Joan Sutherland appreciation
Dame Joan Sutherland at Cardiff Singer of the World. Photo © BBC
Joan Sutherland's special relationship with Britain and British audiences derived from the fact that the Australian coloratura soprano effectively launched her career at the UK's international opera theatre - the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; and many of her most important recordings were made at the London studios of EMI.
Sutherland brought an entire genre of opera - bel canto (beautiful singing) - to the attention of opera-lovers, and the general public, by reviving operas and roles which had long been forgotten: bel canto was a style coined in the age of Baroque opera, refined by the beginning of the 19th century and later eclipsed by the music-dramas of Weber, Wagner and Richard Strauss.
It might not have been. In the early 1950s, Sutherland had been engaged by the Royal Opera on a general contract, with an eye to her learning the Wagnerian repertoire of which the Swedish soprano Kirsten Flagstad was the reigning diva. But in 1958, Sutherland's rendition of the difficult and brilliant 'Let the Bright Seraphim' from Handel's Samson (the aria later sung by Kiri Te Kanawa at the wedding of Charles and Diana) brought the house down, provoking an unprecedented ten-minute ovation: Sutherland had found her Fach.
Marriage to fellow-Australian conductor Richard Bonynge in 1954 undoubtedly nurtured and developed Sutherland's talent in bel canto. Many years of international touring in such signature roles as Massenet's Esclarmonde (by her own admission, her 'greatest achievement'), and the operas of Handel, Donizetti, Bellini, Offenbach, Mozart, and Meyerbeer showed that she could infuse real character into roles where apparently effortless vocal display was the path to success.
Along the way, she was able to encourage the talents of young singers such as Luciano Pavarotti: their 1965 tour of Australia was a sensation for both singers.
Many people will remember the 1990 New Year's Eve Gala TV broadcast of Strauss's Die Fledermaus at the Royal Opera House, where, in her last public performance in the UK, she was joined in the famous party scene by her friend and mezzo-soprano colleague Marilyn Horne, and Pavarotti. Fans of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition will remember her five consecutive appearances as a juror, from 1993 - always a stern and forthright judge (she entertained strong views about the standard of modern vocal training), she became the competition's patron in 2003.
Meeting Sutherland would confirm to anyone that this was a down-to-earth diva; that was my experience when, as administrator of Glasgow Masterconcerts, I promoted her appearance at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in the late 1970s. We didn't need to print an expensive leaflet - word of mouth and a flyer inserted in Scottish Opera's newspaper was enough to ensure an instant sell-out. Our own lavish bouquets were dwarfed by the truck-loads of foliage, brought to the theatre by her fans, which rained down during the curtain calls. This tall, striking, extraordinary stage creature - known worldwide as La Stupenda - was as comfortable at the kitchen supper afterwards as she had been playing to hundreds of screaming fans.
That's a cherished personal memory. For those who never heard Sutherland live, there is a vast recorded legacy: Sutherland will live on in the diva pantheon ...
Biography, roles and recordings
More appreciations and obituaries for Dame Joan Sutherland ...
- Soprano of supreme musical mastery (Financial Times)
- Gifted diva graced the world’s great opera houses for three decades (The Scotsman)
- One of the world's most celebrated operatic sopranos whose voice combined beauty and power (Guardian)
- The greatest coloratura soprano of her – indeed of any – generation. (Daily Telegraph)
- Soprano known as La Stupenda (John Steane - The Independent)