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Australia’s ‘voice of the century’ Sutherland dies at 83

Australian opera legend Dame Joan Sutherland was hailed as “La Stupenda” and “voice of the century” Tuesday after she died following an illness aged 83, leaving behind an extraordinary musical legacy.

Lavish tributes poured in for the star, who dazzled European audiences with her vocal range and ability from the 1950s until her retirement in 1990, after her family announced her death at her Swiss home on the shores of Lake Geneva.

“The family of Dame Joan Sutherland… wishes to let all her friends and admirers know that she passed away very peacefully in the evening of October 10 at her home in Switzerland after a long illness,” a family statement said.

Sutherland, who had been in poor health after a fall, according to reports, is survived by her husband, Australian conductor Richard Bonynge, her son Adam and two grandchildren.

She had risen from obscure roots in Sydney, where she was born to a tone deaf father and music-loving mother in 1926, to become one of opera’s great post-war virtuosos, performing alongside Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti.

“Extraordinary range, dazzling range, extraordinary accuracy, extraordinary power. There really only was one voice like that, it was the great voice of the century,” said former Sydney Opera House chief Norman Gillespie.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard called Sutherland a typically Australian “down-to-earth” diva who found worldwide acclaim.

“She touched the lives of many Australians and many people around the world,” Gillard said.

“Dame Joan I think showed a lot of quintessentially Australian values. She was described as down-to-earth despite her status as a diva.”

Sutherland worked as a typist and sang at local clubs to pay her way to Britain, after a musical journey that began aged just three while her mother, a keen amateur singer, practised scales.

“As she was a mezzo-soprano, I worked very much in the middle area of my voice, learning the scales and arpeggios and even the dreaded trill without thinking about it,” she once said. “The birds could trill, so why not I?”

Sutherland was a hit at London’s Covent Garden in the early 1950s before wowing Italy’s notoriously hard-to-please critics, who labelled her “La Stupenda” (The Stupendous One).

Milan’s La Scala opera house, where Sutherland performed between 1961 and 1966, hailed her as the “queen of bel canto”, an operatic style characterised by vocal purity and evenness of tone.

“This is how La Scala remembers Joan Sutherland: not just a master virtuoso, but an obligatory example for all those who have sung Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti after her,” a statement said.

Sutherland won a Grammy award in 1961 and was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 1979, and received Britain’s prized Order of Merit in 1991. She retired after a final series of performances at the Sydney Opera House in 1990.

“She’s totally unique and you will never ever hear another voice like that,” New Zealand’s Dame Kiri Te Kanawa told Australian public broadcaster ABC.

“When you’re young and stupid you actually feel you’re almost equal,” she added. “As time went on, the more I felt that I didn’t deserve a place beside her at all.”

Te Kanawa called Sutherland a “Pied Piper” for a younger generation of singers, while the late Pavarotti once described her as “certainly the greatest voice of the century”.

She leaves behind an extensive catalogue of recordings through which she will endure as “one of the great operatic icons of the 20th century”, Gillespie said.

“It’s there in the recordings. We’re so fortunate she made so many, all from Handel up to the romantics in Donizetti and Bellini. She will live on forever,” he told ABC Radio.

Sutherland’s family said her funeral would be “very small” and private, without giving further details.