Written by David Patrick Stearns. Originally published October 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
Living with the voice of the century can’t be easy, particularly when that voice is your own.
Dame Joan Sutherland couldn’t help regarding her coloratura soprano with a certain amount of detachment. She called it “the voice.” The voice dictated where she would live and work for three or more years in advance, whether at the Metropolitan Opera, where she had a vociferous public; the Royal Opera in London, where she first became a star in 1959; or in her native Australia, where she wound down her career in the late 1980s as one of the country’s foremost national icons.
Joan Suthland (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)
The voice that earned her the name of La Stupenda also dictated what she had to avoid: crowded theaters, congratulatory kisses and air conditioners (all breeding grounds for throat infections). There were places she longed to visit but did not because she was so travel-weary from a career that spanned several continents.
Late in her career, Sutherland told me these were the terms the voice demanded. She looked forward to retiring sooner rather than later, she said with characteristic humor, because otherwise she imagined herself singing the role of the druid priestess in Norma, hobbling about with a walking stick.
Such an ambivalent goodbye can be understood as a simple case of the voice occupying the center of Sutherland’s life and then leaving an inner void that gaped perhaps even wider than the one her retirement left in the opera world. When her career ended, certain works of the repertoire had to be put away until another singer with her singular strengths emerged. Yet Sutherland wasn’t so simple. Her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, is credited with nurturing, maintaining, managing and preserving the voice in a partnership that may be unique in the history of opera. Singers marry conductors, but never are their careers almost exclusively devoted to each other. Both Sutherland and Bonynge had the occasional outside project, but theirs was a joint career in the most complete sense. The voice of the century required not just a singer to house it, but also a powerful, knowledgeable support staff as well.
Voices hijack lives, often unexpectedly. An amateur chorister shows promise, finds the right voice teacher and in a few years is fielding offers from opera companies around the world. Born in Australia to a family of singers, Sutherland was one such vocalist, showing enough promise to win a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Music. Bonynge, also Australian, was there as a pianist. At first, nothing pointed towards her divadom, not her hearty humor, easygoing temperament or her willingness to abandon her aspiration to be a Wagnerian soprano when a voice teacher decided she was actually an alto. A steady, unglamorous career in oratorios and secondary operatic roles lay ahead.
But the true Sutherland voice, it was ultimately discovered, belonged in the stratosphere. She had the singular combination of range, intricacy, speed and agility one expects of a small voice, but with the amplitude of a big. This ability was her entrée into a repertoire often dormant for want of singers to handle it: the early 19th century bel canto operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, star vehicles for the greatest vocal athletes. No singer, at least in the 20th century, has had everything these roles required. Sutherland briefly intersected with Maria Callas in a 1952 production of Norma (Callas was Norma, Sutherland sang the minor role of Clotilde), of which a live recording survives – with a telling contrast. Callas was a literate singer: Every phrase grew out of the words. She insisted on theatrical realism and went on to diet strenuously, perhaps taxing a voice that was showing some cracks. Sutherland was more concerned that her graceful vocal line had no fat – often at the expense of her enunciation. (It was said she sang in her own Esperanto.) Callas claimed she couldn’t portray the great operatic goddesses without a strong (not double) chin. Sutherland had a commanding jaw line and winning smile, but from the neck down, Dame Joan might as well have been Dame Edna.
Yet with intensive rehearsals and the right director, Sutherland could convince you she was everything an operagoer might ever want. Her 1959 breakthrough in Lucia di Lammermoor was honed under the direction of the seasoned theater, opera and film director Franco Zeffirelli. And though comic operas were lost to Callas (she had no sense of humor), Sutherland had considerable comic gifts, making Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment one of her great successes. Callas inhabited roles. Sutherland wore them like a costume, since her voice, with all its luster and majesty, created the character, or it was so gorgeous to hear that you didn’t care. In her early years, she turned up in a wide range of roles – Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Jennifer in Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage – but then Bonynge brought her to the bel canto repertoire – and just when Callas was vacating.
Though Sutherland seemed to be able to sing anything, she chose not to. Under Bonynge’s guidance, she limited her repertoire to the small-orchestra operas written before 1850, encompassing Handel, Mozart and mid-period Verdi. Many singers are led astray by conductors who are eager to assemble a dream cast but don’t have to live with the vocal damage singing the wrong role can inflict. In Sutherland’s case, her natural enemy (the conductor) was her husband, her greatest protector.
Because they worked together, her domestic life didn’t have to suffer months-long separations, and Bonynge kept her repertoire from lapsing into redundancy. In a used book store, he literally discovered Massenet’s long-forgotten Esclarmonde, which became Sutherland’s mid-career signature role, one she sang into her late 50s. In a sign of the couple’s combined clout, the opera had a multi-pronged roll-out: A high-profile world premiere recording of Esclarmonde was soon followed by full stagings at the Metropolitan and San Francisco operas. Critics didn’t fall in love with the piece. Fans didn’t pine for it after Sutherland no longer sang it. Other singers didn’t scramble for it. But Esclarmonde and even less-substantial curios that followed offered new reasons to hear La Stupenda.
Some dismissed Bonynge as a mere café conductor and say Sutherland did her best work without him. Indeed, her greatest phonographic classic was her 1972 recording of Puccini’s Turandot with conductor Zubin Mehta, in which she gave far more attention to the words in the role of the nasty Chinese princess than at any time. Yet without Bonynge, she might not have survived, vocally and emotionally, long enough to record that role.
In the years since her retirement, opera has acquired new obsessions with theatrical realism. Madame Butterfly is now sung by Asians. Stage sets have a visual sophistication that don’t require a magnetic vocal presence. Singers with great voices are denied great roles, based on the heft of their thighs. Would a young Sutherland be lost in such a shuffle? It could happen. Since great operatic voices are conferred upon people with more quirks than charisma, the successful singers don’t follow fashions, they rewrite the rules by creating their own operatic illusion. Sutherland and Bonynge proved that. A 21st-century Sutherland might be a few pounds thinner. But singers are cheered and booed not on the basis of looks – but sound. If that ever changes, opera will no longer be opera.