Dame Joan Sutherland OM AC DBE 1926-2012

Joan Sutherland

Dame Joan Sutherland

Joan Alston Sutherland was born in Sydney on 7 November 1926.

When she was 18, she began to study singing seriously with Aida Summers, though she was earning her living in a mundane secretarial job.

In London, Sutherland studied at the Opera School of the Royal College of Music. She made her debut there on 12 May 1952 in an act from Geoffrey Shaw’s All at Sea.

 

La Stupenda

On 14 October 1958 the Australian contralto Lauris Elms sang with Joan Sutherland in the Leeds Centenary Festival production of Handel’s opera Samson, in the presence of the Queen and Prince Philip. She recalled: ‘On that first night, my astonished ears heard Joan Sutherland sing “Let the Bright Seraphim” as only an angel could have sung it. The audience rose to its feet and gave her the ovation of the night, in spite of Jon Vickers, Joseph Rouleau (not to mention myself) having delivered fine sounds and sung all night long. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the most ravishing singing I had ever heard!’

Joan Alston Sutherland was born in Sydney on 7 November 1926. Her mother, a former mezzo soprano, taught her the rudiments of singing and encouraged her to listen to recordings. She attended St Catherine’s School in Waverley. When she was 18, she began to study singing seriously with Aida Summers, though she was earning her living in a mundane secretarial job. On 12 December 1946 she made her debut – singing in the chorus for a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in the Sydney Town Hall. In 1949 she won one of Australia’s most important competitions, The Sun Aria. She won another major singing competition, the Mobil Quest, the following year. She was determined to go to England for further study. In April 1951 Mobil sponsored her farewell recital in the Sydney Town Hall, but before she left she was persuaded by Eugene Goossens to sing the title role in his opera Judith at the Sydney Conservatorium. The opening night, 9 June 1951, marked her first appearance in staged opera.

In London, Sutherland studied at the Opera School of the Royal College of Music. She made her debut there on 12 May 1952 in an act from Geoffrey Shaw’s All at Sea. Two months later she was in the College’s production of Puccini’s Il Tabarro. From then on her progress was swift and steady. She made her Covent Garden debut as the First Lady in The Magic Flute in October 1952; that season she also sang the High Priestess in Aida, Clotilde in Norma (with Maria Callas in the title role) and Amelia in A Masked Ball – her first starring role. She made her recital debut at Wigmore Hall on 7 November 1952, with Gerald Moore at the piano.

In 1953 she sang in the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana. In 1954 she married Sydney-born conductor and pianist, Richard Bonynge. He convinced her to abandon her aspirations to become a Wagnerian dramatic soprano and to concentrate instead on the bel canto repertoire, since she excelled in the high notes and coloratura. From 1954 to 1958, she tackled Eva in Die Meistersinger, Agathe in Der Freischütz, Desdemona in Otello, Gilda in Rigoletto and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and many others.

Biographical references

Brian Adams: La Stupenda, Hutchinson of Australia, 1980
Richard Bonynge: Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge with the Australian Opera, Craftsman House, 1990
Clemence Dane: London Has a Garden, Michael Joseph, 1974
Quaintance Eaton: Sutherland and Bonynge – An Intimate Memoir, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1987
Lauris Elms: The Singing Elms, Bowerbird Press, 2001
Barbara and Findlay Mackenzie: Singers of Australia, Lansdowne Press, 1967
Norma Major: Joan Sutherland, Queen Anne Press, 1987
Joan Sutherland: A Prima Donna’s Progress, Regnery Publishing, 1997