Page 2 of 3   <       >

Soprano Joan Sutherland, legendary opera star and bel canto singer, dies at 83

Joan Sutherland with Luciano Pavarotti performing in Bellini's
Joan Sutherland with Luciano Pavarotti performing in Bellini's "I Puritani" in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP)
  Enlarge Photo    

Ms. Sutherland signed him up on a hardworking tour of Australia in 1965, and he became her frequent partner on stage and recording (she was the Marie to his Tonio in his own Met breakout role, "The Daughter of the Regiment" in 1972).

Pavarotti always credited Ms. Sutherland for having taught him, partly by example, much about sound vocal technique. He once called her "the greatest female voice of all time."

Joan Alston Sutherland was born Nov. 7, 1926, in Sydney. Her father, a tailor, died on her sixth birthday after taking her for a swim.

Her mother was an opera singer, and Joan learned from her the foundations of her solid vocal technique, particularly breath support, which enables fluid vocal production without apparent effort or damage to the voice. Ms. Sutherland's abdomen was rock-hard when she sang.

As a young woman, she began winning competitions in Australia. She used the money to go with her mother to London and enroll in the Royal College of Music.

Starting in 1952, she began appearing at London's Covent Garden in a range of parts. Her 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.

Bonynge, meanwhile, was steering her toward less-performed earlier works, and taking her higher and higher up the keyboard, allegedly hiding the keys from her so she wouldn't realize how high she was singing.

In 1957, she had a success in Handel's "Alcina" with the Handel Opera Society, and Covent Garden decided to present her in "Lucia" in 1959.

It was a well-prepared sensation, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Tullio Serafin, and it made headline news around the world. It put Ms. Sutherland firmly on the map. She reprised the role for her La Scala and Met debuts in 1961, and never really looked back.

Ms. Sutherland ruled supreme in the opera world for the next three decades. She claimed the bel canto repertory for her own, sealing its return to the standard canon. She made her mark as a comedian in works including "The Daughter of the Regiment" and "Die Fledermaus."

As she got older, she branched out into slightly heavier vocal territory, taking on Verdi's "Il Trovatore" and "La Traviata" and even- though only on record, never on stage - Puccini's "Turandot." She also became identified with Bellini's "Norma," one of the most challenging roles for a soprano.

Ms. Sutherland, though, was an absolute pro: a generous colleague and notably non-neurotic. Horne, who sang Adalgisa to her Norma at the Met and elsewhere, remembered a scene backstage in Sydney when Ms. Sutherland was performing the towering role at the same time Horne was giving a recital.

<       2        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company