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… ."
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