The life of Dame Joan Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE has been widely, almost fulsomely, covered by obituarists around the globe. And while Joan Sutherland — The Voice — has also been bid adieu, perhaps it — or rather she — deserves an obituary of her own.

It certainly seemed to its owner that this was a divine gift. Nature and nurture also happily conspired to enrich her. Joan’s mother, Muriel, was a mezzo soprano who had been taught by Burns Walker, a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, Melba’s teacher. Despite her teacher’s advice, Muriel eschewed study abroad, preferring to sing as a hobby; although it was a lifelong one that involved daily vocal exercises. To Joan, she sounded like the great Ebe Stignani. Joan would sit listening to her mother in their house in Wolseley Road, Point Piper, and later, after her father’s death, with her mother’s family in Queen’s Road, Woollahra. From the age of three, Joan was able to imitate her mother’s scales and exercises, working in the middle area of her voice, learning the scales and arpeggios and even the trill. She picked up her mother’s songs and arias and sang them by ear, later singing duets with her—Manrico to her Azucena.

Mother rarely took her higher than a top C but when a prize bought her tuition with John and Aida Dickens, they were convinced their pupil was not indeed a mezzo like her mother, but a dramatic soprano. Then in 1948 Joan met young pianist Richard Bonynge from Bondi and they performed together at a few recitals in Sydney and country New South Wales—the beginning of a prodigiously melodic alliance. In 1950, Joan’s voice finally won her the prestigious Mobil Quest. In June 1951 she sang the title role in the world premiere of Sir Eugene Goosens’s Judith at the Sydney Conservatorium and a month later she sailed with her mother on the P&O’s Maloja to London. There she studied with Clive Carey at the Opera School of the Royal College of Music, and Irene Ravensdale, one of the Curzon sisters, became a patron. She and Richard were reunited and he, with great intuition and growing affection, began to manage her voice and her career, convincing her that she could sing higher. Mother protested, “Young man! You are ruining my daughter’s voice.”

But the young prevailed (they would wed in 1954). Bonynge was not a Svengali but he tricked Muriel’s daughter into singing into another register. In its obituary, the Economist claims that, “in the midst of a furious row, the Voice burst out in a perfect top F sharp that astounded both of them”. This confirmed for Bonynge that his pupil-wife was a coloratura soprano and perfectly suited to bel canto. And so Joan would move away from the heavier repertoire of Wagner towards the florid scores of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini as well as Handel, Mozart and the French works of the nineteenth century.

In 1952, after her third audition, she won a two-year contract with the Royal Opera House (on £10 a week) and in October made her Covent Garden debut as the First Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Her second role, as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, attracted favourable notice from the Times’s critic. She also played Clotilde to Maria Callas’s Norma (Ebe Stignani was Adalgisa), Amelia in Verdi’s Masked Ball and the Countess in a Scottish tour of Le Nozze di Figaro.

A recital at Wigmore Hall in November 1952 elicited a prophetic response, again from the Times:

… she is inclined to spoil her vocal line in the middle and lower registers by throwing the tone back into her mouth, but at the top there is flexibility, power, brilliance, and beauty of tone. She has much yet to learn about style—Gluck, Mozart, Bellini, and Liszt are all much of a muchness to her, and are likely to remain so until she attends to her words … Attention alike to the significance and the articulation of words is now required if she is to become the great singer that on the strength of her voice she might hope one day to be.

Her Agathe at Covent Garden two years later in Weber’s Der Freischütz was well received:

Her firm, well-focused appealing voice brought out the freshness of Weber’s music; “Leise, leise” did not go more than promisingly, but she moulded the long lines of “Und ob die Wolke” with rare purity and warm artistry: the first of the two phrases culminating in an A flat above the stave was touchingly eloquent, exquisitely controlled.

But it was her ethereal performance of the aria “Let the Bright Seraphim” from Handel’s Samson in 1958 that showed her true colours. Covent Garden erupted into a ten-minute ovation.

On February 17, 1959, at Covent Garden, after months of intensive tutelage from Bonynge, and under the direction of the young Franco Zeffirelli, and the octogenarian Tulio Serafin, she triumphed in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. There was pandemonium at the final curtain. Opera Now’s Gerald Fitzgerald declared her “the most glittering discovery at Covent Garden since Melba herself”. Two of the world’s leading divas, Callas and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, had attended the dress rehearsal the day before. After her first aria, the orchestra put down their instruments and applauded, and after the Mad Scene even the chorus onstage shouted bravas.

When Lucia was recorded two years later, Gramophone magazine caught the essence of her success:

Sutherland is without rival today in her command of the vocal arts—trills, scales and arpeggios, messa di voce, glissando. Her tone is beautiful, and each year becomes sweeter, rounder and fuller, in both gentle and brilliant passages. Her interpretation of Lucia is a fully conceived study, tremendously effective in the theatre, and a good deal of this comes over on the record. In this performance, passage after passage is melting, exquisite, dazzling, breathtaking.

She had not become a diva overnight. She was thirty-two and was the first to admit, and right up to her last interview she would stress, that even if one were blessed with a voice, success did not come—and could not be sustained—without solid grounding, sound technique and assiduous training. Problems with her sinuses and her teeth caused many hours of discomfort, treatment and pain, yet they seemed (or the singer made it seem) not to interfere with her increasingly recognised performances. She consulted Ivor Griffiths, Covent Garden’s laryngologist, who claimed she had the most phenomenal vocal cords he had ever seen. Surgery after her Lucia triumph mercifully proved successful.

Her international career was launched and she embarked upon a series of triumphant debuts at the world’s leading opera houses. In February 1960 her Alcina so impressed the audience at Venice’s fabled La Fenice that she earned the title “La Stupenda”, the Stupendous One, and it stuck as she endured. In July that year she sang Elvira in I Puritani at Glyndebourne. Time magazine noted her “splendid ‘Qui la voce sua soave,’ which introduces a mad scene every bit as effective as the more famous one in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Her voice was precise, agile, light-textured and luminous.”

She sang Lucia in Paris in 1960; La Scala, Milan, in May 1961, the Metropolitan in New York in November 1961. She would sing it 223 times. Her New York debut, nine months earlier at the Town Hall, had a special poignancy. It was February 17 and her mother had died the day before, in London, but Joan decided to proceed with the performance of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda as a tribute. After hearing her, the famed Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão was moved to say, “If there is perfection in singing, this is it.”

In 1962 when La Stupenda’s conductor fell ill before a recital in Rome, Bonynge stepped in. The following year, in Vancouver, he conducted Faust and later Norma, formerly a coloratura showcase for Callas; it became Sutherland and Bonynge’s own. From 1963, baton and voice, husband and wife, he in the pit, she on the stage, became the most enduring operatic double-act of the century. Bonynge chose a repertoire that satisfied his enthusiasm for bel canto but, more importantly, one that suited her voice. These criteria worked brilliantly—sustaining The Voice and career long after other great contemporaries (like Callas and Beverly Sills) had succumbed.

In 1965 the Bonynges returned to Australia in triumph in the Sutherland–Williamson tour. There were 120 performances (forty-two by Sutherland) and a first-rate cast, including the young Luciano Pavarotti. The tour ended, as it had begun, at Her Majesty’s in Melbourne. There were thirty-three curtain calls; the applause lasted forty minutes, with one member of the audience wondering, “How long can the theatre stand the strain of a Sutherland tour?”

Of all the arts, opera critics are probably among the most fastidious but if there was one abiding criticism of The Voice, it was diction. The Times touched upon this in its 1952 review of her Wigmore Hall recital, and in 1963, in his Gramophone review of her record Command Performance (a tribute to a concert given for Queen Victoria), Desmond Shawe-Taylor returned to it. While he loved “the beautiful natural quality of her tone” and “the brilliance and ease of her flights above the stave”, he bemoaned “the soprano’s weak enunciation … Arditi’s oft-repeated ‘Parla!’, for instance, comes out as ‘Perla’ or ‘Porla’; we never hear the open Italian a.” Recalling that recording some four decades later Patrick O’Connor writes, “those cries of ‘Il fantasma! II fantasma ne separa!’ are unforgettable. To be sure, once she is up in the stratosphere it’s hard to distinguish individual words sometimes—but that is true of all high sopranos.” Another commentator suggested this covering of consonants and vowels was intended to avoid straining her voice.

Sometimes The Voice had to be prompted. During a concert at the Kennedy Center a woman in the audience rose between numbers and asked, “Why do you have to have that book in your hand?” The diva replied, “I have no memory. Either I have a book or I don’t sing.”

Sometimes too (although it can scarcely be believed) The Voice could be mistaken. Some years ago the Sydney Morning Herald’s music critic, Fred Blanks, wrote about the great American black soprano, Leontyne Price, cornered in her dressing room by an effusive admirer after a performance of Aida: “At last I have managed to hear you in a live opera performance, Miss Sutherland—all my life I have collected Joan Sutherland records and pictures and followed your career, and admired your achievements, and at last I can say I actually heard the great Joan Sutherland—it was wonderful.” Miss Price looked at her coldly. “There must be some terrible mistake,” she said. “My name is not Joan Sutherland. My name is Beverly Sills.”

In the early seventies La Stupenda took to lighter fare that melded The Voice with a gift for the comic that neatly reflected her warmth and self-deprecating personality. Foreign critics and commentators invariably put this down to her being “typically Australian”. In February 1972 she triumphed at the New York Met with Pavarotti as Tonio in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. Time reported:

While the tenor trumpeted nine soaring high Cs, all in one aria, provoking the Met audience into a howling, stamping ovation … Sutherland played the farce nearly as well as she sustained her pealing top E-flats. Faking a drum roll, getting her feet twisted in a minuet, ripping off a dazzling 2½-octave chromatic scale, while tearing up some papers and scattering them into the orchestra pit, she shed fresh brilliance on Donizetti’s faded opus …

In a similarly light vein, she also had and shared fun with The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus.

New York worshipped her, fuelled perhaps by her four-year absence from the Met until her return with a string of Lucias in the autumn of 1982. The mere sight of her in Act One brought a burst of tumultuous applause. When she swelled her “Regnava nel silencio” to a huge and perfect D, the audience exploded and someone from the balcony yelled, “Welcome back!” Again, her first entrance as Elvira in I Puritani at the Met in November 1986, “12 days short of the 25th anniversary of her Metropolitan debut in Lucia di Lammermoor” was so tumultuous that she had to leave the stage and begin again. Donal Henahan of the New York Times wrote:

Miss Sutherland, surely the youngest-sounding 60-year-old soprano in modern operatic history, responded with an astounding display of bel canto craft and staying power. The voice, though used more cautiously than it once was, retains remarkable freshness and technical security, evident in the lively brilliance of her “Son vergin vezzosa” as well as the alternating pathos and febrility of “Qui la voce”.

Even at her last performance at the Met, a recital in March 1989 (she was by then sixty-two), Will Crutchfield of the New York Times remarked upon a voice that had

aged in a “modern way”, with a slowish beat in the sustained note (but no hint, mind, of impurity or metallic harshness). The final item was “Io non sono piu l’Annetta” from Crispino e la Comare: a good tune, lots of brio and smart rhythm in the rendition, showers of brilliant coloratura, a socko high D flat at the end, and bang! Cheers, shouts and an instant standing ovation …

Her last major performance at Covent Garden, in Anna Bolena in June 1988, drew this from the Times’s John Higgins:

… as tough a 15 minutes for the soprano as there are to be found in the bel canto pages. Joan Sutherland coped with all this magnificently, including a resplendent final top note as Anna, plus her two admirers, Percy and Smeton, are led off to their separate executions. At 61 she is like a long distance runner who knows precisely when to make the final winning burst, after not showing too much at the beginning of the race. She remains a professional up to the last top C.

Fortunately, with Bonynge’s enterprise and accompaniment, La Stupenda’s recording output was as prodigious as her performances. In 1959, she had signed a contract with Decca. Her Grammy Award-winning The Art of the Prima Donna in 1960 captures her at her youthful best. As Gramophone magazine put it:

the exceptional purity of tone, the brilliant fluency, the fullness and freedom on high—as well as others that seem to have passed unappreciated in earlier days. The scenes are characterized: not merely sung with expression; but actually in character, so that the artist’s identity changes from one item to another … If Sutherland, for some reason, had decided to make no more records after this album, her place among the great would still have been assured.

Another seminal collection, The Age of Bel Canto, followed in 1963. Many judge her 1972 Turandot with a stellar cast of Montserrat Caballé, Pavarotti, Thomas Krause and Peter Pears, conducted, not by her husband but by Zubin Mehta, to be her finest recorded work. All of her great stage roles were recorded, including her personal favourite, Massenet’s Esclarmonde, and two Normas (one in 1964 with Marilyn Horne and one in 1984 with Caballé).

In 1990, aged sixty-three, she laconically announced her retirement: “The machinery wears down. Just like your refrigerator.” Unlike Melba, with whom she was so often compared, there were only two farewells—one for each hemisphere—Sydney where she was born and Covent Garden where she was adopted. On October 2, 1990, at the Sydney Opera House, she played Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. There was barely a dry eye in the house—even Prime Minister Hawke was in tears. The last time The Voice was heard was at her beloved Covent Garden; a New Year’s Eve performance of Die Fledermaus when she sang duets with her favourite tenor and soprano, Pavarotti and Horne, ending, as Melba had done, with “Home, Sweet Home”.

The Voice was then forever silent, but its owner lived on for another two decades, sharing her experience with the young, through competitions and master classes, giving prizes and honours as well as accepting them, visiting her son, Adam, and grandchildren in Sydney, enjoying needlepoint and her garden at Les Avants and the luxury of being in the audience. 

She drew strength from her Protestant faith and remained a believer, although she once told the New Yorker’s Winthrop Sargeant, “I sometimes wonder whether one who has got so much out of life deserves an afterlife.” It has been said that La Stupenda’s relationship with her audience was special—the affection was almost tangible—and, in the Australian context, reminiscent of the much-loved populist Gladys Moncrieff. And while this charisma cannot usually be captured, she has left some eighty recordings (making her one of the most recorded sopranos in history). So, for her old fans and new generations of music lovers, the Voice of the Century has an afterlife.

Mark McGinness has written obituaries in Quadrant of several notable people, including Alistair Cooke, the Queen Mother and Brooke Astor. 

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