Whenever this country was accused of cultural lowliness in the performing arts in the late-1950s and 1960s, Australians always had available an instant, two-word response: Joan Sutherland or, ever better, La Stupenda ("The Stunning One"). The great Pavarotti, who toured Australia with her in 1965, described her as "the voice of the century." Many think there was no female singer who made a greater contribution to opera in the second half of the twentieth century. Some would go even further in their praise.
Rarely, if ever, will you hear her described as an "Australian Diva," largely because this country does not do divas. It recoils against that kind of self-centredness and self-aggrandisement, and the phrase itself sounds firmly oxymoronic. Indeed, part of her great popular appeal was that she was the anti-diva: a down-to-earth Sydneysider who sang like an angel on stage and spoke Aussie fluent 'strine off it. She fitted what Donald Horne, the author of The Lucky Country, described as "the cult of the informal". She had also worked hard to become an overnight sensation.
Until reading this morning's obituaries, I had not realised that one of Joan Sutherland's great gifts to opera was to open up parts of the repertoire that had been beyond the range of most sopranos. "Because of her extraordinarily agile voice and crystal-clear high notes," writes the arts critic Richard Morrison in The Times, "she was able to champion many of the great bel canto roles that had fallen out of fashion." She was also an especially brave singer, because her speciality was to tackle operatic roles with such a high degree of difficulty.
As we celebrate her singular talent, some readers will no doubt think it inappropriate to mention the time she courted controversy at a luncheon in 1994 held by the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. She bemoaned not having a British passport any more and resented having to go to the post office to get a new one where she was "interviewed by a Chinese or an Indian". "I find it ludicrous," she noted.
But I refer to it now because it helps explain why one of Australia's great cultural assets was not always wholeheartedly embraced by Australia's cultural elites. Back in the Seventies, Patrick White, Australia's only Nobel laureate for literature, had already written her off. Over dinner in 1977, Dame Joan told White that she had never read any of his novels, and was a fan of The Thorn Birds. Afterwards, he called her "a wound-up Ocker Olympia"- too low-brow for his tastes, and too staunch a monarchist.
Needless to say, the very qualities that White sneered at were the same attributes that, in combination with her voice, gave her such broad appeal. For others, she was funny, self-deprecatory, easy-going and instantly likeable. Again, the Australian anti-diva.
I have always thought it a great shame that Joan Sutherland did not get to sing at the opening concert of the Sydney Opera House - although she did perform in its inaugural season, and her portrait now takes pride of place in its foyer. However, a far more fitting memorial comes in vinyl, or its modern-day, digitised equivalent. It means that while La Stupenda may have passed away, she need never leave the stage.