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Dame Joan Sutherland

Among the major opera stars of the 20th century, soprano Joan Sutherland excelled in bel canto roles and later in dramatic coloratura singing. Her voice was legendary for its agility, accuracy, and brilliant upper register. Sutherland was born on November 7, 1926, in Sydney. Her parents were from Scotland. Sutherland's mother was a mezzo-soprano and gave her singing lessons all through her childhood and adolescence. At 18, she began voice lessons in Sydney with John and Aida Dickens, who directed her into the soprano range (she began as a mezzo like her mother). Sutherland made her debut in 1947 in a production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. In 1949, she won Australia's Sun Aria competition, and after several more performances and competition wins in Australia, she moved to London, enrolling at the Opera School of the Royal College of Music for studies with Clive Carey. She became a utility soprano at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and made her debut there in 1952 in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, K. 620. After several other small roles, she sang her first leading role there later in the year, that of Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera. At this point, Sutherland aspired to a career as a Wagnerian dramatic soprano. It was conductor Richard Bonynge, whom she married in 1954, who persuaded her to focus on Italian bel canto repertory instead. Bonynge would go on to conduct many of her performances and recordings from the 1960s through the '80s. When Sutherland switched to bel canto opera, success came quickly. One breakthrough occurred at Covent Garden on February 17, 1959, when Sutherland sang the lead role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. At the time, bel canto operas -- by the likes of Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini -- were less often heard on British stages than they are today, but Sutherland's voice, seeming to bloom into an effortless upper register, quickly made converts of British operagoers. It wasn't long before her prominence became international. She made her debut at Italy's La Scala in 1961, again as Lucia di Lammermoor, and she took the same role in November of that year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. By that time, word of her talents had spread, and fans began lining up at 7:30 a.m. to buy tickets. They rewarded her with a 12-minute ovation. That year, she was signed to the Decca label and released a recording of Lucia di Lammermoor; the recording remains in print in Decca's Legendary Performances series. Her album The Art of the Prima Donna won a Grammy award in 1962 for Best Classical Vocal Performance; she was the first Australian so honored. Sutherland soon made appearances at most of the world's major opera houses, and between then and her retirement in 1990, she was one of the world's top opera stars. She did not neglect her native Australia, for she and Bonynge formed their own company and toured Australia with it during the 1965-1966 season. Bonynge was named music director of the Australian Opera in Sydney in 1976, and Sutherland frequently appeared there. Sutherland's recording career on Decca got underway in earnest in the mid-'60s as she made numerous recordings of operas by Handel, Bellini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, and others. As of 2022, her recording catalog comprised more than 150 items, the vast majority of them full-length operas. Sutherland was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1979. After her retirement in 1990, she lived quietly in Switzerland. Sutherland died in the Swiss town of Les Avants on October 10, 2010, at the age of 83.
© James Manheim /TiVo
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