Sutherland: from 'hopeless dream' to opera great

12th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Australian soprano Joan Sutherland could scarcely have imagined her humble beginnings at the family piano would catapult her to fame as "La Stupenda", one of opera's great post-war virtuosos.

Sutherland was just three when she began learning to sing, crouching at her mother's feet and copying her scales and vocal exercises as she rehearsed.

"It was as sort of a hopeless dream... but I just always sang. I don't remember when I didn't sing," the operatic sensation said in a 2005 interview.

"I had a voice of some kind and I used to use it singing around the garden and the house."

Her rich coloratura soprano -- declared the "voice of the century" by friend Luciano Pavarotti -- would stun audiences worldwide, earning her the nickname "La Stupenda": the stupendous one.

Dame Joan Alston Sutherland was born in Sydney on November 7, 1926.

Her father, a Scottish immigrant, was tone deaf but her mother, Muriel, was a talented mezzo soprano who sang in society musicals and rebuffed a career as a professional singer.

"Oh no," Sutherland recalled her mother saying when implored by her instructor to seek a living abroad. "I'd rather go and watch the cricket with my friends."

Sutherland heard her first opera on the family gramophone and would sit at her mother's feet from the age of three, copying her scales and exercises.

It would lay the foundations for a stellar career, teaching her to breathe, support and project her voice and above all, that "the sound must be beautiful always, soft or loud," Sutherland told ABC radio in 2005.

Sutherland, appointed a dame in 1979 for services to the performing arts, dreamed of singing in London's Covent Garden from an early age, but did not begin serious training until she was 18.

A typing pool secretary, she struggled in the school choir -- her voice was so loud it drowned everyone else out -- but she won a scholarship and sailed to London in 1950, securing a place in the Covent Garden Opera Company at her fourth audition.

It was her acclaimed turn in the lead role of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor on February 17, 1959 that shot Sutherland, 32, to fame, with a 19-minute standing ovation. She would play Lucia 223 times in her 40-year career to rapturous crowds.

Conductor husband Richard Bonynge played a pivotal role in turning her from heavy arias to the trilling bel canto style which would come to define Sutherland. She described their personal duet as "of great importance to my career" and, at her insistence, he often conducted her performances.

Bellini's Norma was her favourite score to sing, "the high point of my whole repertoire", and she also loved Massenet's Esclarmonde, preferring Italian and French to the cluttered consonants of English and German.

Sutherland was known for her forthright, straight-talking manner and striking physique, towering at 188 centimetres (6 feet 2 inches) over the divas of the day, with a strong, square jaw and prominent chin.

"The bigger the rocket you want to send up, the bigger the launching pad," she once joked.

Never one for tantrums or gossip, Sutherland's candour sometimes landed her in strife; she famously remarked that she resented being interviewed for a passport by a "Chinese or Indian" and that republicans ought to be "banished".

Sutherland retired in October 1990, having played a mammoth 54 leading roles, with a final performance as Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Sydney Opera House, the place she saw as her spiritual home.

She sang alongside greats including Maria Callas, Placido Domingo and Pavarotti, and her legacy will live on with a catalogue of some 40 recordings which earned her Grammy awards for best classical performer in 1961 and 1981.

Sutherland steadfastly refused to sing even in private once she had retired, not wishing to tarnish the memories of her greatness with what she said had dwindled in her later years to a "baritone".

"Was it hard work? Of course it was hard work, very hard work... that someone's dubbed your last (performance) 'Stupenda' and to maintain that for another 30 odd years," she said.

"In this business you're only as good as your next performance, you're not even as good as the last one you gave."

Said Bonynge of his stubbornly modest wife: "She has constantly to be bolstered up. Even after all this acclaim she still doesn't know how good she is."

Sutherland died on Sunday in Switzerland aged 83. She is survived by Bonynge and their son, Adam.

© 2010 AFP

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