GENEVA — Joan Sutherland, a former small-town secretarial school student whose mastery of tone, astonishing range and vocal control vaulted her into the top echelons of opera, has died at 83 after a four-decade career that won her praise as the successor to legend Maria Callas.
Nicknamed “La Stupenda” — the Stupendous One — by her fans after a fantastic 1960 performance of Handel’s Alcina and lauded by Luciano Pavarotti as “the voice of the century,” she died Sunday at her home near Geneva, after what her family described as a long illness.
And it was not only Italian fans who were entranced. For Germans, she was the “Koloraturawunder.” English-speaking opera-goers called her “The Incomparable” for her mastery of the coloratura — the vocal ability to effortlessly sing difficult trills and rapid passages in high registers.
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli said he knew Sutherland’s voice rivaled that of Callas from the moment he heard it, and he recalled taking Callas to hear Sutherland at a Covent Garden dress rehearsal.
The two sopranos, he said, were never artistic rivals.
“They were two enormous artists. People should stop indulging in gossip. They respected one another. When you reach that kind of level you are beyond how normal people react. They were absolutely above these petty jealousies,” Zeffirelli told The Associated Press by telephone.
Sutherland, Zeffirelli recalled, was discovered by Tullio Serafin, who also worked with Callas and who urged Zeffirelli to direct her in her 1959 Covent Garden performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which launched her to international stardom.
“I went to the hotel, and he said, ‘I want you to meet someone. Don’t worry about her looks,’ “ Zeffirelli recalled. “We went to the theater and I saw her, as big as a sergeant in the army with a terrible Australian accent. I was really embarrassed.”
“We started to hang out and play the piano and she started to sing, and she conquered me. I said, my God, it is going to be big trouble for Callas.”
Zeffirelli, speaking just after he learned of Sutherland’s death, remembered her with great fondness.
“She meant so much to me,” he said. “In a certain moment of my life, we were so close. We made our careers at the same moment. Anyway, I have no words …”
The late tenor Pavarotti, who joined with Marilyn Horne in Sutherland’s farewell gala recital at Covent Garden on Dec. 31, 1990, called her “the greatest coloratura soprano of all time.”
Sutherland was the soprano to Pavarotti’s tenor when he delivered nine high Cs in the 1960s at the Met in a role that earned him world fame — Tonio in “La Fille du Regiment.” He made his debut in the United States in 1965 thanks to Sutherland.
With a radiant soprano that stretched effortlessly over three octaves, Sutherland could have evolved in many operatic directions. While under contract at London’s Covent Garden she sang Mozart, Poulenc, Verdi — even Wagner.
But her 1954 marriage to pianist and conductor Richard Bonynge, a fellow Australian whom she had met in the 1940s, set her on her future bel canto path after he persuaded her it was this for which her voice was best suited.
“She was so well educated vocally by her husband,” said Zeffirelli. “Her voice conquered everybody.”
Sutherland soon was seen as the pre-eminent singer of Italian bel canto operas, and was often considered a successor to Callas, a comparison she rarely commented on.
Callas herself, after seeing Sutherland in a dress rehearsal as Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959 prophesied a great career for her younger rival before reportedly saying “Only we know how much greater I am.”
Callas — “La Divina” to Sutherland’s “La Stupenda” — was famously temperamental but Sutherland was not; and so relations remained cordial off stage and on.
Sutherland’s skills made her pre-eminent in the revival of Italian “bel canto” operas, and she was seen by many as having taken on the mantle of Callas. If she couldn’t project the raw passion of Callas on stage, Sutherland’s voice was the far steadier and she could maintain a perfect vocal line in some of opera’s most difficult roles, such as Bellini’s “Norma.”
“She had more vocal flexibility than Callas,” said Lotfi Mansouri, former general director of the San Francisco Opera, who directed Sutherland in more operas than any other director.
“Joan is one of the absolutely greatest in the field of opera in the last 30 years,” Mansouri said. “She had a very extreme vocal range. Most of the time coloraturas are smaller, lighter voices. Joan had a lush middle register. She always had a very good ear. Her pitch was always accurate.”
Known in the opera world as unpretentious — the anti-diva diva — Sutherland was valued as a hardworking “reliable trouper.”
Mansouri said the only time she argued with him was when she thought he was overestimating her ability.
“I asked her in the second act of ‘Die Fledermaus’ to dance part of the czardas. She said, ‘Are you crazy? Dancing it and singing it at the same time? You must be joking.’ Then she’d go ahead and do it. She was very game.”
Mansouri said she still was protesting at the end of her career when he directed her in a Toronto production of “Hamlet.”
“She said, ‘I’m a grandmother. You don’t want me to do Ophelia.’ Finally I convinced her. She was absolutely wonderful. Her mad scene was something I’ll never forget. It was the last new role she ever learned.”
One of Sutherland’s favorite roles was Violetta in “La Traviata” because “she was for me all woman, whereas many of the characters I interpreted were somewhat artificial.”
She also starred in many roles that other sopranos are unable to sing, such as those in the early 19th-century operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti which she played a major part in reviving.
Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who frequently appeared with Sutherland, said, “There aren’t a lot of singers who do something original, something that really contributes to the history of the world of music, and Joan is one of those people. She not only sang gloriously but she has revived all these fabulous things.”
Sutherland started singing as a small child, crouching under the piano and copying her mother, Muriel Alston Sutherland, “a talented singer with a glorious mezzo-soprano voice,” according to Sutherland’s biographer Norma Major, the wife of former British Prime Minister John Major.
“I was able from the age of three to imitate her scales and exercises,” she wrote in her autobiography. “As she was a mezzo-soprano, I worked very much in the middle area of my voice, learning the scales and arpeggios and even the dreaded trill without thinking about it. The birds could trill, so why not I?
“I even picked up her songs and arias and sang them by ear, later singing duets with her — Manrico to her Azucena. I always had a voice.”
When she began performing in Australia, Sutherland thought she was a mezzo-soprano like her mother, and it took the insight of subsequent coaches to make her realize that she should develop her higher range.
Her early life was marked by tragedy. Her father, a tailor named McDonald Sutherland, died of a heart attack on her sixth birthday, leaving the family with financial problems in the depths of the Depression. Sutherland left school at 16 to become a secretary. But she continued studying singing under her mother until she won a scholarship to study for two years under John and Aida Dickens.
When she was 20 she made her concert debut as Dido in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”
She moved to London in 1951 and continued her studies until — after her third audition — she was finally accepted for Covent Garden, where her debut role was as the First Lady in “The Magic Flute.”
Sutherland continued to develop at Covent Garden, which was training her as a dramatic Wagnerian soprano. But with Bonynge’s encouragement she began to strengthen her higher range.
In 1959 she starred in the difficult title role of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” in a Covent Garden revival.
She was a favorite in Italy from her 1960 debut in Zeffirelli’s production of Handel’s “Alcina” in Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, topped off with an encore of her signature “Let the Bright Seraphim” from Handel’s “Sampson.”
Sutherland graced the La Scala stage during her prime, singing five roles from 1961-1966. They included Giuseppe Verdi’s “Attilla” and the role of Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni” in 1966.
Her much-awaited U.S. debut came in the same production Nov. 16, 1960, in Dallas. Four days later — still with the Dallas Opera — she followed with Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Both performances were praised in the local press and in New York, where she made her debut with the American Opera Society in a February 1961 Town Hall concert of Bellini’s “Beatrice di Tenda.”
On the morning of the concert she learned that her mother had died the day before. “There seemed no way I could just walk out on the concert,” she said, adding that her family persuaded her “that Mother would have wanted me to stay and fulfill my obligation.”
She said she somehow was able to get through the performance, in part because she thought of it as a tribute to her mother.
The reviewers loved her, as they did after her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in “Lucia,” the following November. And the audience cheered wildly.
“I had experienced a few good audience reactions, but this one beat them all. It was like the fans of a favored team at a football match and somewhat frightening. It was also quite something to live up to.”
Outstanding performances in her career included the title role in Bellini’s “Norma,” Cleopatra in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” and the three sopranos in Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman.”
Queen Elizabeth made Sutherland a dame of the British Empire in 1978.
When she was among the six recipients of the 2004 Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., baritone Sherrill Milnes called her “an avalanche of sound. She’s become the standard by which all others are measured.”
The family statement said Sutherland is survived by Bonynge, their son, Adam, daughter-in-law Helen, and two grandchildren.
Close friends say Sutherland, who broke both legs during a fall at her home in 2008, had been unwell recently but didn’t share the details.
“I spoke with her not a month ago. She said she wasn’t well, but we joked and laughed as usual as when we sang together,” said Mirella Freni, an Italian soprano who sang with Sutherland at the Milanese opera house La Scala in the early 1960s. “I lost a great friend.”
According to the statement Sutherland requested a very small and private funeral.