Dame Joan Sutherland OM DBE AC 1926 – 2010
She performed regularly in concerts, oratorios and broadcasts throughout Australia and for the Affiliated Music Clubs of N.S.W. often being accompanied by Richard Bonynge. In August 1947, she made a significant debut in a concert performance as Purcell’s Dido before giving up her secretarial job in 1949 to concentrate on her singing.
That same year, Dame Joan won the prestigious Sun Aria competition followed by the Mobil Quest in 1950. In April 1951, a Testimonial Farewell Concert was held to raise money for her in the Sydney Town Hall followed by her first staged operatic role – the title role in the world premiere performances of Eugene Goosens’ opera Judith at the N.S.W. Conservatorium of Music in Sydney conducted by the composer.
In July of that year, at the age of 24, Joan Sutherland, with dreams of singing at Covent Garden, sailed with her mother from Sydney on the Maloja to London. Once settled, she met up with Richard Bonynge who was already studying piano there. She auditioned for Clive Carey of the Royal College of Music and was immediately asked to join the Opera School. From here on she studied all her roles with Richard Bonynge.
In 1952, she performed the role of Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il Tabarro for the RCM. Then after 3 separate auditions, she was invited to become a member of the company of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden making her debut as the First Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute on 28th October 1952. In the November of 1952, she sang the High Priestess in Aida with Sir John Barbirolli conducting (and later the title role with the same conductor) and soon after, the small role of Clotilde, alongside Maria Callas as Norma and Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa. Following this she performed her first leading role at Covent Garden that December, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera.
On 16th October 1954, Joan Sutherland married Richard Bonynge at Kensington Methodist Church in London, a collaboration that would become one of the greatest in all operatic history. Two years later their son Adam was born on 13 February, 1956.
From her debut in 1952 until February 1959, Dame Joan performed a myriad of roles for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden including; Agathe in Die Freischutz, Woglinde in Das Rheingold and Gotterdammerung, Helwige in Die Walkure, Woodbird in Siegfried, Frasquita and Micaela in Carmen, Antonia, Giulietta and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann, Pamina and Queen of Night in The Magic Flute, Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg, Lady Penelope Rich in Gloriana, Jenifer in The Midsummer Marriage, Aida, Alcina, Gilda in Rigoletto, Desdemona in Otello, Mme Lidoine in The Dialogues of the Carmelites, Israelite Woman in Samson.
During that time she also made her Glyndebourne debut in 1956 as the Countess followed by First Lady and Mme Herz in Der Schauspieldirektor and in1958, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni for Vancouver. She also sang the roles of Alcina, Rodelinda and Cleopatra for the Handel Opera Society as well as BBC braodcasts of Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito, the title role in Weber’s Euryanthe, the title role in Madama Butterfly and Mimi in La Boheme.
It was on the evening of 17th February 1959, after a solid 7 year apprenticeship at Covent Garden, and at the age of 32, that Joan Sutherland became an operatic star. Singing the title role of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucia would become one of her most performed roles and the role that would define her formidable career. Conducted by the legendary Italian, Tullio Serafin and directed by Franco Zeffirelli her performances as Lucia made her an overnight sensation and are to this day talked about as one of the defining moments in 20th century operatic history.
After her triumph in Lucia, Dame Joan went on to establish herself as the foremost soprano of her time and as one of the greatest artists to grace the operatic stage. It wasn’t long before every major opera company in the world wanted to hear this extraordinary bel canto singer.
Donna Anna and Desdemona in Vienna came next, Violetta in La Traviata for London then in 1960 her Italian debut in Venice. It was after these performances at La Fenice, singing the title role in Handel’s Alcina, that she was dubbed La Stupenda, the name she still carries to this day. Alcina featured again for her U.S. debut in Dallas, Lucia in Paris, Elvira in I Puritani and Donna Anna at Glyndebourne. Again singing Lucia, the role that had launched her international career, she made her debut at La Scala Milan and The Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1961. Her New York debut was a concert performance of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda in the Town Hall which caused such a storm that two more performances were scheduled in Carnegie Hall.
In 1965, Dame Joan returned to Australia to perform five of her greatest roles with, the Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Company and Richard Bonynge as Musical Director. Touring nationally she performed Lucia di Lammermoor, Semiramide, Faust, La Traviata and La Sonnambula, often alternating between roles and singing three times per week. Since those first years, Dame Joan has triumphed in all the great opera houses including, R.O.H. Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh Festival, La Scala Milan, La Fenice Venice, San Carlo Naples, Florence Festival, Teatro dell’Opera Rome, Teatro Carlo Felice Genoa, Teatro Massimo Palermo, The Met New York, Paris Opera, Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, Teatro San Carlo Lisbon, Staatsoper and Theater an der Wien Vienna, Teatro Liceo Barcelona, Hamburg, Munich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya in Japan, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide as well as her many successes on the concert platforms of the world.
Her repertoire includes; Norma, Beatrice in Beatrice di Tenda, Amina in La Sonnambula, Elvira in I Puritani, Adriana Lecouvreur, Lakme, Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Stuarda, Marie in La Fille du Regiment, Violetta in La Traviata, Leonora in Il Trovatore, Esclarmonde, Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus, Electra in Idomeneo, Anna Glawari in The Merry Widow, Sita in Le Roi de Lahore, Amalia in I Masnadieri, Rodelinda, Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, Marguerite in Faust, Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots, Suor Angelica, Turandot, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, Queen of Night in The Magic Flute and Euridice in Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
In 1974, she returned to Australia’s shores once more and since that time her many appearances in Australia have included; the four heroines in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Lakme, Suor Angelica, Norma, Donna Anna, Violetta, Electra, Lucia, Amalia, Desdemona, Alcina, Leonora, Semiramide, Adriana Lecouvreur, Mme Lidoine, Elvira in I Puritani, Marie in La Fille de Regiment, The Merry Widow, Rosalinda, Lucrezia Borgia and her legendary concerts with Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti at the Sydney Opera House.
Television has also played a part in Dame Joan’s career. Some of the many productions she has been involved in include, The Bell Telephone Hour, The Voice of Firestone, Who’s Afraid of Opera, numerous documentaries, guest appearances with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Shore, countless DVD and Video releases of her staged operas and recitals and the role of Mother Rudd in the comedy film, Dad and Dave: On Our Selection starring her dear friend Leo McKern. Over the years numerous books and biographies have been written about her, Dame Joan producing her own autobiography entitled “A Prima Donna’s Progress” in 1997.
With a career spanning almost 4 decades, Dame Joan Sutherland retired from opera in 1990 at the age of 64. Her final full opera performance was as Margherite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s, Les Huguenots with Richard Bonynge conducting the eight performances in Opera Australia’s production at the Sydney Opera House. Her actual farewell appearance was the Party Scene in Act II of Die Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve 90/91 at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden with Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti. This performance was simulcast live to the piazza in Covent Garden.
Dame Joan Sutherland has received honorary degrees from institutions and universities both in Australia and abroad. In 1961 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Australian of the Year. She was honoured as a Commander of the Order of Australia in June 1975 and in 1979 was elevated to Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her outstanding contribution to opera. In 1989, Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland were awarded the Commandeur de l’Ordre National de Merite by the French government for their services to French music. She and her husband were also made “socio d’onore” of the R. Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna in 2007, a society dating back to the 18th century of which Mozart was a member.
In 1991, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Dame Joan the Order of Merit and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proclaimed May 6, 1998, as Dame Joan Sutherland Day in the City of New York. In 2004, she received the Australia Post Australian Legends Award which honours Australians who have contributed to our nation’s identity and culture and was also the recipient of a Kennedy Centre Honour for her outstanding achievement throughout her career.
Perhaps the last great Prima Donna of a “Golden Age”, Dame Joan Sutherland is regarded as one of the greatest and most remarkable bel canto singers of all time and will always be acknowledged for her considerable contribution in the renaissance of the bel canto and French repertoire during the 20th century. She possessed a voice of great beauty and power combining extraordinary coloratura agility, impeccable intonation and an exceptional upper register. The distinctive richness of her velvet-like sound, coupled with her unaparalleled vocal virtuosity and supreme artistry make her untouchable by any other singer of her generation or since that time. A conscientious hard worker and caring colleague, she was a dignified, heroic, and elegant performer and yet had the ability for classic comic timing, thanks to her own, down-to-earth sense of humour.
On retirement from the operatic stage, she was in demand as an adjudicator for all the major singing competitions, in particular, as a regular member of the panel at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and also in Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Finland, Germany, France and Greece. She was also a Patron for a number of worthy causes and organisations, gave freely of her time in helping to support the next generation of singers and has been a great supporter of The Joan Sutherland Society of Sydney, regularly attending fund raising events whenever she was in Sydney.
Dame Joan and Richard have a son Adam, daughter-in-law, Helen and grandchildren, Vanya and Natasha.
Dame Joan passed away on the 10th October, 2010 at her home in Switzerland. A memorial service was held in Sydney in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, a Service of Thanksgiving was held at Westminster Abbey in London and a special tribute by The Metropolitan Opera Guild in New York.
Today, Richard Bonynge lives at their home in Switzerland near Lake Geneva. He also has homes in London and Sydney.