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Joan Sutherland: The leading coloratura soprano of the 20th century

Joan Sutherland (born November 7, 1926, Sydney, Australia - died October 10, 2010, Les Avants, Switzerland), was considered the leading coloratura soprano of the 20th century. A coloratura soprano has great flexibility in high-lying velocity passages, yet with great sustaining power comparable to that of a full spinto or dramatic soprano. Roles written specifically for this kind of voice include the more dramatic Mozart and bel canto female roles and early Verdi.

Sutherland possessed a voice combining extraordinary agility, accurate intonation, "supremely" pinpoint staccatos, a trill and a tremendous upper register, although music critics often complained about the imprecision of her diction.

She made her singing debut as Dido in a concert performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in Sydney in 1947 and her operatic debut in the title role of Sir Eugene Goossens’s Judith in 1951. Cash prizes from several vocal competitions made it possible for her to move to London and begin study with Clive Carey at the Royal College of Music. In 1952 she was accepted into the company of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and made her first appearance there as the First Lady in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Her vocal coach, Richard Bonynge was training her as a dramatic Wagnerian soprano, even if he was convinced that her future lay in the florid coloratura repertoire. In 1954 she married Bonynge, and with his help and encouragement she began to develop her higher range. In 1959 Covent Garden revived Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for her, and in 1961 she made her New York City debut in the same role at the Metropolitan Opera. Her performance in this difficult title role won international recognition.

Sutherland afterward sang in Venice, Vienna, Dallas (Texas), Paris, Barcelona (Spain), Genoa (Italy), Milan, San Francisco, Chicago, and her native Sydney. During the 1960s, Sutherland added the heroines of bel canto to her repertoire: Violetta in Verdi's La traviata, Amina in Bellini's La sonnambula and Elvira in Bellini's I puritani in 1960, just to name a few.

Her greatest later successes were as Norma in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera of that name, Cleopatra in George Frideric Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and the three sopranos in Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Sutherland retired from performing in 1990. Her last public appearance, took place in a gala performance of Die Fledermaus on New Year's Eve, 1990, at Covent Garden, where she was accompanied by her colleagues Luciano Pavarotti and the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

Sutherland’s numerous awards included a Kennedy Center Honor (2004). She was the first Australian to win a Grammy Award, for Best Classical Performance – Vocal Soloist (with or without orchestra) in 1962. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1978.

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