Icons of Opera - Dame Joan Sutherland

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Perhaps more than any other singer of the 20th century, Dame Joan Sutherland was the true embodiment of what is sometimes referred to as a vocal “phenomenon”. History is full of great singers who have been extraordinary in their own right, whether through blazing dramatic intensity, the ability to surmount all fachs without shying away from the extreme peaks in a veritable Himalaya of great roles, such as Isolde, Norma and Brünnhilde, or by producing feats of barely credible vocal acrobatics, like the acuto sfogato were (in)famous for. The truth is that phenomenons are by their very definition extremely rare.

Sutherland is unusual for the sheer combination of attributes which mark her out as being truly unique in an already crowded field of outstanding exponents. Firstly, we have a voice of truly heroic dimensions singing bel canto. It is doubtful if any soprano in this repertoire has fielded quite so much power and tone as Dame Joan, and this includes Callas and Tetrazzini. The contrast with other sopranos who sing the same roles is appropriately enough stupendous, with rival prima donnas producing small pin points of sound as compared to Sutherlands seemingly endless cascades of full tone. Secondly, we have that extraordinary and much written about technique, which by any standards is little short of astonishing. Whether producing mind boggling divisions, arpeggios, appogiaturas, pinpoint staccati, colossal high notes which lose no quality in delivery, or that unequalled trill, every arsenal of the coloratura is supremely at her command. Finally, we have that distinctive and instantly recognisable timbre. This combination is certainly unprecedented in the 20th century, although to a greater and lesser degree there have been other singers who have possessed some of these attributes, admittedly not in the same protean, almost outrageous quantities. Consequently it is to one of the various incarnations of the “Golden Age” of singing that one must refer to when looking for singers similarly endowed. Angelica Catalani springs to mind, but she lacked Sutherland’s musicianship and no doubt heroic tone. Her compatriot Melba similarly possessed a luminous and beautiful tone, but too lacked the same vocal heft and staggering technique. Rather interestingly, Sutherland released “The Art of the Prima Donna” in 1960 to great critical acclaim. In this recording Sutherland sang sixteen arias all dedicated to legendary sopranos of the past, ranging from Mrs Billington, to Pasta to Galli- Curci. On the basis of primitive recordings which exist for some, and contemporary critiques for others, Sutherland emerges with flying colours. In the words of Edward Greenfield, “Daringly she challenged the best of the past, and so far as we can compare in existing recordings she established a degree of consistency that no soprano since Lilli Lehmann had ever matched over so wide a range" (Record Masters: Joan Sutherland, Ian Allan Press, 1972)

John Steane in his “Voices, Singers and Critics” (Duckworth Press, 1992) gave perhaps the most accurate assessment of why Dame Joan was to dominate the bel canto repertory for over three decades. It wasn’t just the heroic dimensions of the voice, or the extraordinary technique, but its combination with a vocal tone that was golden and warm. If the tonal spectrum ranges from bright to dark, “Sutherland’s place would be near the centre, which is no doubt another reason for her wide appeal.” Other singers in a comparable repertoire veer towards bright white sounds, which can at times become intolerable on the ear, whereas Sutherland’s distinctive timbre is infinitely warmer, far more lyrical in quality. Like Callas before her, Sutherland was no mere soprano leggero. Categorizing Sutherland’s voice has always been extremely difficult, both the size and the sound present definitional problems. The term dramatic coloratura has been coined to try and describe such voices, but this seems to me to be a thoroughly inadequate description. Aside from singing some roles popular amongst coloratura sopranos, Sutherland’s voice could not be more different. Fach clearly plays it part in determining an appropriate definition, but perhaps one should simply label them as sopranos, as was the case in the 18th and 19th centuries when such sopranos would sing whatever was required of them. Afterall, coloratura was not then a specialism, the preserve of vocal high wire acts, but an integral part of every singer’s technique.

Naturally Dame Joan garnered many plaudits and soubriquets throughout her time, emphasizing the uniqueness of her vocal gifts. Whether being called the “The Voice of the Century”, “Prima Donna Assoluta” or “La Stupenda” by a stunned Venetian audience following her sensational Alcina in 1960, they all emphasize her supreme attributes. But it wasn’t all plain sailing, for many had misgivings about other aspects of her performances. The biggest of which was the tendency during the 1960’s to eliminate consonants in the quest for the perfect sound. Of course the sound was intensely beautiful, but what should have been otherwise marvellous recordings for Decca during the 1960’s such as Beatrice di Tenda, I Puritani and La Sonnambula, were ultimately marred by the lack of bite in her diction. Cabalettas were often taken at a frenetic pace thrilling the ear, but anything slower often became languorous, droopy and dramatically empty. Critics naturally complained that the text was rendered all but incomprehensible. There is some truth in this and it cannot be denied, although a fair degree of exaggeration was employed. As an aside it is worth noting that every notable prima donna has garnered as many detractors as supporters. A good example is Maria Callas, a titan of 20th century opera. Was there ever a singer more loved and loathed than her? To some Callas was the absolute embodiment of what opera should be, to others her voice was nothing less than a desecration. Great artists seem to inspire fanatical adoration as well as great antipathy. Both of which seem to lead to questionable judgments being made by both supporters and detractors.

The limited studio recordings from the 1950s are supplemented with some historic live recordings which demonstrate a very different voice from that employed in the 1960s. More steely and silvery, with good diction and shining high notes. Just listen to her 1959 Lucia live from Covent Garden, or her Jennifer in Tippets The Midsummer Marriage to hear the marked contrast from the warmer, golden, less incisive sounds that was to characterise the next decade. The 1970s however, did see a marked improvement in diction, plus a real dramatic commitment to the text of what she was singing. Her Esclarmonde defies belief, hair raising coloratura coupled with burnished Wagnerian tone. Her critically lauded Turandot under the baton of Zubin Mehta was a triumph, with Dame Joan bringing an interpretation which eluded even her most acclaimed rivals. Her Maria Stuarda was volcanic, whilst her second recordings of Lucia, La Traviata and I Puritani were on the whole successful improvements on the first. All of which marks out a development in Dame Joan’s career, which has sometimes been overlooked in contemporary criticism. Her progression as an artist is very evident when one overcomes pre-conceived notions of what did or did not happen. To help frame her development we should look at the biographical details.

Early Days

Dame Joan Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE, was born on the 7th of November 1926 in Sydney, Australia. Her mother, Muriel, was a talented mezzo-soprano who was taught by Burns Walker, a pupil of the illustrious music teacher Mathilde Marchesi. Unsurprisingly, Joan was introduced to opera by her mother at a very young age and would often imitate her vocal technique.

Joan’s first real breakthrough in her training came in 1945 when, aged 18, she won the John and Aida Dickens scholarship. John Dickens immediately recognised that she was in fact a dramatic soprano and not a mezzo soprano as previously assumed. Much work was done to lift the voice and to overcome her natural shyness and reticence. For a time the young singer was having trouble accepting the idea that she was destined for the great roles of Wagner and Verdi. However, this soon changed as she imagined singing the same repertoire as that of her idol, the great Kirsten Flagstad. It was also during her time with the Dickens’ that Joan joined the Affiliated Music Clubs of New South Wales and met for the first time, whilst singing at the Queen Victoria Club, the man who would have the single biggest impact both on her life and her career, Richard Bonynge.

In these “music clubs” Joan would sing selections from La Gioconda, Aida and Tristan und Isolde, amongst others, whilst being accompanied on the piano by Richard. Joan’s official public debut came on the 12th December 1946 where, at the Sydney Town Hall, she sang in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Joan also entered some of the numerous vocal competitions which, were being held throughout Australia to try and find the next great operatic hope, perhaps a Melba or an Austral in the making. The most significant of these competitions was the “Mobil Quest” run by the Vacuum Oil Company. Having come fourth in 1949, Joan entered once more in 1950 and this time emerged victorious. Now armed with the winner’s prize of £1,000, her savings and a generous gift of £1,000 from her cousin John, Joan and her mother set sail for London and ultimately Covent Garden.

Covent Garden

Upon arrival in London, Joan and Richard become re-acquainted (they were later to be married, in 1954). She was also introduced to Professor Clive Carey of the Royal College of Music, who advised her to join the Opera School. During these early years in London, Richard noticed that Joan often sang around the house with a different voice to that of her moulded dramatic soprano; it was both more free, natural and placed higher than she would usually sing. Up until now Joan assumed the top of her voice was a rather hard-won top C, and that the bel canto repertoire was one best left to the lighter voice types like Galli-Curci and Pons. Maria Callas showed that it was possible to embody the ideals of bel canto and yet deliver the coloratura pyrotechnics with a voice normally associated with the heavier repertoire, such as Verdi’s Aida.

Armed with the knowledge that she did not have perfect pitch, Richard would often get Joan to sing away from the piano. Consequently, she began singing notes far higher than she had ever thought possible. High D’s, E’s, F’s and once even an F# in altissimo. This moment in Joan’s life has now entered operatic folklore, but it also marked a break between what she assumed she was and what she was to rightly become, namely the leading soprano in the bel canto revival.

Joan had several auditions at Covent Garden, but although they were impressed by the quality and size of the voice, they found it very difficult to place her voice type. She would often sing both a dramatic aria followed by a coloratura standard, such as “Dich teure halle” and “Qui la voce”. Eventually she was offered a contract for the 1952/1953 season at £10 per week, where she was viewed as a suitable understudy/successor to the dramatic soprano Sylvia Fisher. Her first performance at Covent Garden was as the First Lady in The Magic Flute, followed closely by the High Priestess in Aida and Clotilde in Norma. From 1952-1959 Joan sang a variety of different roles at the Garden which, along with its supportive, almost family-like atmosphere, allowed Joan to progress to an artist of the first rank. Her roles both at the Garden and on tour ranged from Aida, Amelia in The Masked Ball, Desdemona in Otello, the Countess in Figaro and Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann, to those which required a bravura coloratura technique. These included the fiendishly difficult role of Jennifer, especially written for Joan by Michael Tippett in his The Midsummer Marriage, Gilda in Rigoletto and Olympia in Hoffmann.

Although garnering many ecstatic press notices throughout these years, it was a performance of Handel’s Alcina at St Pancras Hall for the Handel Society, which really caused the critics and the public alike to realise that here was a very special and rare singer indeed, one who could sing the taxing vocal line of Handel’s Sorceress, complete with trills, high notes and mind boggling divisions and yet always ensure that her voice remained exquisitely beautiful. This “baroque ideal” was realised again as the Israelite Woman in Handel’s Samson at Covent Garden. Here Joan would bring the house down at the end of the evening with a staggering performance of “Let the Bright Seraphim”, complete with an exultant high D to cap the aria.

Sutherland Arrives - Lucia di Lammermoor 1959

Following the sensational Alcina, Lord Harewood, David Webster and Richard began campaigning for Joan to have a new production especially mounted for her. It was deemed that the perfect opera for Joan would be Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. After much procrastination and persuasion the production was mounted. The director was Franco Zeffirelli and the conductor Tulio Serafin. Opening night was the 17th of February 1959, a date now famous in operatic history. Her debut as Lucia became a watershed moment in the annals of opera, launching her upon a glittering international career as a top flight soprano. In every sense of the word, her debut was a tumultuous triumph. John Steane in his book “Voices, Singers and Critics”, described how the house “blazed with enthusiasm” greeting the arrival of this new and extraordinary star. What made the evening so momentous was that rare combination of deeply serious dramatic commitment to the drama of Donizetti’s opera, and the flawless expression of some of opera’s most demanding and technically virtuosic music

Dame Joan Sutherland has from time to time been accused of being too cool on stage, for not showing enough fire and emotion in some of her portrayals, yet one has only to listen to the live recording from this debut run, to realise that Joan’s portrayal penetrated to the very heart of poor mad Lucy, and that this could be achieved whilst maintaining a pure and perfect vocal line - something which often eluded other performers in this same role. Following her debut as Lucia, the world’s operatic citadels began to fall one after the other, Paris; Venice; Milan; Vienna; San Francisco; Chicago; and finally the Metropolitan Opera New York. Invariably she sang Lucia and the result was always the same, a complete and unadulterated triumph. Whether she was shattering records for ovations at the Met, or being hailed “La Stupenda” after giving La Fenice her Alcina, Joan was consistently delivering a standard of singing hitherto considered extinct. This was all the more remarkable when one considers that she was continually battling with various ailments during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, ranging from chronic sinusitis, to severe and debilitating back and leg pains.

La Stupenda – The Glory Years

During the 1960s Dame Joan Sutherland added many new roles to her repertoire, including Beatrice di Tenda, Amina in La Sonnambula, Elvira in I Puritani, Marie in La Fille du regiment, Violetta in La traviata and Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. Two of her most notable successes came in the title roles of Rossini’s Semiramide and Bellini’s Norma. Joan first sang the Babylonian Queen Semiramide at La Scala in 1962. It had long been out of the repertory primarily because the murderous vocal line for all the roles required a command of bel canto long since gone. Joan revelled in the taxing tessitura, bringing the house down after “Bel raggio lusinghier”. The other great role which Joan undertook in the 1960s was Bellini’s Norma. Often considered to be the pinnacle of bel canto achievement, it has a fearsome reputation for exposing the flaws in a singer’s technique and stamina. Lilli Lehmann famously declared it more demanding than all three Brünnhilde combined! Whilst some considered Joan wanting in temperament in this role, there is no doubt that she embodied the musical aspects in a way which was to become peerless. Whether interpolating an unwritten sustained high E-Flat in the duet “In mia man”, singing the great aria “Casta Diva” in the original higher key of G, or bringing the house down in her duets with that other paragon of vocal brilliance, Marilyn Horne, Joan’s performances were undeniably impressive. Her interpretation of this role, one which she sang more often than any other soprano of the 20th century, grew in greater depth over the decades, culminating in two wonderful, albeit very different recordings with Decca. The 1960s was also the decade in which Sutherland made the first of many musical collaborations with other artists who would sing with her throughout the rest of her career, including Huguette Tourangeau, Margerta Elkins, Monica Sinclair, Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti.


Joan Sutherland’s partnership with Marilyn Horne is the stuff of legend. It is hard to conceive of a more brilliant pair of vocalists within the recorded history of opera. They first met in New York in 1961 when Joan made her American debut in the title role of Beatrice di Tenda and Marilyn sang the role of Agnese di Main. They performed together frequently in the 1960’s and made some extraordinary recordings, most notably Semiramide and Norma. Horne demonstrated time and time again a formidable technique which included a powerful and resonant chest voice, smooth legato and an excellent command of coloratura.

Another illustrious colleague often associated with Dame Joan, is Luciano Pavarotti. Blessed with a beautiful, smooth tenor with ringing high notes, Luciano was in turn to have a truly great and exceptionally popular career. They first met in 1965 when singing together in Lucia di Lammermoor in Miami. Suitably impressed, Sutherland and Bonynge engaged Luciano for the now famous “Sutherland & Williamson” tour in Australia later that year. However, his big splash on the opera scene did not come until he sang Tonio to Joan’s Marie in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment at Covent Garden in 1966.

During the 1960s Joan’s standing with the critics was often a mixed affair. They marvelled at her clarion high notes, power and command of coloratura, yet were unhappy at the smoothing of consonants, interpreting it as a quest for the perfect beautiful sound. This approach was to change considerably in the 1970s. Not only did Joan’s diction markedly improve, but it was accepted time and time again that she was indisputably the supreme technician. The voice also acquired a darker hue at this time, giving the interpretation of the music a grander sense of scale and more dramatic purpose. It also led to Joan taking on some heavier roles, including Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Stuarda, Leonora in Il Trovatore and even (on record only) a fabulous assumption of Puccini’s Turandot. Perhaps her most significant role during this period was that of Massenet’s extraordinary Esclarmonde.

Esclarmonde calls for an almost inhuman combination of attributes. The lead must have the power of a dramatic soprano to ride Massenet’s lush Wagnerian style orchestration, the sensuousness of a lyric soprano for the more tender moments in the opera and a remarkable coloratura technique to cope with some of the score’s more hair raising demands. Perhaps more than any other role in her repertoire, it is nigh on impossible to think of another soprano who could command all of these attributes quite so well as Joan.

The Final Years

During the 1980s Dame Joan consolidated her position as one of the great prima donnas of our time. Her “time at the top”, was perhaps even more impressive than that of her great Australian predecessor, Dame Nellie Melba. Further roles were added to her repertoire including Adriana Lecouvreur, Anna Bolena and Amalia in Verdi’s I Masnadieri, to name but a few. She also continued to record frequently with Decca and performed with more and more regularity at the Sydney Opera House, a venue with which she has become so closely associated since her debut there in 1974.

After 1697 performances, Joan decided to retire from the operatic stage in 1990 so as to leave her fans with a memory of a voice that would be the envy of many other sopranos. Officially, her final performance was that of Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at the Sydney Opera House in 1990, a role she first performed at La Scala in 1962, opposite Corelli, Simionato and Cossotto. It was both an emotional and suitably resplendent occasion, with the end of her career marked by a wonderful celebration at the end of the opera. Joan however, was to still perform one last time. As befitting the house which launched her international career, Joan gave her final farewell at Covent Garden on New Year’s Eve in 1990 as a guest in the party scene from Die Fledermaus. Joined by her colleagues Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti and with her husband in the pit, Joan sang “Home Sweet Home” to a rapturous ovation. Rarely, if ever, has a diva been given such a farewell. But then, few sopranos have achieved such a staggeringly successful career or been blessed with a voice that can rightly be described as a phenomenon. In addition to this, Joan has avoided the whims and caprices of many of the other sopranos labelled correctly or not, as divas. Instead she has shown us that greatness can arrive through a combination of undeniable talent, humility and generosity of spirit.

Recommended Discography

Complete Operas

Puccin's Turandot: Joan Sutherland (Turandot), Luciano Pavarotti (Calaf), Montserrat Caballé (Liu). Conducted by Zubin Mehta. This recording is often considered to be the supreme reading of Puccini's opera, with Sutherland turning in a performance of the icy princess that refuted the suggestion that drama was an unimportant consideration when it came to her interpretations. Unlike the usual implaccable man-hating performance usually turned in by most Turandot's, Sutherlands account is more intensely human, revealing a characterisation previously under-developed by other interpreters. It is also a refreshing change to hear those blazing top C's in "In questa reggia" being sung, as opposed to being merely shrieked! Sutherland is also supported with a cast which can hardly be bettered.

Massenet's Esclarmonde: Joan Sutherland (Esclarmonde), Roland (Giacomo Aragall), Parseis (Huguette Tourangeau). Conducted by Richard Bonynge. Massenet's exotic, almost Wagnerian score provides Sutherland with one of her most celebrated roles. As the titular enchantress Sutherland sings a role that calls for an impossible combination of qualities, namely the power of a dramatic soprano, melting lyricism, thunderous high notes and coloratura.

Bellini's Norma: Joan Sutherland (Norma), Adalgisa (Marilyn Horne), Polione (John Alexander). Conducted by Richard Bonynge. This earlier account is preferable to the more matronly sounds produced in the later recording with Caballé as Adalgisa in 1988. Although we are already beginning to hear the smothering of consonants in this early recording, the voice is limpid and beautiful throughout, singing with an ease that escapes all rival Norma's. Preferable still is any of the "live" recordings of Sutherland's Metropolitan Opera Norma's from 1970, featuring Bergonzi as Pollione and Horne as Adalgisa. It is an electrifying performance, with the great Act I trio, and duets with Horne, veritable masterclasses in the possibilities of bel canto.

Rossini's Semiramide: Joan Sutherland (Semiramide), Arsace (Marilyn Horne), Joseph Rouleau (Assur). Conducted by Richard Bonynge. Sutherland's Babylonian Queen has been unimpeachable since it was first released by Decca in 1966. "Bel raggio" is just one of many highlights on this recording.

Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor: Joan Sutherland (Lucia), Luciano Pavarotti (Edgardo), Sherrill Milnes (Enrico). Conducted by Richard Bonynge. Perhaps her most famous role, this second recording under Bonynge is preferable to the earlier 1961 account under Pritchard. More incisive in matters of text, with far improved diction, we hear a darker and more penetrating sound from Sutherland.

Donizetti's La fille du régiment: Joan Sutherland (Marie), Luciano Pavarotti (Tonio), Spiro Malas (Sulpice). Conducted by Richard Bonynge. Although this opera was almost universally panned by the critics in 1966 at Covent Garden for being the worst sort of nonsense imaginable, the recording made just one year later has become a huge seller and firm favourite with admirers of the diva. Ebullient throughout and dazzling in coloratura, Sutherland and Pavarotti make ideal lovers in this Donizetti romp.

Recital Discs

The Art of the Prima Donna:

Possibly the greatest recital disc ever recorded. Joan Sutherland sings sixteen arias by composers ranging from Bellini and Rossini, to Mozart and Meyerbeer. A truly staggering performance, it is unlikely to ever be equalled let alone surpassed. A must for any lover of supreme singing.

Romantic French Arias: Recently re- released by Decca, this enchanting recital demonstrates Sutherland's flare for the French repertoire, where happily dicton is much improved. There are many memorable items on this recital, but none more so than the rollicking account of the "Conduissez moi" from Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe, which will leave you open mouthed at the sheer exuberance and vocal agility on display.

First Recital: Sometimes referred to as Sutherland's "Opera Arias" or "Opera Gala", this disc contains excerpts from some of her earliest accounts of the celebrated roles that would later make her world famous. The "Mad Scene" from Lucia di Lammermoor is in a league of its own when it comes to pure vocalism. Captured just weeks after her celebrated debut as Lucia at Covent Garden, Decca have captured the range, power and haunting quality that was to make her Lucia the most famous of the century. The other tracks are of a comparable quality, although the rioutously heroic "Santo di patria" from Verdi's I Masnadieri was recorded in 1963.

The Art of Joan Sutherland: A six CD set released by Decca in 2004, provides a wonderful retrospective of La Stupenda's recording career. The first CD is dedicated to Handel, Bononcini, Paisiello, Piccinni, Arne and Shield; the second Mozart; the third Verdi and Wagner; the fourth and fifth is given over to French repertoire, whilst the sixth features arias and duets by Bellini, Donizetti, Thomas, Verdi and Weber. At 88 tracks it is pretty comprehensive and should be an ideal way of sampling Sutherland's varied repertoire in one fell swoop.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 25 August 2009 01:28 )  

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