This week, Loretta Barnard illuminates the towering beacon of Australian Opera (and birthday girl), Dame Joan Sutherland.
Today, 7 November, on what would have been her 89th birthday, we’re offering a brief retrospective of the life and music of the incomparable Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland (1926-2010). The “voice of the century”, according to Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, she earned the nickname “La Stupenda” in 1960 in Italy, when she gave a knockout performance in Handel’s Alcina.
Joan Sutherland began her career in the late 1940s in Sydney (where she was also born). By 1952, she had signed with Covent Garden in London, where she performed in many small roles across the repertoire.
It was in London that she met pianist Richard Bonynge, who, recognising her enormous talent, became her mentor and guide. They married in 1954, had a son, and became one of the power couples of the arts. He often conducted her operas and it wasn’t long before they came as a package.
Richard felt that Joan was a coloratura soprano and taught her the bel canto repertoire. Bel canto translates as “beautiful singing”, and involves high range vocals and elaborate and supple ornamentation of the melody. It’s very demanding, with lots of trills, cadenzas and general vocal agility required.
This type of opera was not all that popular at the time, but Richard’s persistence and Joan’s glorious voice essentially brought that repertoire out of the doldrums. (Think composers like Bellini, Massenet, Offenbach, Donizetti). Speaking of Donizetti, in a performance at London’s Covent Garden in 1959, Joan sang the role of Lucia di Lammermoor (produced by Franco Zeffirelli) and brought the house down. Her performance was exceptional, her “mad scene” a tour-de-force. Over the course her career, Joan because closely associated with the role, playing Lucia 233 times. That’s a lot of mad scenes!
Joan’s astounding talent was now critically acclaimed and she performed in the premier opera theatres of the world. Her voice was beautiful and distinctive – you can always recognise a Sutherland recording.
Joan gave Australian opera a leg-up too. Her company Sutherland-Williamson toured Australian in the mid-1960s, with sold-out performances at every show. She joined Opera Australia in 1974, her international star power attracting more fans to the genre. She is definitely one of the reasons why Australian opera took off at that time.
Joan’s album The Art of the Prima Donna (1960) is one the most successful classical recordings of the twentieth century and won a Grammy in 1961. She was the first Australian artist to win a Grammy. Her album Live at the Lincoln Centre with Luciano Pavarotti and American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne won her another Grammy in 1981.
She was known as an incredibly hard worker, constantly fine-tuning her technique, never taking her gift for granted. A virtuoso, unparalleled in her field, Joan’s notes were crystal-clear, technically brilliant, utterly enchanting. Her characterisations came across in her voice convincingly. The “Doll Song” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman is a case in point:
Those who worked with her always remarked on her down-to-earth qualities. She may have been a vocal prima donna, but she was a regular girl offstage.
Joan Sutherland continued to perform in theatres around the world and although she lived in Switzerland, she loved the land of her birth, deciding to do her farewell performance on the stage of the Sydney Opera House in 1990. She moved the audience to tears when she sang There’s No Place Like Home:
Luckily, Joan Sutherland left a large body of recordings, so we can revel in her stupendous voice.
Even if you’re not an opera fan, you really should have a look at some YouTube clips, because the woman was a phenomenon.
Why not try this one where Joan is joined by Pavarotti to sing the famous “Drinking Song” from Verdi’s La Traviata:
Joan Sutherland – there’s nothing like a Dame.