OPERA NEWS - Joan Sutherland, 83, Legendary Soprano, Has Died
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11 October 2010

Joan Sutherland, 83, Legendary Soprano, Has Died 


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Joan Sutherland
© Bill Hayward 2010
Sydney, Australia, November 7, 1926–Les Avants, Switzerland, October 11, 2010

Few opera stars shape an era to the degree that Joan Sutherland did. Launched by the electrifying brilliance of Maria Callas, the bel canto revival had already taken flight in the early 1950s, but Sutherland gave it wings for decades to come.

Sutherland was blessed with a formidable natural instrument: her voice had great tonal beauty, her command of pitch was remarkably true, her breath support unequaled, and she possessed a genuine trill — not the mere trick that so many others were forced to rely on. She had an instinctive sense of pacing, and an almost unfailing ability to build to thrilling climaxes, where her magnificently powerful upper register came into play. When she performed "Tu del mio Carlo," from I Masnadieri, in her 1981 Lincoln Center concert with Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne, the audience's excitement grew to a level of intensity that made it a test of will-power for them to remain in their seats. When she reached the end of the cabaletta, they surrendered completely, leaping to their feet and cheering for minutes on end.

Sutherland was also one of the most consistent of all opera singers. Although her voice became somewhat droopy late in her career — a quality that up to that point had been mostly latent — she sounded in imperturbably solid vocal shape for a remarkably long stretch of years. She took immaculate care of her voice, and in the theater, she was careful not to step outside a sensible core repertory. (Her desire to experiment occasionally showed itself on recordings, as was the case with Joan Sutherland Sings Wagner and a surprisingly effective version of Turandot, led by Zubin Mehta.)

Joan Sutherland was born on November 7, 1926, in Sydney, Australia. Her parents were Scottish, and throughout her life she retained a great allegiance to the British Commonwealth. She was always quick to point to her mother, a talented mezzo with a reportedly beautiful natural instrument, as her strongest early influence. Young Joan worked hard to master her mother's vocal exercises. Later, she studied with John and Aida Dickens, and she made her concert debut in 1947, as Dido in a Sydney presentation of Dido and Aeneas. Her stage debut came in 1951, in Eugene Goossen's Judith. She considered the relative isolation of growing up in Australia an advantage. "We had to make our own music," she said later, "and therefore a great interest developed in native artists."

Later in 1951, Sutherland won Australia's Sun Aria Scholarship Competition and the Mobil Quest Award and used her prize money to go to London to study with Clive Carey at the Royal College of Music's Opera School. She admired the immaculate vocal technique and tonal splendor of Kirsten Flagstad and felt that this was the path it made sense to pursue. "I thought I was a Wagnerian soprano," she recalled. "Besides, I had copied the dark, heavy quality of my mother's voice. Mother never took me higher than a top C, her theory being that high notes are simply a thing that happen." She had no trouble finding work: on October 28, 1952, she made her debut at Covent Garden as the First Lady in Die Zauberflöte. She was on a house contract, and her years at Covent Garden would add up to a fascinating apprenticeship, in a wide range of roles, both small and large. In November 1952, she sang the small role of Clotilde to Maria Callas's Norma. Other roles she sang during her Covent Garden period include Frasquita in Carmen, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, Aida, Agathe in Der Freischütz, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Mme. Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Jennifer in the world premiere of Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage (1955).

Covent Garden also saw her as a potentially great dramatic soprano, but Richard Bonynge, a gifted and imaginative pianist and coach and fellow student at Royal College, had other ideas. In Sutherland, Bonynge heard enormous potential to become a major force in the dramatic coloratura repertoire, which was then regaining attention, thanks to the arrival of Callas and Leyla Gencer. He began working with her, often transposing her exercises and arias, thus tricking her into singing higher. In 1954, Sutherland married Bonynge, and they had a son, Adam, in 1956. She still wasn't entirely sure she could manage the coloratura roles, but Bonynge continued to put her through her paces. It was the beginning of his profound influence on her career, and also of one of the most mutually beneficial artistic partnerships in the world of opera. Once she had a success as Olympia in Les Contes d'Hoffmann at Covent Garden, her vocal path began to change.

During these years, the Sutherland voice had a remarkable gleam, and although it also possessed substantial body and core, it could often give an impression of shimmering lightness and transparency. In 1957, these qualities were brilliantly in evidence in a performance of Alcina presented by the Handel Opera Society, which indicated that Bonynge had indeed been prescient in his assessment of her strengths.

On February 17, 1959, Covent Garden took the step that made Sutherland a major international star: the company opened a new production, led by Tullio Serafin and directed by Franco Zeffirelli, of Lucia di Lammermoor. Sutherland's performance that night was dazzling — and history-making: by the time she had reached the shattering conclusion of the opera's fiendishly difficult mad scene, there was no question that the evening had ushered in a great new star. In OPERA NEWS, Gerald Fitzgerald termed Sutherland "the most glittering discovery at Covent Garden since Melba herself."

Her Lucia also carried her to glory in Palermo and at the Paris Opera in 1960, and at La Scala in 1961. She remained on the bel canto path, singing Elvira in I Puritani at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1960. That same year, she made her U.S. debut, as Alcina at Dallas Opera, to great acclaim. In February 1961, her New York debut came, in a concert presentation of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda at Town Hall. And on November 26, just weeks after her thirty-fifth birthday, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Lucia, in a performance that electrified both audiences and critics — a triumph as stunning as the one she had achieved in London.

Sutherland's relationship with the New York public was nothing short of a love-fest; for the next twenty-six years, she would return to the Met in a stunning series of triumphs that included Violetta, Norma, Elvira, Massenet's Esclarmonde, Gilda, and all four of the heroines in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. The Met audience never got first hearing, however; she chose to introduce each of her classic roles at other theaters. In 1962, La Scala was the theater that first heard her Semiramide and her Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots. (Her performance of "O beau pays" thrilled her audiences, both on the opera stage and in concert, for years.) Her Norma was unveiled in 1963 at Vancouver Opera. Seattle Opera got her first Lakmé, in 1967, San Francisco Opera her first Maria Stuarda (1971) and Esclarmonde (1974), and Toronto's Canadian Opera Company hosted her first Anna Bolena (1984). Sutherland was equally committed to her Australian public and was a favorite in Sydney. (From 1975 to 1986, Bonynge served as the artistic director of the Australian Opera, and Sutherland frequently performed there.) She and Bonynge maintained homes in both Sydney and Les Avants, Switzerland, where their home, Chalet Monet, was a comfortable retreat, filled with the antiques and knick-knacks that Bonynge loved to collect.

Sutherland was deeply loved in London, and shortly after her 1959 Lucia triumph, in 1966, the Royal Opera heard her in what would become one of her most popular roles, Marie in Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment. When she returned to Covent Garden as Lucia in 1985, opposite Carlo Bergonzi's Edgardo, she sounded in remarkable condition.

In 1961, in recognition of her staggering artistic achievements, she was made a Commander of the Order of the British empire; in the Queen's New Year's Honors of 1979, Sutherland was named Dame Commander. And late in 1991, the Queen honored her again, appointing her to the Order of Merit.

One of the benefits of Sutherland and Bonynge's conquest of the bel canto world was their association with other exciting talents who helped reignite this long-neglected repertoire. The young Marilyn Horne partnered Sutherland in the 1961 Beatrice di Tenda, announcing herself to New York audiences as a force to be reckoned with in her own right. (Horne, who became a good friend of Sutherland, tells a story that sheds light on the Sutherland–Bonynge relationship. Once, when the three of them were discussing a particular opera, Sutherland pronounced a strong opinion of it. "No, darling," said Bonynge, "You don't really think that." "Oh," Sutherland cheerily replied. "I guess I don't!") In 1965, Sutherland embarked on a sold-out tour of Australia, featuring the young and relatively unknown Luciano Pavarotti. Both Horne and Pavarotti were to become favorite stage partners. Horne made her Met debut in 1970 as Adalgisa, opposite Sutherland's Norma. In 1972, Sutherland and Pavarotti teamed up for La Fille du Régiment at the Met. The run was sold out quickly, and it remained a high-water mark in both of their careers. Sutherland was loyal to fellow artists who worked hard, and she enjoyed appearing with them over and over again. James Morris, Monica Sinclair, Margreta Elkins, Huguette Tourangeau and Spiro Malas benefited from their long associations with her, and Sutherland characterized them as "darned good colleagues."

Much was made of the striking contrast between the bel canto heroines of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Both had their sobriquets: Callas was La Divina, Sutherland La Stupenda. Callas was hailed for the intensity, textual magic and stunning dramatic truth with which she invested her roles — qualities that became increasingly prized as her voice began to decline in the late 1950s. While Sutherland's vocalism generated matchless excitement, she was often criticized for a somewhat stolid dramatic presence, and for her frequently muddled diction. Her vocal technique produced a string of beautifully rounded tones that seemed to work against the articulation of the text. She and Bonynge worked assiduously on her diction, and by the time she sang her first Anna Bolenas in Toronto in 1984, she displayed arresting textual specificity. The soprano often responded to those who criticized her dramatic involvement by saying that she felt that the composer had written sufficient musical intensity into the vocal line, and that she felt she had done her job simply by singing the music accurately. She was anything but a slave to "come scritto," however. Sutherland and Bonynge frequently reshuffled the works she sang in order to show her off to best advantage. (In Alcina, for example, the tour de force aria "Tornami a vagheggiar" belongs to the secondary character of Morgana; in Sutherland and Bonynge's Alcina, it was unthinkable that "Tornami" would be sung by anyone other than Sutherland.) It was an age dominated by singers and those who loved singing, not by to-the-letter conductors and musicologists, and the musical liberties that the Bonynges took did nothing to impede their immense popularity.

There were other contrasts with Callas, whose complex personality and turbulent personal life helped to shorten her career and, eventually, to feed the image of a tragic diva who lived for her art until nature robbed her of the ability to give it. Part of the Callas magic, at a certain point, was wondering if she could conquer the musical demands of the evening. Sutherland, on the other hand, was a model of consistency. The anticipation that she would hit a home run was part of the excitement of experiencing her. She projected the image of a healthy, uncomplicated, no-nonsense Australian woman of disarming directness and simplicity, who was generous in her attention to her fans and seldom feuded with her colleagues or with the press. ("I'm just a contented old cow," she was once reported to have said.) But she could be tough and pragmatic. Once, in 1985, when a fan from San Francisco approached her after a Covent Garden Lucia to tell her that she had come 6,000 miles just to hear Sutherland sing, the diva turned to her husband and sighed wearily, "These people! More money than sense." And her career was not without its tensions. She was intensely loyal to her husband, and from the mid-1960s on, she generally insisted on him as her conductor. (She could be snappish about those who carped about his tendency to showcase his wife's spectacular abilities at the expense of the musical drama.) And she went through a well-publicized cooling-off period with the Met in the late 1970s, centering on her refusal to star in a revival of Die Entführung aus dem Serail because she no longer considered herself up to it. The Met subsequently scratched plans for Semiramide and The Merry Widow, both of which she wanted to sing at the house. After singing a run of Donna Annas in 1978, she did not return to the Met until a triumphant string of Lucias in the fall of 1982.

Those Lucias were performances to remember. The voice was unquestionably heavier than it had been twenty years earlier, but the confidence and technical command with which she sang were astonishing. This was the Met's old (by now rather worn-looking) Lucia, designed by Attilio Colonnello. In Act I's dimly-lit fountain scene, Sutherland made her entrance from stage right, in a puffy, aquamarine dress that shimmered even though the gloomy dusk of the stage setting. At the first glimpse of her, the theater burst into tumultuous applause. Even for someone who had attended only a handful of performances, it was an overwhelmingly emotional moment. The applause built feverishly, and there was no mistaking what was behind it — sheer exultation that this woman, whose absence had been keenly felt for four crucial years, was back. Her "Regnava nel silenzio" was a model of shape, beauty and precision, and when she swelled her climactic D, so huge and perfectly placed that some of us felt it resonate in our heads, the applause came crashing through once more. "Welcome back!" someone yelled from the balcony — a sentiment clearly felt by every single person in the house.

Sutherland followed this thrilling return with an equally successful run of La Fille du Régiment in 1983, opposite the supremely elegant Tonio of Alfredo Kraus. When she entered in her red-white-and-blue regimental uniform, banging on a drum, she instantly embodied the hearty spirit of Donizetti's comic masterpiece. It was a wonderful follow-up to Lucia and, in a sense, an even more personal performance, because it connected more strongly with the nice, warm-hearted woman her fans believed her to be. Sutherland's even-keel temperament and practical outlook were key to her immense popular success. If Callas had been the tortured artist, suffering for her art and eventually engulfed by it, Sutherland was the essence of the hard-working professional with the huge talent who could always be counted on to deliver the goods — serious in her approach to her work, but not in her view of herself. In film, her counterpart might have been Katharine Hepburn; on Broadway, it was Ethel Merman — both artists whose sanity allowed them to triumph over turbulent changes in the entertainment world.

Like those two women, Sutherland had legendary professional discipline: she had the physical fortitude to perform at a high level even when she was seriously indisposed. Her stage appearances regularly sold out, and she was also an enormous moneymaker for the recording industry. In 1959, she signed a long-term contract with Decca. Their first project, in 1960, was The Art of the Prima Donna, a two-LP collection of dramatic-coloratura arias that became an instant classic and received a Grammy Award. Over the decades, Sutherland recorded all of her great stage roles for the company, including two Normas (one in 1964 with Horne and one in 1984 with Montserrat Caballé).

By the mid-1980s, it was clear that Sutherland's voice had grown heavier, its vibrato wider; her voice tended to sag in a way that let down those who had been mesmerized by her magical earlier years. But her popularity was undiminished. Her last Met performances, in 1987 as Leonora in a dismal new production of Il Trovatore, were a disappointing end to her career with that house. Her final opera role came in 1990, in Les Huguenots at the Sydney Opera House. On New Year's Eve of that year, she made her final public appearance as a guest star in Covent Garden's Die Fledermaus, with Horne and Pavarotti. She said that her career ended because of "sheer physical burnout. You grow old. The machinery wears down. Just like your refrigerator."

Though she had retired from the opera stage, Sutherland gave master classes, in which she was often withering on the subject of her pupils' command of breath support and basic technique. She was never mean-spirited, but at a 1998 master class at the Juilliard School, her displeasure with her students' grasp of technical matters was almost palpable, and she comported herself like everyone's toughest fourth-grade teacher, interrupting the singers by rapping a yellow Ticonderoga pencil on the desk. She frequently judged major international singing competitions, notably the Singer of the World contest in Cardiff, Wales. Although her stage performances were generously filmed and Fellini, in the early 1960s, reportedly wanted her for a small role in La Dolce Vita, she never appeared in a feature film until 1995, when she starred opposite Leo McKern in On Our Selection, based on a popular old Australian radio series, Dad and Dave. She was the subject of several biographies — Edward Greenfield's Joan Sutherland (1973), Quaintance Eaton's Sutherland and Bon­ynge (1987), Joan Sutherland: The Authorized Biography (1987), by Norma Major, wife of then-British prime minister John Major. In 1997, Sutherland decided to tell her story herself, publishing A Prima Donna's Progress: The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland. She undertook the lion's share of the research herself, and the result was an exhaustively detailed but thoroughly unrevealing document of her long and prolific career. (In OPERA NEWS, William R. Braun wrote, "If you saved forty years worth of letters from your dear friend Joan, you'd have something like A Prima Donna's Progress.")

It's challenging to encapsulate Sutherland's career, difficult to convey its arc, for the simple reason that it was a career dominated by highlights. She sang at a time when the greatest opera stars lived an enviable existence: they wielded enormous influence over what did and did not wind up onstage, they were welcome guest artists on television, and they benefited from an extraordinarily healthy recording industry. Unquestionably, she maintained a higher standard of singing longer than any other performer of her generation. Probably no soprano of the last half of the twentieth century was more beloved by the public, for the simple reason that she gave her fans so few opportunities to be disappointed in her. And she was one of many artists of the 1960s and '70s who brought opera-lovers together in a way that they cherished. For a diehard Sutherland lover, there was no such thing as attending a single performance in a run of Lucias or Puritanis. You simply had to be there for as many of them as possible. The thrill of a great Sutherland performance stayed with you for days afterward. In an unpublished story, Eudora Welty once wrote about a man discovering the poetry of W. B. Yeats while a student, reading in a library as a snowstorm raged outside: "It seemed to me that if I could stir, if I could move to take the next step, I could go out into that poem the way I could go out into that snow." Those of us who experienced Sutherland during her long period of greatness might be forgiven for thinking that when she sang, we could go out into the music and never be the same again. spacer 


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