Music World Pays Tribute to Famed Soprano Joan Sutherland

Monday, October 11, 2010

Over a career that spanned more than 40 years, with fully 75 opera roles in her well-traveled repertoire, Joan Sutherland is being remembered as one of the last singers who truly earned the title prima donna.

The 83-year-old Sutherland died peacefully at her home near Montreux, Switzerland on Sunday after suffering a long illness.

Sutherland, or "La Stupenda" -- as the Italian press dubbed her -- had many qualities: a tall, sensible and hard-working Australian who toured tirelessly; a singer with a healthy ego that was always tempered by self-deprecating humor; a voice that had a beautiful, clear quality in the high register, but which could negotiate rapid ornamentation in any register with ease.

Dona D. Vaughan, artistic director of the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, describes Sutherland’s voice as liquid gold.

“We shall not hear her like again,” she said. “Her attachment to the bel canto repertoire was never before and never will be matched again. There were often complaints, of course, about her acting and her diction, but as far as I’m concerned those never took away from the incredibly power and agility that she had.”

Born in Sydney, Sutherland studied piano and voice with her singer mother until she was 19, well enough that she won several singing competitions. After studies at London's Royal College of Music, Sutherland made her professional debut in 1952 at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.

Other leading roles at Covent Garden followed, including her breakthrough performance in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959. Her execution of that same role at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961 was equally revered, and it quickly became her signature over a career that was especially long by operatic standards.

Fred Plotkin, the author of several books including Opera 101, was the performance manager at the Metropolitan Opera from 1982 to 1988. He remembers being backstage when Sutherland sang her final Met Lucia opposite tenor Alfredo Kraus.

“There was a lot of debate whether she could still do it,” he said. "Somehow at that age she still had most of her resources.

“When she was a young woman, she could practically stand there and sing and it was an amazing thing, but the portrayal deepened. By the time she came to the Met in 1982, the acting was strong, and that’s not something people associate with her. Even though vocally it was not her peak, that may be her best Lucia performance because she integrated the singing and the acting."

Plotkin has many lighthearted memories of Sutherland as well. During performances of Bellini’s i Puritani, he and Sutherland would play cards backstage.

“I would never even talk to an artist before they would go do a mad scene,” he said. “But she would like to play cards and leave it up to me to listen to when her cue was.” Sutherland insisted on finishing her hand with just seconds to spare before she turned around, snapped into character, walked on stage and delivered a mad scene to the intense pleasure of the audience.

Indeed, many who knew Sutherland or closely followed her career, spoke of her down-to-earth feistiness, even after she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1979 and received an Order of Merit in 1991.

When in New York, Sutherland lived in Brooklyn, rode the subway to the Met and shopped at the Gimbels department store in Herald Square. She listened carefully to Richard Bonynge, who was not only her vocal coach and frequent conductor but also her manager and husband. It was Bonynge (pronounced "Bonning") who persuaded her to take up the bel canto roles no one had been singing for many decades until soprano Maria Callas revived them in the early '50s.

Sutherland was a tall woman of large stature – though fans hasten to add, not necessarily overweight – and she was known for her carrying her own costumes around from production to production. These were, according to James Jorden, editor of the opera blog “beautifully fitted, really lavish jewel-tone fabrics and trim, [with] a great 'regal' look.”

“With her great height and a huge flowing auburn wig, she looked larger than life -- in fact, almost larger than James Morris who was Henry VIII -- but all in proportion. She was very good at standing still and moving with a kind of stately precision.”

Jorden heard Sutherland late in her career, in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena with the Houston Grand Opera in 1986, and remembers that her voice still had the potential to thrill.

“The climax of the performance was the prison scene cabaletta 'Coppia iniqua,' just before the heroine is led off to be executed,” he said. “This was the full voice unleashed, and it was simply thrilling. She transposed the number, so the last high note was a D natural, and it was, again, huge. It's hard to express how that note filled the theater.”

Matthew Horner, a vice president at IMG Artists who manages the careers of numerous opera singers, had a similar experience in hearing Sutherland. “Even at the end of her life, the voice was so overwhelming,” he said. “It’s hard to gain from YouTube or recordings just how big the voice was. It had all this height but it moved so incredibly that you were shocked when you heard it live just how big it was.” 

Sutherland’s last stage appearance was alongside Lucianno Pavarotti in Die Fledermaus at the Royal Opera House on December 31, 1989. After her retirement from the stage, she remained active in nurturing young singers, and became a regular jury member of singing competitions worldwide.

Vaughan of the Manhattan School of Music notes how her students are busy revisiting YouTube videos of Sutherland's classic performances. Nevertheless, she adds, Sutherland was a creature of the stage in an era before Youtube and HD broadcasts.

"I like the fact that in this day and age, when everyone is so concerned with how people will look on television, I don’t know if Dame Sutherland would stand a chance,” she said. “Standing well over six feet and not being a classic beauty, she had that incredible jaw of hers and that face that was like a studio for producing sound. She was a rarity and those who had the opportunity to see and hear her were truly blessed."


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Comments [25]

Russell Page from Greenville, SC

In keeping with such glorious accolades, wonderful memories and personal experiences, I had the opportunity to hear Dame Joan in “Maria Stuarda” in Philadelphia, PA. I was already overwhelmed by the recordings, starting with “The Art of the Prima Donna” that I had heard in the music library in my undergraduate days. One was never prepared to be so overwhelmed as when the opportunity presented itself to hear her in person . . . the sheer power, range, agility, breath control and beauty of her voice was simply amazing; consequently, one left feeling that you took part of her with you. As grand as her recordings, they cannot match the live voice.

Many years later at a wonderful Marilyn Horne recital no less, I was blessed to meet a couple, who through a mutual friend with Dame Joan, had her address in Switzerland, and they graciously felt my sincerity in asking for it. I carefully composed my letter, trying so hard not to sound as the overly enthusiastic fan. I had nothing to fear. Dame Joan answered my letter, which I have carefully preserved in my album of “The Art of the Prima Donna,” and apologized for her delay in answering my kind letter . . . she had been away receiving an award. She most likely never realized how much that meant to me nor what that kind gesture did to my spirit.

I believe she understood the value and the responsibility of her God-given gift, and she used it very well . . . but she also knew that each person is a valued individual with a priceless soul and dignity. Dame Joan had the knowledge of her self-worth and the worth of others; consequently, she was able to translate the prima donna into a woman, a mother and a friend, who knew just how much a autograph, a letter, a smile and a word of encouragement meant to those of us, who only got to see and hear one facet of this lovely lady. Perhaps many of us today could learn a lesson or two from such graciousness and unforgettable star.

Nov. 20 2011 01:47 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

SUTHERLAND, whose original interest was in performing Brunnhildes was convinced by her future husband Maestro Richard Bonynge, that she could contribute far more to the music scene as a dramatic coloratura, rescueing baroque and bel canto operas as had Maria Callas, to present masterworks where the VOICE was the prime interest, not the mise en scene total theater, represented by the Romantic Age and Verismo.

Oct. 24 2010 12:42 PM
Shirley Warren from New Jersey

Dame Joan was not only the best soprano ever, but also a gracious lady. I'll always remember standing in line to get her autograph at the Met's gift shop - the line was so long, but she agreed to stay longer until eveybody got their autographs, and even then she greeted each person with a smile!

Oct. 18 2010 07:58 PM
Peter Poliakine from New York

Joan Sutherland sang regularly (if infrequently) in the 70s and early 80s with the Netherlands Opera, where I was a young repetiteur. Although our company otherwise didn't use them, she always required a prompter for her performances and brought one with her. I was the repetiteur for Maria Stuarda the first time I encountered her and was thrilled to be working with this already legendary singer. As a courtesy, I was prompting her from behind the keyboard until her personal prompter arrived. One day, about halfway through the rehearsal period, I was called into the intendant's office and worried that I had done something awful and that my still young career was about to come to an inglorious end. Imagine my surprise to learn that Sutherland's prompter had taken ill and could not do the run of upcoming performances. Miss Sutherland had asked the intendant if I might be willing to undertake this since I was doing such a splendid job in rehearsals. I demurred a bit because what I was doing was casual and I had never even been in a prompter's box, let alone attempted such a tricky task; I had no experience whatever! Back at rehearsal, Miss Sutherland reassured me that I would be just fine: would I please do this for her? And so how could I not? All went very well for the next few weeks, even when I finally made it into the prompter's box on the real stage. Miss Sutherland was full of wonderful, down-to-earth advice: "You don't have to throw me every line, I know these operas pretty well and just need some, well, prompting! If I'm supposed to sing "O, cielo" just point up and I'll know what to sing. And if it's "ah, si" or "ah, no" just nod or shake your head. Of course a disaster was waiting to happen, and it did. During the first stage rehearsal with the orchestra, I threw her a cue a bar early at the beginning of an aria during the vamp and she immediately started to sing. The conductor, her husband Richard Bonynge, stopped the orchestra and said "For God's sake Joan! How many times have you sung this opera? Can't you get it right?" and sent the orchestra packing on a break and stormed out the pit. I was absolutely mortified and jumped onto the stage to apologize and offer to kill myself. She said, very calmly, "Two things. First, Ricky's always like that, don't worry about it. Second, let this be a lesson to you that I really do I need you. You'll never do it again." And indeed in the many times I prompted her again in the years to come, I never did. She was truly la stupenda in voice and in grace.

Oct. 16 2010 02:00 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

SUTHERLAND, whose original interest was in performing Brunnhildes was convinced by her future husband Maestro Richard Bonynge, that she could contribute far more to the music scene as a dramatic coloratura, rescueing baroque and bel canto operas as had Maria Callas, to present masterworks where the VOICE was the prime interest, not the mise en scene total theater, represented by the Romantic Age and Verismo. Without a doubt Sutherland had the biggest soprano coloratura voice that we can judge from performances and recordings. Ever, the comedian when the occasion would permit, she told of when she was getting her passport renewed in Australia, the clerk asked for her identification. She told the clerk, 'Everyone knows me here, I'm Joan Sutherland. She had no ID on her and no one in the office ever heard of her. "If they don't know me here, where would they know me" To say that she was angry and peeved beyond words would be an understatement. But, she was also amused.
Luckily, video and sound-only recordings will keep generations of music lovers appreciative of her gorgeous, generous voicing of a wide "rep."

Oct. 14 2010 11:48 AM
william pagenkopf from nyc

Before my own career started I was working in a music/record shop, (Patelsons) in NYC.
In a new shiprment of records was Joan Sutherlands first lp recording.
We played it and I immediately bought several copies,discount, for friends.
Had done accompanying for singers so knew good from bad. Knew she was exceptional. It was an aria recording and the dictions was fine. Unfortunately when she started to sing in the straosphere one no longer knew what the words were.
Range and flexibility excellent, most standard except for the Verdi Bolero which was new to me and so well done!

Oct. 14 2010 12:16 AM
Richard Currie from Staten Island

WhenI I was a jornalism student at the University of Kansas in the William Allen White school, I had the great privilege of interviewing Ms Sutherland. She had come to Lawrence, KU's main campus, for a concert with her husband Richard. One of my assigned beats was the School of the Arts. As it happened, the selections she had chosen to sing did not meet the approval of the Dean of the School. There was no mad scene from Lucia on the program and much of it seemed to be devoted to songs rather than arias. The Dean thought his audience would not be happy and told her agent this on the phone in a testy exchange that I overheard while waiting in his office. I regularly stopped by his office in the hopes of finding news to write up as stories for theUniversity Daily kansan, the student paper staffed by the journaliosm students. When I got in to see the Dean, I think his name was Thomas Gorton, I referred to the conversation that he just had with New York and indicated that he thought the matter had been handled. When I saw Ms. Sutherland later that day I raised the issue with her and she said quite strongly that she always programmed music that she loved and seemed a bit taken aback. But that night, as an encore, she sang the mad scene from Lucia and brought down the house. A memorable experience all around. This was 1962.

Oct. 13 2010 08:22 PM
Joan Austin from Briarcliff Manor, New York

In the sixties I chaperoned a group of high school girls from Greenwich Academy to the Saturday matinees at the Met. We sat in a box. After a performance of Lucia, the girls were still cheering enthusiastically even after the appaluse had begun to die down. Dame Joan noticed the kids, turned toward us and gave us a bow, a wave and a big smile. We were thrilled. What a gracious artist she was!

Oct. 13 2010 05:32 PM
Arden Broecking from Connecticut

I had the gret fortune to b einvite to the dress rehearsal of the "Norma" which starred Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne.
I still have heard nothing quite like it. They were like two side of the same golden coin - they each knew exactly what the other would do, and the sound throughout, but of course in the duets especially was unearthly. I truly loved Joan Sutherland, and she is one who will never be forgotten,
What a great singer!

Oct. 13 2010 05:07 PM

We've lost one of the greatest American opera singers ever. She'll be greatly missed in the opera world. Bravo Joan Sutherland!

Oct. 13 2010 05:01 PM
Michael Meltzer

You have to believe that such enormous technique could not come about without and equally enormous respect for what the composer had put on the page: Dame Joan (not Dame Sutherland, you don't say "Sir Churchill,") introduced a level of technique equal to that of any string player and changed every singer's conception of what constitutes completion of vocal studies.
When I was a music student in the 1960's,
people made jokes about singers' musicianship. Not any more! It's not just in opera, if you listen to vocal ensembles like Musica Sacra or the Gregg Smith Singers you are treated to incomparable execution from every member.
That is as much a part of her legacy as the Joan Sutherland discography.

Oct. 13 2010 04:26 AM

As a newcomer to New York City I stopped by my local dry cleaner and waited, open mouthed, while he took care of Joan Sutherland. Later in the 1970's I was fortunate to hear her sing "Gilda" with Pavarotti at the Met and still remember those shivers down my spine when she sang Caro Nome.

Oct. 12 2010 10:51 PM
ira ehrenkranz

Many years ago @ the opening of Garden State Arts Center Holmdel, NJ, Dame Joan Sutherland and her husband Richard Bonyne & Luciano Pavorroti were about to sing. Mariyln Horne, "Jackie" our friend gave us the high sign: " Luciano had forgotten his cummerbund in the local Homdel Hotel would I drive him back to pick it up?" - He piled in the car an we drove for several miles to his address. When I return he asked in broken English:"Who is your wife?" I pointed to my wife of 53 years he walked over took her in his arms and gave he the biggest kiss ! All were looking on :"did I offend you he asked?""No she replied it was the biggest thrill you could have given my husband - an opera lover since he was nine years old". Dame Joan merely bowed down to acknowledge the scene.

Oct. 12 2010 08:55 PM
Louis Perry

When I was in college my teacher told me to go to the library to listen to 'Lucia' in order to familiarize myself with the tenor's music. The library had Sutherland's first recording of 'Lucia.' The mad scene was the most extraordinary, thrilling, and beautiful singing I had ever heard; it was the first time that I began to understand what singing could be. I have no memory of ever listening to the tenor.
Later that year, I crashed a rehearsal (sneaked in the stage door) for a concert Sutherland did in San Antonio, a stop on her first American concert tour. While Bonynge rehearsed the orchestra in the empty theater, I shook my way over to her, so nervous that I only managed to blurt out, "Miss Sutherland, I love you!" She seemed to understand what I meant, put down her knitting, stood up, took my hand, and invited me sit down for little talk until she had to go rehearse. She wanted to know all about me, asking what I was singing and what I hoped for. After I told her 'all about me,' I told of her my great wish was to someday sing in an opera with her. She gave a great laugh, and said, "Well, you'd better hurry, dear." At some point, Bonynge gestured her to the stage, and she was gone.
To me, she was an angel, and her singing remains the most thrilling thing that's ever happened to my ears.

Oct. 12 2010 08:38 PM
kim schmidt from New York New York

The Great Dame Sutherland "La Stupenda" Manifique last of the great colortura voices in Opera may God Bless her in Heaven and the angels sing with her up on high once again for eternity! She will be greatly missed. Blessings to the family.

Oct. 12 2010 04:50 PM
Myriam T from West Milford, NJ

Since I was a child I have loved classical music. Opera has been the most exciting and wonderful experience for my senses, and ever since Dame Sutherland came to the scene, there has been nobody that could take her place for me. I am saddened for her departure, but my records and cd's will ring in my ears. I had the privilege to see her at her farewell Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, and I remember telling my husband, "now I can die happy"

Oct. 12 2010 02:23 PM

I just ADORE brassy DOM women!....

Oct. 12 2010 02:22 PM
Eileen from New York, NY

The Grand Dame of the opera world has passed! We mourn losing her.

I believe she was at her best when singing with "the man" Pavarotti as was he. That was a match made in heaven for the opera world!

We will miss you Joan, your voice and your presence. :(

Oct. 12 2010 09:38 AM
Mia Riker-Norrie from Montclair, New Jersey

As a coloratura soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland has been the voice I have been hearing in my head for the past 25 years whenever I open my mouth to sing. She had the most perfect trill I have ever heard, extraordinarily beautiful phrasing and a gorgeous tone color. Dame Joan's diaphragmatic support was unmatched, a true technical inspiration. Her unique interpretation of "Violetta" as well, of course, "Lucia", have served as my role models. Every young soprano should be REQUIRED to own a copy of "The Art of the Prima Donna". She is now singing with the angels, perhaps her only true rivals!
Mia Riker-Norrie, Principal Soprano, Amore Opera Theatre of NYC; Director-Montclair Voice Studio

Oct. 12 2010 08:24 AM
Mia Riker-Norrie from Montclair, New Jersey

As a coloratura soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland has been the voice I have been hearing in my head for the past 25 years whenever I open my mouth to sing. She had the most perfect trill I have ever heard, extraordinarily beautiful phrasing and a gorgeous tone color. Her unique interpretation of "Violetta" as well, of course, "Lucia" have been particular inspirations to me. She is now singing with the angels, perhaps her only match!

Oct. 12 2010 08:15 AM
Bill Toner

I met Ms. Sutherland as a teenager at the old Met after a performance of Lucia. We were able to get back stage and get her autograph. I remember this very tall imposing woman with a grand smile. Iy was thrilling. I have been a fan ever since

Oct. 12 2010 07:34 AM
Joe Carbia from Miami, Fl

In the mid-seventies I sang for a few years in the chorus of the Greater Miami Opera Company. I was then in my twenties, and aspiring to a singing career. Joan Sutherland had been my idol since I could remember. I was absolutely thrilled when she came to Miami to sing Lucia. During the dress rehearsal, she stood only a couple of feet away from me in the mad scene. She began to sing and I was overwhelmed. I choked up and wept. She saw the tears and said,"Duckie, what's the matter?" I explained that I had been inspired by her singing all my life and that, actually standing next to her while she sang, was the experience of a lifetime.
She laughed, kissed me on the cheek , and said. "That's very sweet. Thank you". Thank you, Ms Sutherland for making the world a more beautiful place.
Joe Carbia, Miami, Fl

Oct. 12 2010 07:15 AM
James from New York, NY

My fist visit to The Met was while at Vassar College. A friend and I traveled to NYC on a week-end and, on a crazy hunch, went to the box office at The Met that Saturday afternoon. We were amazed to get two tickets in the center Part Terre Box for "Norma" with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne and John Alexander, conducted by Richard Bonynge. Our only hesitation was the enormous price of $17.50 per ticket, which we agreed we could handle. What a performance; the world has lost a great treasure.

Oct. 11 2010 08:27 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

JOAN SUTHERLAND, whose original interest was in performing Brunnhildes was convinced by her future husband Maestro Richard Bonynge, that she could contribute far more to the music scene as a dramatic coloratura, rescueing baroque and bel canto operas as had Maria Callas, to present masterworks where the VOICE was the prime interest, not the mise en scene total theater, represented by the Romantic Age and Verismo. Gennaro Barra Caracciolo, head vocal coach at La Scala, told me that I would be amazed at her ease of vocal production, her precise at-tack on high notes and the power of her voice. When the performance day arrived, I was even more amazed than Gianni had made me to anticipate. Luckily, video and sound-only recordings will keep generations of music lovers appreciative of her gorgeous, generous voicing of a wide "rep."

Oct. 11 2010 06:03 PM
John Yohalem from Greenwich Village

The Fledermaus was her last performance in the northern hemisphere, and was remarkable because two stars whom she "discovered" and launched on their careers, Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne, came to London to sing on this occasion. But her last staged performance was Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots in Sidney the following year, a performance available on DVD.

While she is remembered for being somewhat immobile on stage (and not very adept at theatrics), one of the most astonishing things she regularly did in the sixties and still into the seventies was the way she ran about the stage during the Lucia mad scene, at top speed, weaving in and out of the chorus -- all while tossing off the most perfectly sung mad scene, with flawless trills, runs, scales, and E-flats. By 1986 (alas, the only Lucia telecast), she could only run a few yards and hit a D. But it was still extraordinary for a nearly sixty-year-old woman.

Oct. 11 2010 05:53 PM

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