Joan Sutherland, the famed coloratura soprano often mentioned in the same breath as her operatic contemporary Maria Callas, died Oct. 10 in Geneva after a long illness. She was 83.
Known as La Stupenda to Italian fans, Kolaturawunder in Germany and the Incomparable to English-speaking buffs, Sutherland was a star of the opera stage from the ’50s through her retirement in 1990.
A specialist in the Italian bel canto repertory, she was featured with all of the greatest international companies, directed by such notables as Franco Zeffirelli and working opposite leading men like tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who toured Australia with Sutherland in 1963 and made his 1965 U.S. debut opposite her.
Born in Australia, Sutherland first studied voice and piano with her mother. She made her concert debut at 20 in 1947 as Dido in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” and made her stage debut in Sydney in 1951.
Sutherland moved to London in 1951; after further studies, she joined the Covent Garden opera company the following year. She would work frequently with conductor Richard Bonynge, whom she married in 1954.
Originally schooled as a Wagnerian soprano, she developed the upper end of her vocal range with Bonynge’s encouragement, and attained acclaim for her peerless high-register work.
She rose to world fame after her 1959 performance in the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” in a Covent Garden production directed by Zeffirelli, who also helmed her 1960 Venice debut in Handel’s “Alcina.” She bowed in the Donizetti role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1960. She took five leading roles at Milan’s La Scala from 1961-66.
Her best-known roles included the titular lead in Bellini’s “Norma” and Cleopatra in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”; she also performed all three soprano parts in Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman.” In a 2002 interview, she said she viewed her performance in Massenet’s “Esclarmonde” as her greatest achievement.
She was feted at the 2004 Kennedy Center Honors and Queen Elizabeth honored her as a dame of the British Empire in 1978.
She is survived by Bonynge, a son and two grandchildren.