The life and work of Dame Joan Sutherland, one of opera’s greatest coloratura sopranos, was celebrated today at a service of thanksgiving held in a packed Westminster Abbey.
Born in 1926, Sutherland died in October last year at the age of 83.
The hour-long service, which was attended by Prince Charles and the Duke of Edinburgh, began with organ music before the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Antonio Pappano performed a variety of operatic orchestral works, including the Prelude to Act I of Verdi’s La traviata and the Meditation from Thaïs by Massenet. As an introit, the Westminster Abbey choir sung Byrd’s Sing joyfully.
The service took the form of a succession of prayers, readings and music – among the readers were Dame Norma Major, wife of ex-Prime Minister John Major and Sutherland’s biographer; and conductor Richard Bonynge, the late soprano’s husband and the man credited with being, in Sutherland’s words, the ‘architect’ of her career.
As Sir John Tooley, the general director of the Royal Opera House from 1970 until 1988, said in his address, Bonynge remained convinced of his wife’s future in bel canto opera, despite her own assertion that she was headed for Wagnerian roles. Kirsten Flagstad, Tooley added, was Sutherland’s heroine, after all. It took Bonynge three years to persuade her.
Music during the service was performed both by Sutherland herself, whose performances of famous arias were broadcast throughout the abbey via loudspeaker; and up-and-coming soprano Valda Wilson, who sung the ‘Pie Jesu’ from Fauré’s Requiem, and the ‘Alleluia’ from Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate K165. The choir also performed (Vaughan Williams’s Let all the word in every corner sing) and the organ was played by the Abbey’s sub-organist Robert Quinney.