Farewell to the 'greatest voice of the century'

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Dame Joan Sutherland has died aged 83

Dame Joan Sutherland, one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th- century, has died in Switzerland at the age of 83.

She was known as "La Stupenda", the nickname given to her by the Italian opera critics. To Luciano Pavarotti, who co-starred with her many times, she was "the greatest voice of the century".

But for a soprano who reached the heights of superstardom, and who became a star overnight in 1959, Dame Joan was remarkably untemperamental. She was a prima donna in the literal operatic sense, but a tantrum-throwing diva she was not. She was famous for her joie de vivre and sense of humour: all the more admirable, given that her early years of training were marked by ill-health and hard work.

Joan Sutherland was born in November 1926 in Sydney, Australia. Her father died when she was six, which left the family almost destitute, and her mother, Muriel was forced to take Dame Joan and her older sister to live with their grandparents at Woollahra.

She suffered constant ill-health and thought of herself as overweight and clumsy. Her mother was an amateur singer and music teacher, and encouraged Dame Joan to sing, but thought she should not train formally as an opera singer until the age of 18.

Dame Joan left school and took secretarial and tailoring courses while she studied singing at the Sydney Conservatorium. She made her debut in Sydney as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in 1947 and in the same year met fellow music student Richard Bonynge, a pianist, who would play a significant role in her life.

After winning two singing awards, she went to London and studied at the Royal College of Music. She joined the Royal Opera House in 1952 and within a few weeks she realised every young singer's dream when a soprano from the Hamburg State Opera fell ill. She sang the part of Amelia in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. She made her official debut as the First Lady in Die Zauberflöte the same year.

Dame Joan herself said when she started singing her voice was "big and wild", and she was at first thought to be a mezzo. Her mother was a contralto and Bonynge, who had come to England on a piano scholarship the year before her, recognised that she had – not unnaturally – a tendency to imitate her mother's voice.

The two were married in 1954 and Bonynge set aside his work as a concert pianist to become her manager, coach and accompanist. The couple set up home in Notting Hill with a £14 piano and Bonynge immediately set about helping his wife to develop the flexibility of her voice and its range.

Bonynge persuaded her to give up heavy Wagnerian roles, which require such huge range and power, and devote herself to the bel canto operas – bel canto means literally "beautiful singing" and is characterised by an agile vocal clarity of note and diction. She had difficulty associating herself and her statuesque physique with this repertory, in which frail heroines are a speciality, but finally overcame her inhibitions thanks to Franco Zeffirelli who produced her in the title role in Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor.

As she toured with Lucia around the world – Paris in April 1960 and La Scala and the New York Met in 1961 – her fame grew. She had made her Italian debut in 1960, singing the title role in Handel's Alcina at La Fenice in Venice, where she was hailed "La Stupenda" (the Stunning One) – a tribute which stayed with her for the rest of her career.

She also found time to take the young Luciano Pavarotti under her wing, inviting him to tour Australia in 1965 and appearing alongside him as the Daughter in Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment, a favourite role. The opera is famous for its tenor aria: "Ah, mes amis, pour mon me" which features nine top Cs.

Dame Joan was awarded the CBE in 1961 and in 1978 was made a Dame of the British Empire for her services to the performing arts. The Royal Opera House presented her with its silver medal for long service in 1980.

Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera, said yesterday: "I had the opportunity to work with Joan on two occasions. She actually was 'Stupenda'. A lovely human being who could sing anybody off the stage. We have lost one of the true greats."

Dame Joan will be mourned by fans the world over, but perhaps one of the most moving tributes comes from her biographer, Dame Norma Major, a friend for many years, who said yesterday: "A great light has gone out."

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