‘Greatest colouratura’ Sutherland passes away

JOAN SUTHERLAND, one of the 20th Century’s greatest opera singers, has died aged 83.

The Australian-born soprano, who retired 20 years ago, died at her home in Switzerland yesterday, her family said.

She was acclaimed across the world for the wide range of roles she took on during a career that spanned four decades.

She is survived by her husband Richard Bonynge and son Adam.

Called La Stupenda by her Italian fans, Sutherland was particularly praised for her singing of operas by Handel and 19th-century Italian composers.

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who joined Marilyn Horne in Sutherland’s farewell gala recital at Covent Garden on December 31, 1990, called her “the greatest colouratura soprano of all time”.

The term, derived from “colour”, refers to a soprano with a high range and the vocal agility to sing brilliant trills and rapid passages.

Sutherland’s purity of tone and brilliant vocal display made her pre-eminent in the revival of Italian bel canto operas, taking on the mantle of Maria Callas.

She 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, 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 realise that she should develop her higher range.

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox