Remembering Joan Sutherland, 'the Voice of the Century'

The great soprano died Sunday

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On Sunday, opera lovers began mourning the death of the great Joan Sutherland, the soprano often called "the voice of the century," nicknamed "La Stupenda." Here's what people are remembering as the obituaries and tributes pour in:

  • Seemingly Flawless Voice  Her singing, writes The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini, "was founded on astonishing technique. Her voice was evenly produced throughout an enormous range, from a low G to effortless flights above high C. She could spin lyrical phrases with elegant legato, subtle colorings and expressive nuances. Her sound was warm, vibrant and resonant, without any forcing." Her "vocal charisma," he notes, made up for what some noticed as a dearth of "dramatic intensity." One of the anecdotes he includes:
Though she knew who she was, she was quick to poke fun at her prima donna persona.

"I love all those demented old dames of the old operas," she said in a 1961 Times profile. "All right, so they're loony. The music's wonderful."

  • A Fascinating Path to Stardom, a Supportive Husband  The Sydney Morning Herald's Mark McGinness writes of Sutherland learning, early on, from her mother, who thought she was more of a mezzo. Sutherland originally opted for a more practical career path: "After secretarial college (and night classes in tailoring and dressmaking), Joan's first job was at the Radiophysics Laboratory and then a firm of farm suppliers." Her marriage to Richard Bonynge, then "a young pianist from Bondi whom she had met at concerts in Sydney," later her conductor, proved to be "one of the most significant, enduring and fruitful artistic partnerships in Australia's history." They also had a son and "a close and happy family life."
The late Peter Ustinov told the following story about chancing upon Dame Joan in rehearsal, on stage at an (audience-free, of course) Covent Garden. He came in at the back and heard the most beautiful voice filling the hall. He listened spellbound for a minute or two; then the spell was broken as, in the midst of a stream of perfectly enunciated Italian lyrics, the voice suddenly declared, in a heavy Australian accent: "Aaaaah, can't get that %*@!#?*$% note."
  • Music Down Under  "Funny," comments Derbyshire's National Review colleague, Jay Nordlinger, "that Australia, with such a small population, has contributed two legendary sopranos: Dame Nellie Melba and Dame Joan Sutherland."
  • Recognizable Brilliance  "Just two weeks ago," writes Robert Imbelli at Commonweal, "I heard on the radio a Metropolitan Opera Broadcast of Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor.' The voice was rock solid with incredible breath control and magnificent trills. I did not have to wait until the Act's end to recognize 'La Stupenda.'"
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