R.I.P. Joan Sutherland, Stupenda.

From The Washington Post:

Dame Joan Sutherland, one of the greatest operatic sopranos of our time, died peacefully last night at her home in Switzerland after a long illness, according to a statement issued by her family.

She was 83 years old.

Called “La Stupenda,” she combined the heft of a Wagnerian singer with the agility and upper register of a coloratura soprano, leading to powerful interpretations of great bel canto roles that had lain dormant for decades — following in the wake of Maria Callas, who had spearheaded their initial revival.

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Sutherland takes a bow after her performance in the operetta “The Merry Widow” in Dallas in 1989. (AP)

Born in Australia, she first trained with her mother; a vocal scholarship then brought her to London, where she reencountered Richard Bonynge, a compatriot who was then working a vocal coach at the Royal Opera House. Bonynge helped unlock and develop the upper register and rock-solid technical ability. He remained her constant artistic partner throughout her career, conducting most of her appearances and her legacy of recordings: “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “Norma,” “I Puritani,” “La sonnambula.”

Bonynge also helped guide her away from the Wagnerian track that might have seemed to be a natural for someone of her vocal endowments, and into the realm of the coloratura soprano. Sutherland’s first roles included the Forest Bird in Wagner’s “Siegfried” and Clothilde, a bit part, to Maria Callas’s Norma in Bellini’s opera of the same name. Her breakthrough came with a 1959 “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Covent Garden, directed by Zeffirelli; her success put her on the map. She reprised the role for her Metropolitan Opera and La Scala debuts in 1961 — it was for this that the Italian press dubbed her “La Stupenda” — and never really looked back.

She came to Washington for her recital debut here in December, 1961, singing opera arias to Bonynge’s piano accompaniment. “Her trill, ah, there is her chief joy,” wrote Paul Hume in the Washington Post. “She flashes it like a beacon guiding to safe harbor those who have longed to hear so even and natural a perfect thing.”

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Sutherland in costume for an opera in 1960. (Hulton Getty Photo Archive)

Sutherland had a large, crystalline voice of tremendous purity and questionable diction (a source of many jokes over the years). She was sensitive about her size, and, in the early years of her success, delighted to encounter a tall tenor in the form of a lumpy young Italian who had just made his stage debut in England. His name was Luciano Pavarotti; he accompanied her on a hard-working tour of her native Australia in 1965; and became a frequent partner on stage and recording (she was the Marie to Pavarotti’s Tonio in his own Met breakout role, “The Daughter of the Regiment” in 1972). Pavarotti always credited Sutherland for having taught him, partly by example, much about sound vocal technique. He once called her “the greatest female voice of all time.”

She was also a contented wife and mother who could sometimes be found knitting backstage. She and Bonynge had one son, Adam, who survives her, along with his wife Helen, two grandchildren, and Bonynge himself.

Sutherland experimented with more dramatic (that is, heavier) roles as she got older, essaying Verdi’s “Il trovatore” and “La traviata” and even, on record, Puccini’s “Turandot.” But she continued to reign supreme in her core repertory throughout her career, even bringing her loyal following with her into less-known operas, like Massenet’s “Esclarmonde,” which sold out at the Met when she appeared in it. Her final appearance in opera was in Sydney in October, 2000, in a production of Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots.”

Sutherland and Bonynge remained based in Switzerland, with frequent forays to Australia, until her death. In 1997, she released her autobiography, which she wrote herself, without the aid of a ghostwriter: it was an exhaustive account of a busy career. Some complained at its lack of personal anecdote or backstage gossip, but it did reflect the kind of integrity and hard work that Sutherland, throughout her career, personified. The artist’s true voice was best preserved, though, not in words but in recordings.

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