Australian-born soprano Dame Joan Alston Sutherland, dubbed “La Stupenda” by the music world, and renowned for her contribution in the revitalisation of the bel canto repertoire in the 1950s, passed away peacefully in Switzerland on Sunday, 10 October. She was 83. Her death, announced by her family the following day, was confirmed by close friend mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.
Sutherland’s first teacher was her mother, a talented mezzo-soprano and pupil of Marchesi, teacher of the famed Nellie Melba.
She made her operatic debut in Sydney as Purcell’s Dido (Dido and Aeneas) in 1947. After winning a scholarship, she moved to London in 1951, and the next year, after several unsuccessful auditions, was accepted into the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and made her debut as the First Lady in Mozart’s Magic Flute. In 1953, she played Clotilde to Maria Callas’ Norma, in Bellini’s eponymous opera. Callas prophetically remarked to her “We’re going to hear great things of you”.
Although Sutherland felt her Fach (operatic suitability of her voice) was for Wagnerian dramatic roles, conductor and pianist Richard Bonynge, who would eventually be her husband, convinced her to explore the bel canto repertoire (early 19th century Italian operas, by composers such as Bellini and Donizetti, demanding an approach to singing characterised by evenness through the vocal range and immense agility). Her staggering vocal range, beginning from a low G, all the way to a high F sharp in altissimo, suited the task admirably.
Her performance in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden in 1959 catapulted her to international stardom. Her American debut followed in 1960. Although she never sang Turandot onstage, in 1972 she consented to what is now a historic recording partnership with tenor Luciano Pavarotti, with herself in the title role, at Zubin Mehta’s persuasion.
When she gave her last public performance in 1990, at 63, she left behind an operatic career and a discography trail spanning the entire gamut from Purcell through to Tippett.
Soprano Montserrat Caballé described her voice as like “heaven”. Pavarotti, Sutherland’s long-associated singing partner, had called her “the greatest voice of the century”. Another colleague Mirella Freni on hearing of her death has said “I lost a great friend”. This loss is shared worldwide, of an iconic voice of incomparable power and beauty.