The Kennedy Center

Joan Sutherland


(singer; born November 7, 1926, in Sydney, Australia; died October 10, 2010)

Perhaps the most beautiful voice of the 20 th Century and certainly one of the great singers of all time, Joan Sutherland developed the art of the prima donna to soaring heights and gave us in the process one of the most joyful gifts the world of opera has ever known. She helped opera rediscover a long-lost world of beauty, the age of bel canto. Its meaning, beautiful singing, has never been more disarmingly, sweetly explained as when this unassuming woman sings. As her repertory grew in every direction from operatic music older still to more recent musical comedies and even duets with her neighbor Noel Coward, Sutherland's singing inspired and continues to inspire the deep affection of music lovers everywhere.

In the United States, as in her native Australia, in Europe and around the world, millions have learned to love opera and love it forever after witnessing the miracle of the meeting of this musician and great music. From her United States debut with the Dallas Opera in 1960, to her other triumphs in the major American opera houses from San Francisco to Miami, from Seattle to New York, Sutherland set new standards for opera and inspired an entire generation of American artists. Her inspiration continues, through master classes and, most important, through her unsurpassed recorded legacy.

Her recorded or filmed interpretations, and often reinterpretations, of the major soprano roles thrill and surprise with every new hearing: Bellini's Norma , I Puritani, Beatrice di Tenda and La Sonnambula; Leo Delibes' Lakme; Donizetti's Anna Bolena , L'Elisir d'amore, La fille du Regiment, Maria Stuarda and of course Lucia di Lammermoor; Gounod's Faust; Handel's Alcina, Julius Caesar, Messiah, Rodelinda and Athalia; Lehar's The Merry Widow; Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots; Mozart's Don Giovanni; Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann; Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites; Puccini's Turandot and Suor Angelica; Strauss' Die Fledermaus; Thomas' Hamlet; Verdi's Ernani, I Masnadieri, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Rigoletto , and Requiem; and even Wagner's Siegfried, where Sutherland's studio reprise of her early success as the magical Wood Bird of the Rhineland raised the bar for any future assumption of this unlikely bel canto role. Her studio recitals stand as lessons in the ineffable spell of beauty. Her landmark album The Art of the Prima Donna , never out of print in four decades, remains perhaps the single most influential classical recording for a generation of budding sopranos. Along with the visionary Age of Bel Canto , also conducted by Sutherland's husband and mentor Richard Bonynge, The Art of the Prima Donna whetted the world's appetite for what was then rare repertory of the 18 th and 19 th centuries and set the adventurous agendas of opera companies everywhere.

Sutherland began her career in 1947 as a precocious talent and ended it on a high in 1990, with a miraculous instrument that was peerless. Singing Bellini's fiendishly difficult I Puritani at the Metropolitan Opera in 1986, days after celebrating her 25 th anniversary with the company, Sutherland was in such brilliant vocal state that Donald Henahan of The New York Times described her as "surely the youngest-sounding 60-year-old soprano in modern operatic history." The following year, after a Kennedy Center concert, Joseph McLellan happily reported in The Washington Post" the Australian soprano's richness of tone is remarkable throughout her wide range. Her agility in the stratospheric regions above the treble staff remains amazing, not merely for a voice as big as hers but for any human voice at all." That awe, along with gratitude and smiles, is the common response to any Sutherland performance. Her Lucia is a heartbreaking study in vulnerability expressed through purely musical terms. Her Norma, another signature role, is forever a young, beautiful priestess fallen into unforgivable sin. In both Bellini roles, as well as in so much of the repertory, Sutherland's singing defines the genre: every note is polished; her trills are clear, her divisions downright insolent, her legato a marvel, her voice one of nature's most ravishing sounds.

Joan Sutherland was born in 1926 and first studied in her native Sydney with her mother, a mezzo-soprano. She later trained formally with John and Aida Dickens, made her concert debut as the tragic heroine of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in 1947 won Australia's Sun Aria Competition in 1950 and, in 1951, sang the world premiere of Eugene Goossens' Judith at the Sydney Conservatorium. Only months later, the young soprano won a scholarship and moved to London to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music. She joined the company of Covent Garden, making her Royal Opera debut October 28, 1952, as the First Lady in The Magic Flute. Blessed with a voice that seemingly could do anything, Sutherland at first sang roles across the repertory and often far from what would later become her domain. She was Helmwige in Die Walküre , the Overseer in Elektra , Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and even Aida, as well as Jenifer in the world premiere of Sir Michael Tippett's enigmatic A Midsummer Marriage and Mme. Lidoine in the British premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites . An early bel canto venture would become the stuff of opera lore, as Sutherland sang the small role of Clotilde to Maria Callas' Norma at Covent Garden in 1952.

In 1954, she married her fellow Australian Richard Bonynge, a brilliant musician and conductor. Under his loving guidance, Sutherland began delving into the intricacies of rare operatic jewels of the 18 th and 19 th centuries. It was a revelation to hear a voice of obviously Wagnerian proportions produce the coloratura fireworks the bel canto repertory demands. It was downright astounding that such a huge voice also could retain its color, heft, warmth and sheer loveliness under the most intense pressure. With superhuman ease, the range of her voice grew to encompass a vocal rainbow from the mezzo territory up to stratospheric E above the staff.

The collaboration with Bonynge paid off handsomely when Sutherland had the chance of a lifetime: her first Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Callas' mentor, Tullio Serafin, at Covent Garden on February 17, 1959. It was a debut that changed opera history. What followed was the stuff of opera dreams. Sutherland made her Italian debut at La Fenice in Venice with Handel's Alcina. Her success, in the city that had dubbed Callas "La Divina," earned her the nickname "La Stupenda" among her Italian fans. Paris heard her Lucia in 1960. In 1961, Sutherland took her mad Donizetti heroine both to La Scala in Milan and to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

By then, the Sutherland-Bonynge team was unbeatable. Role followed great role in giddy succession, with the standard repertory in every major house on top of rarities such as Maria Stuarda and later Esclarmonde in San Francisco , Lucrezia Borgia in Vancouver, Lakme in Seattle, Hamlet in Toronto, and Adriana Lecouvreur in San Diego, where she famously later alternated in the roles of Adele and Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus with her friend Beverly Sills. The list of Sutherland's collaborators is an honor roll of great singers of our age: Marilyn Horne, most unforgettably, as well as Montserrat Caballe, Huguette Tourangeau, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and many others who would testify to the generosity and selflessness of the Australian diva's genius.

"We don't really know how it all happened," reflected Bonynge on their success. "We are both supremely ordinary people with the most ordinary tastes in the world. We are full of energy and don't know the meaning of boredom. We love life and are happy it has worked out the way it has." So is everyone who loves music.
September 2004
Photo of Joan Sutherland