a hockey team.

If anyone has claims to be the Singer of the Century, it is surely Joan. And yet here is an artist who, from first to last, has kept her sense of wonder, of gratitude, taking nothing for granted, the last person to give herself the sort of airs assumed by far too many leading singers.

—Edward Greenfield

Sutherland's operatic performances of the 1950s began to establish her famed versatility. She appeared in three different roles in Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. Her appearance in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freitschutz in 1954 drew critical praise for her "ravishing" voice, and when she appeared in Vancouver, Canada, in 1958 in a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, guest conductor Bruno Walter called her the "the best Donna Anna I have ever heard."

One of her early performances as a Covent Garden regular was a small part in the bel canto opera Norma, by Bellini. The title role was sung by Callas, and Sutherland had the opportunity to observe firsthand the extent to which Callas drove herself for perfection, even to the point of exhaustion. Callas talked to Sutherland during rehearsals, encouraging her to experiment with bel canto operas. When Sutherland performed the lead role of Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden in 1959, Callas attended one of the rehearsals. They were photographed together, with Callas telling Sutherland in the presence of the press, "You were wonderful, just wonderful." Sutherland later said of Callas: "She gave me the inspiration to join her at the beginning of my career and she never failed to encourage what I tried to do."

For Sutherland's performance as Lucia, the Italian producer Franco Zeffirelli was brought in to help her with stage movements. One of the first things he did was to try to rid her of the habit of "thrashing her hands on stage." While noting that she had triumphed in lighter fare such as The Tales of Hoffmann and The Magic Flute, he worked at transforming her from a comic to a tragic actress, trying to suppress, on stage, her naturally mischievous but self-effacing personality. In a 1957 production of Guiseppe Verdi's Otello, in which she played Desdemona, he convinced her that she could move across the stage "gracefully and with dignity."

Sutherland's Lucia became the basis for her debuts at the three other world-class opera houses, besides Covent Garden: Paris (1960); La Scala in Milan, Italy (1961); and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (also 1961). Thus, within ten years of arriving in Britain, Sutherland had successfully debuted at the four major opera houses of the world. When she appeared in Zeffirelli's production of Handel's Alcina in Venice in 1960, the roaring crowd began to shout " e stupenda" ("she is stupendous"), leading to the nickname "La Stupenda." Now in demand, she began a 30-year, globe-trotting career.

Not everything was easy. Sutherland found herself in a hasty and ill-prepared production of La Traviata at Covent Garden in 1960, when audience members complained that they could clearly hear the sound of the prompters. Her appearance in I Puritani at the Glyndebourne Festival in Scotland the same year was praised for "exquisite" singing, but her first presentation of La Sonnambula at that same festival was not a success (although she would enjoy great success with it later).

Although Sutherland's debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961 was a triumph—she was called a "supreme technician" whose "spectacular" and "phenomenal" singing made her the "new queen of song"—Sutherland and Bonynge had a difficult working relationship with the director of the opera, Sir Rudolf Bing. Bing at first refused to deal with Bonynge as Sutherland's manager, insisting on dealing with Sutherland herself. He initially resisted Sutherland's demands that she be given the right of approval over parts of the production, including costuming and her choice of conductor, although he admitted to Bonynge, "With a voice like your wife's, you could get away with murder."

The newly confident Sutherland began to insist that she appear in opera productions on her own terms. In preparing for her triumphant debut in Verdi's La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera—which one music critic hailed as "possibly the best heard in this house"—she argued with Bing over the costumes that he wanted her to wear. When Bing insisted, "It is a matter of taste, Miss Sutherland," she replied, "Yes, Mr. Bing, yours or mine."

Sutherland's success came despite continual health problems, including nearly constant recurrences of the sinus problems and ear infections that had plagued her since childhood. During one performance, she had to turn away from the audience when an ear abscess burst on stage while she was singing a high E-flat. Following laborious procedures to cap her teeth, she began to complain of pains in her knees, which started to swell on stage during one performance. At one opera recording session, she was forced to sit, and sing sitting, through the entire session. Doctors eventually diagnosed a form of rheumatism brought on by infections in her capped teeth, making it necessary for her to go through the capping process again.

Her determination and gallantry in performing under less than ideal conditions became legendary. When word arrived of her mother's death only a few hours before a concert performance in New York City, she gave her performance before flying to Australia. A fall on stage aggravated a spinal arthritis condition in 1962, when she was rehearsing for a performance of Giacomo Meyer-beer's Les Huguenots. Although forced to wear an uncomfortable metal corset, she insisted on doing something few modern sopranos have agreed to do—to make a stage entrance while riding a horse, as called for in the opera's libretto.

There was growing recognition of the uniqueness of her voice. One critic, noting that bel canto required many rapid note changes and singing in the "high stratosphere" of notes, marveled that her voice, under stress, became "golden" rather than "brittle." Her voice, it was said, had a warmth of tone more characteristic of dramatic sopranos than coloraturas. Yet she gained some of her greatest fame in bel canto coloratura roles, producing a "beautifully even trill, not a wobble" that one critic said resembled the sound of a flute. Another claimed she had the "most beautiful trill in the world." She was known for the accuracy of her rapid arpeggios, or runs, and for exact phrasing even in such rapid vocalizing.

As Sutherland aged, she did not lose her voice: it became darker and richer, rather than thinning out. She became a "singing actress" praised by one critic for "keeping [me] sitting on the edge of the seat" with the "ravishing beauty" of her voice, the ease with which she executed difficult musical passages, and her convincing portrayal of a woman "tormented" by "love, hate, bitterness, and despair."

International recognition followed. In 1961, she was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She received many honorary doctorates, including ones from Aberdeen University and the University of Liverpool. In 1975, she was named Companion of the Order of Australia, the highest honor in the new Australian system of honors which replaced the older British system of awards in her native country. The award recognized her "service to Australia and to humanity at large." When Nicaragua honored the 15 greatest opera singers of all time with a series of stamps in 1975, she was included. In 1979, she was named Dame Commander of the British empire (DBE), the second Australian to be honored (the first being Nellie Melba in 1918). Joan was named "Australian of the Year" in 1989, and a performing arts center was named after her in Penrith.

The maturing and internationally renowned soprano had her share of tiffs with conductors. Early in her career, she had a heated disagreement with Rafael Kubelik over which parts should be sung and which parts should be spoken in Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. Although Bizet had called for a large amount of spoken dialogue, Sutherland, who still had traces of her Australian accent, resisted. As usual, Bonynge played the role of negotiator for, and defender of, his wife. When guest conduct Nello Santi refused to change tempos that made Sutherland uncomfortable during rehearsals in 1961, Sutherland, with Bonynge's support, eventually walked out of the theater and left the production.

At times such as these, she sometimes was given unfavorable coverage in some of the newspapers in her native Australia, but she gloried at the overwhelming reception she received during a concert tour of Australia in 1965. It was her first return to her native country in 14 years. At her initial performance, the audience gave her some 20 curtain calls.

The ever-present Bonynge had a much more difficult time establishing his own career as a conductor. Sutherland insisted that he be the conductor for a large portion of her recordings, numbering some 100, most of which were done with the British recording company Decca. But Bonynge was often denied recognition as being a musical specialist in his own right. There were disconcerting incidents. Sutherland insisted that he be the conductor for her highly successful appearance as Lucia at Hamburg in 1971. The orchestra resisted taking directions from Bonynge, however, and he was booed when he came onstage to take his bows. He shook his fist in anger and refused to join the rest of the cast in taking bows.

By 1975, Bonynge had gained considerable recognition as the most eminent contemporary authority on bel canto operas, and during that year he began conducting at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere on his own, without the presence of Sutherland. Although the Bonynges had spent increasing amounts of their free time at their villa in Switzerland—where they socialized with, among others, their neighbor Noel Coward—they purchased a house near Sydney after Bonynge was named musical director of the Sydney Opera, succeeding Edward Downes. Sutherland defended both her husband and herself, criticizing "aristocratic conductors who … [do not] understand music," and she added that when she and other women opera singers complained, "we are told sarcastically that we are behaving like prima donnas. I say, 'Long live prima donnas.'"

The decade of the 1970s marked the most active period of her career, as she journeyed around the globe for opera and concert performances. At age 50, she admitted to feeling a "little long in the tooth" for some roles, but her asking price for each appearance, estimated at between $5,000 and $10,000, made her one of the two most highxly paid opera singers of the decade. She had become, claimed her husband, "the singer with the widest repertoire of any singer who has ever lived." Her international reputation had risen to the point that she could begin to become a mentor to lesser-known singers. One whom she "sponsored" in early recordings was the emerging tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

Sutherland chose to retire in 1990, making her final appearances in the Sydney Opera House in Les Huguenots, followed by a gala appearance at Covent Garden in which she sang duets with Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne . In retirement, Sutherland found herself in demand as a judge in music contests around the globe, and her travel schedule was hardly diminished. Approaching her 70th birthday, she observed: "There is no sense of my being retired. Now my function in life appears to be that of judging how others sing, as opposed to being judged myself."


Adams, Brian. La Stupenda: A Biography of Joan Sutherland. London: Hutchinson, 1980.

Braddon, Russell. Joan Sutherland. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1962.

Major, Norma. Joan Sutherland. Introduction by Dame Joan Sutherland. London: Queen Anne Press, 1987.

Sutherland, Joan. A Prima Donna's Progress: The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland. Washington, DC: Regnery, 1997.

suggested reading:

Bonynge, Richard. Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge: With the Australian Opera. Newark, NJ: Gordon & Breach, 1990.

Mackenzie, Barbara and Findlay. Singers of Australia from Melba to Sutherland. Melbourne: Landsdowne, 1967.

May, Robin. A Companion to the Opera. London: Lutterworth, 1977.

Sutherland, Joan. The Joan Sutherland Album. Newark, NJ: Gordon & Breach, 1986.


Material relating to Sutherland is included in the Bonynge archives in Les Avants, Switzerland; in the archives of individual opera houses, particularly Covent Garden and the New York Metropolitan Opera; in the Sydney Opera House Trust Library; and in the archives of the BBC.

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal-Bloomington, Illinois

About this article

Sutherland, Joan (1926—)

Updated About content Print Article