Legendary coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland says she was “bowled over” upon learning that she would be a 2004 Kennedy Center honoree. “I’m not even an American citizen,” she says, discussing the event from her home in Switzerland. “But Americans have always been good to me, and I’m highly honored.”
Miss Sutherland, or, more appropriately, Dame Joan — the form of address she has preferred since she was granted that title by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975 — retired from the stage at the peak of her powers in 1990 after more than 40 years in the opera limelight.
Now 78, she thoroughly enjoys her retirement and particularly relishes puttering around in her garden. Although she no longer sings in public, she still keeps her hand in the opera scene, occasionally serving as judge in international singing contests such as the Callas Competition in Athens. She also makes it a point to visit her native Australia each year.
Joan Sutherland was born in Sydney in 1926. She sang around the house as a child, encouraged by her mother who was herself a mezzo-soprano. But when she auditioned for the school choir, she was criticized for overwhelming the other singers with her huge voice.
After finishing secondary school, she ended up working briefly as a secretary even though she dreamed of a career in music. But her luck began to change when she won free singing lessons at the age of 19.
Starting out as a mezzo-soprano like her mother, she won an Australian music competition in 1951 and went on to further study at the Royal College of Music in London, making her debut at Covent Garden singing a minor role in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote” (“The Magic Flute”).
It was around this time that she met a young Australian pianist named Richard Bonynge, who served as her accompanist and encouraged her to give full range to her considerable vocal skills by evolving into a true soprano. “He felt my voice had more ‘height’ than I was giving it,” she says, “so why ‘depress’ it?”
Mr. Bonynge’s advice proved crucial in helping Joan Sutherland to begin her rapid ascent to international stardom. Mr. Bonynge himself eventually went on to establish a significant career as an international opera conductor.
And, oh yes. He also married the future Dame Joan in 1954, forming a musical and marital partnership that endures to this day — extraordinarily unusual in the volatile world of opera.
Having made the vocal switch by the mid-1950s, the future star began to specialize in the bel canto repertoire, scoring a smash hit in the title role of “Lucia di Lammermoor” in the famous 1959 production directed by Franco Zefirelli. She had hit the big time, singing Lucia around the world and making her Metropolitan Opera debut in the role in 1961 to great acclaim. Thunderstruck Italian audiences — often a hard crowd to please — were astounded by her brilliant high notes, and began to call her “La Stupenda” — roughly, “The Greatest.”
Dame Joan soon became renowned for her expertise in other notably difficult roles including Elvira in “I Puritani,” Violetta in “La Traviata” and the title role in “Norma.” Her appearances proved particularly popular at the Met. “The U.S. response to my career has been incredible,” she says. “And singing at the Met is like being in a football stadium. It’s almost frightening, but exciting at the same time.”
What were her toughest roles? “They’re all challenging,” she says. “I’ve loved all the roles that I’ve sung.”
She particularly adored portraying the compelling heroines of grand opera, donning their lavish period costumes and playing out each larger-than-life drama amidst the backdrop of breathtakingly romantic scenery.
Which brings her to her current pet peeve — the contemporary vogue, particularly in Europe, for stripped-down, in-your-face postmodernist productions that are short on pageantry and long on snarling revisionism and audience contempt.
“A significant part of opera is the spectacle, the magnificence,” she says, “the wonderful costumes. But nowadays, singers and audiences have to cope with this awful stuff they’re doing. It’s just rubbish. Perhaps economics is playing a part, but I am afraid that the arts of set and costume design are dying out.”
Dame Joan’s legion of fans would heartily agree with her gloomy assessment of the current state of the arts. Irrespective of opera’s future evolution, however, the magnificent voice of Joan Sutherland and the majesty of grand opera’s golden age will continue to flourish in the countless recordings and videos that remain to document one of the most significant musical talents of the 20th century.