Joan Sutherland, a large-boned, helmet-haired, high-singing Australian soprano with a perfect trill, died at age 83 in Switzerland, her refuge after decades of singing unhinged maidens, enraged priestesses, and happy-go-lucky waifs.
Her passing -- confirmed by her record company, Decca -- empties the world of one of the last divas of an era dominated by grand personalities.
I recall an early afternoon in 1985 when I visited her in Chicago where she was singing “Anna Bolena,” a melodious opera by Donizetti, a favorite composer, who also wrote “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Mad Lucy made Sutherland a world star at Covent Garden in 1959.
The door opened on a mansion borrowed for the run and large enough to accommodate the Tudor court and Henry VIII who spends most of the opera trying to cut off Anne’s head. A retainer led me to the living room where I awaited the diva who entered dressed in a burgundy drape with a little bow underneath her huge chin.
Trailing behind was the slim, handsome Richard Bonynge, her husband and preferred conductor, who was more finely made and would have fit into her pouch had she morphed into a kangaroo.
Though never fat, Sutherland was an imposing presence who invariably towered over the company on stage.
“It’s not that I am so tall,” she guffawed cheerfully, as she took her place on a puffy sofa. “It is that tenors are so small.”
She had a good laugh remembering the hard-to-see Dino Formichini, whose very name means little ant.
Sutherland and Bonynge, who also hailed from Australia, met in London where she studied and made early appearances at Covent Garden as a Valkyrie.
“I expected to sing Wagner and Verdi,” she said that day in Chicago, kicking Bonynge at the absurdity. He ventured that he beat her with his baton (I think that was a joke of his) until she learned coloratura showpieces of the early 19th century, the bel canto era.
Theirs became a collaboration that made history as Sutherland stunned audiences with the billowing size of her voice, its surprising flexibility and phenomenal high range. Italians called her “La Stupenda.” Especially in the 1950s, the bel canto repertoire was sung by warbling little women.
An exception was the great divinity, Maria Callas, whose cloak Sutherland was allowed to touch when she sang the lowly Clotilde to the diva’s Norma at Covent Garden in 1952. Sutherland remembered almost falling over at the Greek-American soprano’s searing voice. She deeply regretted, Sutherland said, that she had not called on her -- they had planned to have tea - - after Callas retired early in the 1970s from an exhausting life on and off the stage and became something of a recluse.
Unlike Callas in her heyday, Sutherland was not much for high society, and credited her vocal longevity to a disciplined life and low-impact sports like needlepoint. A glowing biography by Quaintance Eaton of Sutherland and Bonynge, published in 1987, included photographs of skillfully embroidered chairs in their Swiss castle-chalet. She liked to while away intermissions improving her art.
Sutherland had hoped to bring “Anna Bolena” to the Metropolitan Opera. It was not to be. The company’s humorless management team was largely immune to the charm of the bel canto operas and also to her husband, who was part of the package.
He endured with good grace the barbed reviews that all too often came his way, though he was actually a reliably fleet and informed conductor. It was Bonynge who presided over a production of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” production at the Met that brings a smile to the face of everyone who was there in 1972 when she romped through the show with a young Luciano Pavarotti by her side as the bumpkin Tonio. He sang lots of unforgettable high Cs while she played with Marie’s little drum and danced a jig.
Pavarotti, who was tall and then almost thin, became a favorite partner until her last production at the Met in 1987, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” a monumental, stilted staging that kept her center stage, spotlit and handsomely garbed in period costumes.
Today the focus in the land of opera is on directors, designers and skinny singers with sneaker collections. Though the young Sutherland was happy to work with a genius director like Franco Zeffirelli, who guided her through “Lucia,” she detested weird productions that retold the story.
“Eeek,” she said, remembering a modern staging in which she had to sing Norma’s sublime opening aria to a naked body served up as a sacrifice on the altar.
For glimpses of Sutherland, go to YouTube. Her many recommended recordings include “Norma,” “La Fille du Regiment,” “La Traviata,” “Lucia di Lammermoor” and several aria albums.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)