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Joan Sutherland, 1926–2010

The soprano who sparked a bel canto revival

Joan Sutherland made her opera debut in 1947 and retired from the stage in 1990; in between she earned the sobriquet “La Stupenda” in a singing career that was widely viewed as the greatest of the era.

Sutherland “was one of the few vocal artists who truly deserved being hailed as ‘the voice of the century,’” said the Baltimore Sun. With her husband and musical director, Richard Bonynge, she helped revive the Italian bel canto style, which emphasizes evenness throughout the vocal range and full articulation of every note, even during challenging, high-speed passages. Some critics “carped about her diction,” but “only the coldest heart could fail to be won over by the purity and joy of her art.”

Born in Australia to a tailor and an amateur mezzo-soprano, she studied voice throughout her childhood before enrolling, at age 25, at London’s Royal College of Music, said The New York Times. There she took up with Bonynge, who “became a major influence on her development.” He encouraged her to shift from Wagnerian opera, with its emphasis on sheer vocal power, to early-19th-century Italian works, which afforded her the opportunity to display her technical prowess. In London in 1959, she gave a “career-defining performance” in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, winning raves for her “vocally resplendent and dramatically affecting portrayal” of the doomed Lucia.

Though she was “one of the most consistent of all opera singers,” admiration for Sutherland’s artistry didn’t always extend to her “somewhat stolid dramatic presence,” said Opera News. “A healthy, no-nonsense, uncomplicated Australian,” she was amused by the self-dramatizing outbursts of famous sopranos like Maria Callas. “I’m just a contented old cow,” she once said. With a similarly prosaic bent, she explained her retirement, at age 64, in simple terms. “The machinery wears down,” she said. “Just like your refrigerator.”

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