Joan Sutherland, 1926 – 2010

With all due respect for her as a human being and as a singer who, in one way or another, contributed to the so-called “bel canto revival,” the late Dame Joan Sutherland has never been an artist dear to my heart—this despite the fact that she was a knitter.

I own only two recordings by Joan Sutherland: The Decca Turandot conducted by Zubin Mehta, and the EMI Don Giovanni led by Carlo Maria Giulini. That neither is conducted by Sutherland’s husband, Sir Richard Bonynge, is not a coincidence.

Sutherland’s studio-only Turandot is a staggering achievement. No one—not Nilsson, not Turner, certainly not Callas—sings this music with greater ease. In fact, no one else sings Turandot with ease, period. Sutherland, instead, seems to possess limitless reserves of power. The pearly brightness of her sound is that of the moon, with which Turandot is so strongly identified, and it gives her principessa an otherworldly mystique. Her capitulation to Calaf, too, is beautifully and movingly sung.

(Oh, Alfano! And poor Puccini! But I digress.)

In his recollection (more precisely, character assassination) of Maria Callas, the EMI producer Walter Legge recalled:
[S]he flew into London for the dress rehearsal of Sutherland’s Lucia, insisted we sit with her, had herself photographed with the new prima donna, and then took us off to lunch. Seated, she stated: “She will have a great success tomorrow and make a big career if she can keep it up. But only we know how much greater I am.”
I think that Callas was correct.

As a young singer, Joan Sutherland undertook small rôles in operas starring Maria Callas: Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the sacerdotessa to Callas’s Aida. When Joan Sutherland sang alongside Maria Callas as part of the 1958 centenary gala of Covent Garden, it was as an emerging star. She was only three years younger than Maria Callas.


  1. Dear Marion, as we could have loved Pasta and Grisi we can love Callas and Sutherland. Long ago when I first heard Joan's voice I thought "waou, what a voice !", then for some years I found her rather boring. I began to like her again on listening to her early recordings (around 1959) when the voice was clear. Now I appreciate how that voice can sometimes convey a great melancholy, if not great drama (not speaking of her virtuosity, of course) Finally I realize she accompanied me for the whole part of my life as an opera fan, and I feel sad these days.

  2. Dear Robin: You are right that generosity is best! Still, I cannot abide the late Dame Joan's poor enunciation and flaccid rhythms. So many great ones have left us recently (Pavarotti, Simionato, Taddei...). Surely the heavenly choirs are sounding better than ever.

  3. Dear Marion,

    We corresponded a few years back when I sent you a fan e-mail from work about your wonderful Re-visioning Callas. I'm so glad to have found this site with all your wonderful writing! I recently purchased an album called The Art of Joan Sutherland. It's a remarkable documentation of her voice from all periods of her long career! I can't believe it but had never heard her French album and I must say I was really impressed with that section. Truly Sutherland at her best! I like you grew discontented with her in later years, but towards the end I saw her live in Washington, for the first time after years of listening to her and I must say I was awestruck! I was not prepared for the size of the voice! It seemed to be everywhere in the hall! It was then I realized after neglecting her in her late career that it was something remarkable! Like Callas we wil never see her like again!

    So glad to have found you again and can't wait to get down to reading!