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 Parterre.com “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."