Born November 7, 1926, in Sydney, Australia; daughter of William (a tailor) and Muriel (a singer; maiden name, Alston) Sutherland; married Richard Bonynge (a pianist and conductor) 1954; children: Adam. Education: Attended Royal College of Music in London. Addresses: c/o Ingpen and Williams, 14 Kensington Court, London W8, England.

At her Italian debut in 1960, the audience dubbed her "La Stupenda," and throughout her 40-year career, few who heard Australian-born coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland sing would disagree with that assessment. With her husband, pianist/conductor Richard Bonynge, Sutherland expanded the common operatic repertoire, adding works that had not been heard for decades. She lent her artistry to some of the finest performances of opera in this century, and music critics agree that her gifts to the world of music are undeniable.

As a young child, Sutherland loved nothing better than to sit under the piano as her mother, a highly accomplished singer, practiced her craft. She also received more formal training from her mother, who very early instilled a proper understanding of the importance of breath support and vocal exercises. After graduating from high school, Sutherland went to work as a secretary by day and studied music by night.

When she was 18, Sutherland won a competition for a two-year scholarship to study voice with a locally renowned singer named John Dickens. In 1946, after her first two years with her new voice teacher, she made her public debut in German composer Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio at the Sydney Town Hall. Dickens extended her scholarship, and she began to think that her dream of singing at Covent Garden, the world-famous opera house in London, might be possible after all.

Sutherland soon joined the Affiliated Music Clubs of New South Wales, where she met a young pianist named Richard Bonynge. The pair began performing locally together, and she regularly entered--and won--many vocal competitions in her native country. Sutherland came in first in the "Mobile Quest" competition sponsored by Vacuum Oil, an Australian company, in 1950. In addition to the prize money, she received a year-long singing contract for peformances all over the country. With her prize money and saved earnings, she left for England the following year.

During her first year in England, Sutherland studied at the opera school of London's Royal College of Music. She met up with Bonynge again, who was also studying there. They began working together, and Bonynge proved to be an invaluable vocal coach. By 1952, she realized her dream and started singing at Covent Garden. For the first few years, she sang relatively small parts, taking virtually anything offered her; then, gradually, she began singing larger, more important roles. Meanwhile, she kept working with Bonynge, whom she married in 1954, and continued to expand her vocal range.

Sutherland's mother, a mezzo-soprano, had worked with Joan to develop her middle register. Dickens thought she might be a dramatic soprano, with a voice for the large, heavy roles of late nineteenth-century music. But Bonynge, an expert on the delicate "bel canto" repertoire of the early nineteenth century, realized that Sutherland's voice was lighter and more flexible than anyone had thought.

As her vocal coach, he encouraged her to sing in her highest register, and with his help, she became a coloratura soprano, a rarity at the time. After she received rave reviews for her first coloratura role in the Handel Opera Society's 1957 production of Alcina, Covent Garden's directors agreed to revive the gem of the bel canto repertoire, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, just for her.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the bel canto repertoire--eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Italian operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, which stressed vocal precision and agility--received little performance; they were simply out of fashion. World-famous coloratura Maria Callas began reviving these works in the 1950s. Although they were still not the most popular operas, when Sutherland was ready to sing bel canto, the audience was ready to listen. As Norma Major wrote in her biography Joan Sutherland, the singer "opened up the whole field of bel canto, demonstrating a style of singing thought to have vanished beyond recall."

Sutherland's Covent Garden premiere as Lucia in 1959 was a smashing success. The following year she carried this success to international operatic circles, debuting in various roles in Italy, France, and the United States. Having achieved worldwide fame by 1960, the following year she was given the opportunity to sing with two of the most important opera companies in the world: La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For the next three decades, Sutherland traveled all over the world, performing in the best and most famous opera houses as one of the most renowned and sought-after sopranos.

Sutherland's success was the product of hard work and common sense. She attributes her longevity as a singer to a sound technique resulting from a long and disciplined training. Always conscious of her health, she kept "social excesses at bay," wrote Major in Joan Sutherland. Sutherland carefully paced herself, accepted only those roles that were suited to her, conseved her voice before each performance, and tried not to exhaust herself with too many performances too close together.

Throughout her career, Sutherland was sometimes faulted by music critics for unconvincing acting and poor enunciation. Few, however, would deny her overall contributions to the world of music. As Rupert Christiansen wrote in Opera, "Sutherland's combination of precision in scales, runs and trills with control over dynamics and tone is, on the recorded evidence, unsurpassed." Her professionalism and hard work are legendary and have provided many budding singers with a realistic role model. As a singer, she was able to make more concrete contributions to the ephemeral world of music performance than many contemporary composers. She has enriched the lives of millions of music lovers and has left a large legacy of recordings for future generations.

In 1983 Sutherland told Christiansen, "I think I'll be stopping soon. I'm getting a bit doddery. I can still get those top E-flats, but they give me a terrible headache. The traveling exhausts me. I want to spend more time at home gardening." Seven years after making that statement, Sutherland finally did retire. Her last role was in the 1990 production of Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots in Sydney.

Elizabeth Silsbury described Sutherland's final curtain call in Opera: "The last act over ... the curtain fell and formal bows were taken by [the six principal singers]. Then the full stage was shown, the whole company, minus one.... Then the curtain [fell] again and the whole house went dark and silent. Slowly the velvets parted, very slowly the lights came up, and there was the Great Dame, alone, center stage.... The house went berserk and exploded to attention, shouting wildly, pelting the Diva with daffodils and streamers until she was ankle deep in them. The whole company of the Australian Opera--artists, mechs and techs, wigs and wardrobes, management and make-up--joined her while we yelled and wept and beat our hands together."

In her introduction to Major's biography, Sutherland wrote: "I was the fortunate choice for this wonderful life--I have loved it and it has brought me rich rewards in every sense.... I am quite incredulous and profoundly grateful that I was able to accomplish such an amount of work."

by Robin Armstrong

Joan Sutherland's Career

Stage debut in Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Sydney Town Hall, 1946; operatic debut as Judith in Eugene Goossens's Judith, 1951; London debut as First Lady in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Die Zauberflote ("The Magic Flute"), Covent Garden, 1952; became international star as Lucia in Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, 1959; Italian debut in George Frideric Handel's Alcina, 1960; French debut in Lucia di Lammermoor, 1960; American debut in Alcina, 1960. Appeared in numerous other operas by Mozart, Handel, Donizetti, Bellini, Gioacchino Rossini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jules Massenet, Franz Lehar, Richard Strauss, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, and Jacques Offenbach. Retired in 1990.

Joan Sutherland's Awards

Australia's Quest Award, 1951; named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1979; Grammy Award for best classical vocal soloist, 1981; named a fellow of the Royal College of Music, 1981; Order of Merit, England, 1991, and Sydney, Australia, 1992.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 14 years ago

I ithink that Joan Sutherland is so wierd. i mean, even i could sing better than her! I was out on a boat and I played it on my radio for the first time and dead fish rose to the surface of the water, so i hate it! It also made my mum go deaf and my cat died to! anyone could sing better that her. She thinks she is so cool but really, she sucks!!!

over 15 years ago

Joan Sutherland was someone I could listen to FOREVER...when I was in college in the mid to late 60s, I could literally be transported to hear only that voice, that left me breathless and limp. I could never achieve the range, but I did learn the art of singing the trill and moving up and down those scales from listening to her. She was a once-in-a-lifetime blessing to all who were privileged to hear her sing. My hat is off to her husband and teacher, Richard B.

almost 16 years ago

Thank you for your work condensing this important subject. Yet still I do not see the detail needed. With all the erroneous techniques abroad, it is vital to understand the method of physical support used my JS and which Pavoritti found to be so useful. Clearly the important body tension needed to sustain the energy had to be isolated from the upper vocal mechanism. The question for which I cannot find an answer; Does JS pull her lower abdominals inward while maintaining the noble stance? The answer would seem to be a clear YES, and although it would be helpful to say so, no-one ever does. Ta.

almost 16 years ago

i think that joan sutherland is really good. i wish that this website had a more brief explanation about her, with more simpler words.i mean please. i am like SO tired of seeing websites with like 5 million weird words.