February 17, 1959: a date that will be forever remembered by music historians. On this date, soprano Joan Sutherland sang the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for the first time. Her flawless vocal performance and the guidance of director Franco Zeffirelli sent her to a level of stardom rarely achieved.
It was announced today that Dame Joan Sutherland died in her home in Switzerland. She is survived by her son and her husband of 56 years.
Sutherland was born in Sydney, Australia on November 7, 1926. After winning first prize in a local competition, she had enough money to sail to England and study at the Royal College of Music. Sutherland made her debut at Covent Garden on October 28, 1952 as the First Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Sutherland later said that her seven years of minor roles were part of what made her different from other singers. These years helped her to relax and develop her voice with the help of Australian pianist and conductor Richard Bonynge. Bonynge can easily be given credit for Sutherland’s marvelous technique. In fact, it was he who convinced her to begin singing higher. Sutherland had actually thought that she was a mezzo-soprano!
Bonynge and Sutherland had previously met in Australia and they were married on October 16, 1954. The two would be inseparable throughout Sutherland’s entire career.
Even before Sutherland made her breakthrough on February 17, 1959, she was starting to sing lead roles and was receiving some attention. Opera fans owe a big “Thank You” to Decca Records for recognizing the Australian soprano’s talent and for allowing her to make so many recordings. Click here to listen to a 1959 recording of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor.
After Sutherland’s triumph, Lucia became her signature role and she would sing it for another 30 years. Her ability to sing this role proved that she was an ideal interpreter of the Bel Canto repertoire. During the mid-20th century, Bel Canto operas were not very popular partly because Maria Callas was the only soprano willing to sing them. Callas’ voice was declining when Sutherland made her breakthrough and she retired in time for the Australian to take over. Throughout the rest of her career, Sutherland had practically no rivals. She was later dubbed “The Voice of the Century”.
She is remembered not only for Lucia, Elvira, and Amina, but also for the title role of Lakme, Marguerite in Faust (no one will ever be able to trill like that again!), and for flawlessly singing all four heroines in The Tales of Hoffman.
Sutherland and Bonynge also deserve credit, not for discovering Luciano Pavarotti, but for making him famous. By the early ’60s, Pavarotti was enjoying only a mildly successful career. Sutherland was about to go on tour and was looking for a tenor who could top her impressive height. Bonynge helped Pavarotti polish his technique and he made his breakthrough singing Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment opposite Sutherland.
After Sutherland’s retirement at the age of 64, she regularly expressed concern about young opera singers who, instead of concentrating on music and technique, concentrate on image. “The whole opera thing has changed from top to bottom”. she said during an interview with the Guardian. “I’m glad I quit when I did”.
The opera world will never see another artist as humble, sincere, and, dare we say, talented.
Source: McGill, Raymond “La Stupenda – The Supreme Joan Sutherland”
Hallett, Bryce and Ellie Harvey “The Voice of a Century Dead at 83”
Kettle, Martin 2002 Guardian Interview