Sutherland’s stage personality contained a warmth that reached out to audiences and made them love her. She was rewarded with one of the most loyal followings accorded an opera singer. Born in Sydney in 1926, she studied and gained experience in Australia before heading to London and the Royal College of Music in 1951. There she made an impression and soon joined the Covent Garden Opera Company. Gradually her repertoire increased to take in such big assignments as Micaëla, Aïda and Eva in The Mastersingers. After the badgering of the Australian pianist Richard Bonynge, whom she married in 1954, her potential in the coloratura repertory was recognised, and Covent Garden staged Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for her. The first night on 17 February 1959 changed her life – and musical history. Its success meant she was thereafter in demand as an exponent of bel canto roles and 19th-century French rarities.
Following her debut at La Fenice in Handel’s Alcina in 1960, the Italians labelled her ‘La Stupenda’. Yet throughout the remainder of her career, she was as renowned for her down-to-earth attitudes and capacity for hard work as for the beauty of her voice and vocal technique that was ready for any challenge Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and all the rest could throw at her. She was a consistent artist, able to revisit earlier triumphs in later years with success – as she proved with a great Lucia at Covent Garden in 1985. She also chose wisely when to retire, with a still glittering account of Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots for the Australian Opera in 1990. What carried her throughout, apart from a God-given voice and technique, was a personal strength combined with a sense of humour that kept her feet on the ground.
In her own words: ‘Technique is the basis of every pursuit. If you’re a sportsman, or you’re a singer… you have to develop a basic technique to know what you’re doing at any given time.’
Greatest recording: Joan Sutherland – The Art of the Prima Donna Decca 467 1152 (2 discs)