Dame Joan Sutherland
The Modest Diva
Dame Joan Sutherland's opera career spanned four decades and 1,800 performances. Her warm, modest disposition provides a marked contrast to other divas.
At Dame Joan Sutherland's 1985 run of "Lucia di Lammermoor" at London's Convent Garden, a leading opera critic once recalled, a woman from San Francisco in a wheelchair gushed: "Dame Joan, I'm from San Francisco, and I came 6,000 miles to see you! 6,000 miles."
Sutherland, the critic recalled, turned to her husband and said: "These People! More money than sense."
That was just five years before Sutherland took her final bow on the stage of the Sydney Opera House, in the same city where her international career was launched.
She is legendary for her warm, modest disposition, through which she differentiates herself from the highly strung variety of divas who are as well known for their opera house tantrums as their vocal range.
A meteoric rise
Sutherland was born the daughter of a tailor and a teacher in Sydney, Australia, on November 7, 1926. As a child, she would mimic the voice of her mother, who was also a singer. Her mother taught her how to breath properly as a singer, but she instructed her not to seek formal training until after she was 18. Apparently her mother's talent rubbed off on Sutherland because in 1947, at the age of 21, she landed the title role in Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" in Sydney.
A short time later, she won several awards - the "Sun Aria Competition" and the "Mobil Quest Award," which in turn landed her a fellowship in London at the Royal College of Music, where she was taught by the legendary Clive Carey in 1951. A year later, she made her debut at the Royal Opera House at London's Covent Garden in Mozart's "The Magic Flute." But it was her 1959 Royal Opera performance in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" -- in which she played the doomed, lovesick title role -- that rocketed her to stardom and the ranks of operas best. It was a remarkable artistic ascent for a woman who began her professional life as a secretary in Australia.
There are few singers who have equaled the breadth and acclaim the Australian soprano has enjoyed in her career. She gave around 1,800 performances over four decades, with a repertoire of more than 50 operatic roles in many of the world's most renowned opera houses - from the Met in New York to La Scala in Milan. Through the years, she drew a global following. The Italians called her "La Stupenda," the adoring English dubbed her "The Incomparable." Sutherland's crowning achievement came in 1979, when Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the title of Dame of the British Empire on her. She was also known as a leading voice of the bel canto opera movement, Italian for "beautiful singing."
Sutherland found her greatest success singing the 18th and 19th century Italian operas - gaining great fame for her signature role in "Lucia di Lammermoor" and other works.
Opera's dynamic duo
In 1954, she married the up and coming director Richard Bonynge, and the two became one of the most celebrated musical duos of the century. She has described the relationship as a "wonderful partnership."
Of course, there were also setbacks along the road to success. During a performance of "La Traviata" in Genoa conducted by Bonynge, the audience roundly booed tenor Lamberto Furlan to the point that the conductor and his wife, who had personally picked Furlan for the role, left the stage and refused to complete the performance.
But there seemed to be more triumphs. Opera critic Brian Kellow recently wrote that three Sutherland operas he had attended at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1982 were the best performances he had ever seen. "There was that warm wall of sound, of course, that floated up to the farthest reaches of the house, swimming around your head," he wrote in Opera News. "But there was something else, apart from the sheer vocal beauty and amplitude: no one I have ever heard live has quite conveyed the same unbridled joy of singing. It's hard to imagine that a life in the theater was ever a serious burden for Joan Sutherland: she seemed to exult in the pleasure of giving pleasure."