Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)

Australian soprano dies aged 83

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The Australian diva Joan Sutherland has died at her home in Switzerland at the age of 83, following a long illness.

For decades, following the sensation she caused when she starred as Donizetti’s tragic heroine in Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden in 1959, she represented the peak of the art of bel canto to the widest audience.

Born in Sydney in 1926, Sutherland initially learned singing by imitating her mother, before winning the Sun Aria competition allowed her to move on from local studies to the Royal College of Music in London. From there she gained a contract at Covent Garden, appearing first in small roles, including playing Clotilde to Maria Callas’s Norma in 1952. Gradually her abilities were recognised, especially by the pianist and coach Richard Bonynge, whom she married in 1954, and who conducted all her later performances. He persuaded her to tackle the bel canto repertoire, a then neglected field that Callas had opened up. Bonynge’s artistic vision was vindicated when the role of Lucia won Sutherland world-wide fame.

Soon she was appearing at Venice (where they dubbed her ‘La Stupenda’), Milan and the New York Met, her talents showcased in revivals of works mainly from the early 19th-century that had been shelved for decades. Sutherland brought them back to life.

In her long career, Sutherland triumphed in roles by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, as well as Mozart and Handel. Later on she assumed the heroines of Ambroise Thomas and Massenet with equal success. A hardworking singer, she built up and maintained an impregnable technique, founded on a substantial, bright-toned soprano and peerless breath control. Down-to-earth rather than temperamental, she never let her audiences down, and in return they loved her unstintingly. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1979 and was later awarded the Order of Merit.

Her relationship with Decca began at the end of the 1950s and continued through to the 1980s. She closed her career with Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots in Sydney in 1990 – though she returned to Covent Garden one final time as a guest in the party scene of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve of that year.

George Hall