Born November 7, 1926, in Australia, Sutherland received her initial training from her mother, a mezzo-soprano who had studied with famed voice teacher Mathilde Marchesi. Although young Joan, too, considered herself a mezzo, she regularly practiced the same Marchesi exercises that had built the careers of many stunning coloraturas, including Nellie Melba.
By 1947, Sutherland's voice was already being broadcast on Australian radio. After winning a vocal competition, she moved to London in 1951 to continue her vocal studies. It took four auditions before she was accepted into the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. At age 26, Sutherland sang the small role of Clotilde opposite Maria Callas's Norma. She had yet to exploit her gifts as a high-flying, technically supreme coloratura.
The most important influence on Sutherland's career was her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, whom she married in 1954. An expert in coloratura technique, it took him three years to convince his wife that her exceptionally large, agile voice was ideally suited, not for Wagner or the heavier Verdi roles, but for the coloratura heroines of Bellini, Donizetti, Handel, and early Verdi.
Beginning in 1957, Sutherland created a sensation singing lead roles in Handel's Alcina, Donizetti's Emilia di Liverpool, and Mozart's Don Giovanni. She was already 33 when she revived Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at London's Covent Garden. In that year, as news of her triumph quickly spread around the world, several early recordings for Decca/London confirmed her supremacy in coloratura roles. These include a 1958 recording of Handel's Acis and Galatea, a 1959 recital of Donizetti and Verdi conducted by Nello Santi, and, in the same year, an indispensible recording of Don Giovanni with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Eberhard Wächter, Giuseppe Taddei, Luigi Alva, Piero Cappuccilli, Graziella Sciutti, and Gottlob Frick, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.
In 1960, Sutherland followed in Callas's footsteps by creating astounding portrayals of the leads in two previously neglected Bellini operas, I Puritani and La Sonnambula. The same year, Decca/London released The Art of the Prima Donna. Conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli and featuring the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus, the meticulously annotated two-LP set presents Sutherland singing 15 arias associated with the famous coloraturas of bygone eras. It remains one of the greatest operatic recitals of all time.
Sutherland made her American debut in November 1960, at Dallas Opera, as Alcina, in performances that earned her the title La Stupenda. Her landmark complete recording of Lucia, conducted by John Pritchard, hit the record stores in 1961, the year she made her New York Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role.
I was there on November 26, 1961, when Sutherland made her Met debut. As a junior in South Side Senior High School in Rockville Centre, Long Island, I was already in the process of wearing out our LP of Sutherland's recital with Santi when my high school music teacher, Sally Tobin Dietrich, asked who wanted tickets to Sutherland's debut. My arm shot up almost as high as the Empire State Building.
I was seated a mile high in the famed Golden Horseshoe of the old Met. No words can adequately describe the thrill I felt when Sutherland's voice cut through orchestra and ensemble with breathtaking brilliance. Although she sounded a little shaky in the famed sextet, her Mad Scene was riveting.
Sutherland's first high E-flat stopped the scene in the middlethe audience applauded and cheered for five minutes. After she'd taken 11 or 12 mid-scene bows, half the audience began to Sshhh the other half, so that the performance could continue. However, that half of the audience refused to desist, stamping their feet and demanding yet another bow. As the Met's balconies began to shake from all the ruckus, Miss Dietrich turned an even whiter shade of gray, convinced that the famed edifice was about to crumble beneath her. It didn't, Sutherland completed the Mad Scene, and, after another astounding, radiant E-flat, collapsed to another 12 minutes of delirious applause.
Sutherland's Recorded Legacy
Sutherland's early recordings, made when her voice was at its freshest, capture that instrument before her tendency toward mushy, indistinct diction began to dominate. (Many of her later recordings are plagued by a bland "whuh" sound in the low and midrange.) Some of those early operatic sets, such as the Pritchard Lucia, were re-recorded a decade later, after she began her ideal stage partnerships with tenor Luciano Pavarotti and mezzo Horne. She also recorded more obscure fare, such as Massenet's Esclarmonde, which she considered one her greatest accomplishments. But it is in her early recordings, some of which are out of print on CD, and pirated recordings of her early triumphs, that we hear Sutherland at her most startling.
While Sutherland once declared that it was only with the advent of CD that she could first hear a realistic semblance of what she had recorded in studio, today's better LP playback equipment can extract gold mines' worth of riches from her early platters. Listening closely, either on LP or remastered CD, we can hear all kinds of extraneous noise as limiters struggle to prevent distortion when Sutherland's amazingly large, incomparably agile instrument opens up. The top of the voice is radiant as are few others. Despite technical limitations, the early commercial recordings also do an excellent job of conveying the sense of acoustic space that Sutherland's voice could fill. The same instrument that caused microphones and mixing boards to overload also drove audiences over the edge.
Perhaps one of Sutherland's most astounding studio recordings is the 1972 Turandot with Pavarotti and Caballé, conducted by Zubin Mehta. Here, Sutherland shares the power she could summon in her early forays into Wagner. As an alternative to the Birgit Nilsson approach to the role, the recording is irreplaceable.
Although many thought that Sutherland's Turandot might signal a shift to more dramatic repertoire, she continued to specialize in high coloratura roles until the end of her career. Aware of the longevity of one of her illustrious predecessors, Lilli Lehmannwho, like Callas, sang Wagner one day and Mozart the nextSutherland once declared that she was haunted by Lehmann's astounding late-career recording of the aria "Ach, ich liebte," from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Sutherland held on, seemingly trying to beat Lehmann's record of performing into her 70s, but it was not to be. After appearances in 1990, she canceled an appearance in The Merry Widow, acknowledging that she could no longer do justice to the role.
Happily, the recordings remain. Playing them, it is easy to understand why Sutherland was dubbed La Stupenda. While other coloraturas of the LP and CD eras, including Callas and Beverly Sills, can take your breath away, none achieves Sutherland's level of sonic brilliance and technical perfection. She was a stupendous artist.