GENEVA – Soprano Joan Sutherland, whose purity of tone and brilliant vocal display made her one of the most celebrated opera singers of all time, has died at 83 after a four-decade career that won her praise as the successor to legend Maria Callas.
Her family said she died Sunday, October 10, 2010 at her home near Geneva after a long illness.
Called “La Stupenda” by her Italian fans, Sutherland was acclaimed from her native Australia to North America and Europe for her wide range of roles. But she was particularly praised for her singing of operas by Handel and 19th-century Italian composers.
Tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who joined with Marilyn Horne in Sutherland’s farewell gala recital at Covent Garden on Dec. 31, 1990, called her “the greatest coloratura soprano of all time.”
The term, derived from “color,” refers to a soprano with a high range and the vocal agility to sing brilliant trills and rapid passages.
Sutherland’s skills made her pre-eminent in the revival of Italian “bel canto” operas, and she was seen by many as having taken on the mantle of Callas.
Sutherland 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 3 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 realize that she should develop her higher range.
The family statement said Sutherland is survived by her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, their son, Adam, daughter-in-law Helen, and two grandchildren.
According to the statement Sutherland, who broke both legs during a fall at her home in 2008, requested a very small and private funeral.
Former Associated Press Writer Alexander G. Higgins contributed to this report