Dame Joan Sutherland OM AC DBE
Dame Joan Sutherland 1926 - 2010
Dramatic coloratura soprano
Joan Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE was an Australian-born operatic soprano whose voice combined power and beauty in a rare union, for which she was known as ‘La Stupenda.’ Her career was exceptional for its longevity and its reception by fellow artists, musical experts, critics and the opera-loving public internationally.
Image: Portrait of Dame Joan Sutherland, taken in New York 1975 by Alan Warren [wikimedia commons].
Unveiling the plaque for Dame Joan Sutherland on 17 November, 2021 at 115 Queen Street, Woollahra. L-R Adam Bonynge, Richard Bonynge, Cr. Anthony Marano, Cr. Susan Wynne, Mayor of Woollahra
A plaque commemorating the life and career of Dame Joan Sutherland was unveiled on 17 November 2021 on the footpath outside Clyde Cottage, 115 Queen Street, Woollahra, where she lived from 1932 to 1951.
Joan Sutherland, dramatic coloratura soprano
7 November 1926 - 10 October 2010
Dame Joan Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE was an Australian-born operatic soprano whose voice combined power and beauty in a rare union, for which she was known as ‘La Stupenda.’ Her career was exceptional for its longevity and its reception by fellow artists, musical experts, critics and the opera-loving public internationally.
Birth and family background
Joan Alston Sutherland was born on 7 November 1926 at Patonga, the Point Piper residence of her family.1 Her father, William McDonald Sutherland was a successful merchant tailor, with a business in Bligh Street, Sydney.2 Joan’s mother, Muriel Beatrice Sutherland, née Alston, was William’s second wife, and the four children of his first marriage made up the already established Patonga household which Muriel joined in 1921. William and Muriel’s first daughter Barbara was born in 1923, and their second daughter Joan completed the Patonga family, three years later.
Barbara and Joan had three half-sisters – Heather (b.1903), Ailsa (b.1905) and Nancy (b.1910) and a half-brother James (b.1917). William’s first wife, Clara Ethel MacDonald, had been a cousin, whom he married in the New South Wales district of Crookwell in 1901.3 In 1919, Clara Sutherland had died at the family home4 – a victim of the influenza pandemic carried around the globe by the great movement of people as the 1914-1918 conflict drew to a close.
William and Muriel Alston married at St Stephen’s Phillip Street on 28 April 1921.5 Muriel’s family were long-established residents of the suburb of Woollahra, where she had been born in 1887.6 She was the youngest of the four children of Alexander McCausland Alston and his wife Mary Jane – one of whom, Minnie, did not survive infancy. Muriel’s two other siblings - her brother Thomas and her sister Annie Ethel Alston,7 would come to play a large part in the childhood of their niece Joan, especially from her seventh year, when she became part of their household. The setting for her first six years was Patonga, and the lively, youthful household of the extended Sutherland clan.
The Sutherland house at Point Piper
William Sutherland had purchased Patonga in the year following his first marriage, settling with Clara in the small suburb of Point Piper to raise their family.8 The Sutherland family’s house stood on a narrow block which extended from a Wolseley Road frontage (eventually numbered as 12) to the high water mark of Double Bay, on the Point Piper waterfront. In Dame Joan’s childhood, the terraced land between house and water was thickly planted with brilliantly-coloured flowering plants – her father’s pride, and the result of his personal attention.
Patonga had been built in the late 1880s for Ernest Sydney Wallis, a wool broker of McBurney Wallis & Co., and later was home to Hugh Jamison, from whom William Sutherland purchased. The house has been described as a ‘modest home’,9 but Patonga was nevertheless sufficiently spacious for a 1932 sale advertisement, published as the Sutherland family’s tenure ended, to suggest its suitability for conversion into two flats. The same source described it as a ‘comfortable and well-built’ two-storey brick house with verandahs and balconies and a slate roof, consisting of a hall and 7 main rooms, as well as the standard utilities rooms.10
The Wolseley Road property had many attractions to delight children. Ernest Wallis, when Patonga had been his, had secured a lease for ‘Special purposes’ attached to the property’s waterfront,11 and the house was equipped with a jetty, boat-shed and a bathing house. Joan Sutherland recalled in conversations with her 1962 biographer, Russell Braddon, that there were 111 stone steps which led from the house to the foreshore, and 111, of course, to be climbed on return.12 Sixty-five years after she left Patonga, Sutherland would write of this landscape,
I can only conjure up disjointed flashes of those early days… I see the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour and those unreal blue skies – I never see clouds and rain.
Sutherland, Joan Alston, Prima Donna's progress Milsons Point., Random House, 1997 p.3.
While this memory is a tribute to the natural beauty of the landscape which surrounded Joan in her first years, her failure to register Sydney’s inevitable bleak moments reflects her personal disposition – remembered by friends and colleagues as abidingly sunny. It was a mood that was infectious wherever she went, fellow soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa remarking of her friend and colleague, ‘As a person, she brought pleasure just by being in the room.’13
Family life at Patonga 1926-1932
The Sutherland household at Patonga was effectively made up of three generations: Muriel and William, who were aged 39 and 55 respectively at Joan’s birth; Joan’s peers – her sister Barbara and youngest half-sibling James, who was only nine years her senior and in between, her three half-sisters, the eldest of whom, Heather, completed her university studies in architecture in the year of Joan’s birth.14 Despite this age-gap, or perhaps because of it, Heather and Joan were especially close during her early years. Joan recalled in her autobiography, Heather’s forbearing as Joan leant over her, ‘watching her work [on drawings] on her huge board set up in the breakfast room.’ Brother James, ‘patient and kindly,’ was ‘adored’ by Barbara and Joan.15
The social pages in the daily newspapers indicate that Joan’s mother and older sisters lived busy lives within the Sydney social sphere, and the flurry of obituaries generated by her father’s death in 1932 attest to William Sutherland’s many connections and interests – his long association with the Highland Society, his membership of The Lodge of Australia (No 3 U.G.L.), his service as an elder at St Stephen’s Church Philip Street and his seat on the Board of the Scottish Hospital – taken up at the direct nomination of founder Sir Alexander MacCormick.16
As well as social activity, the house was filled with music. The tone deaf William Sutherland was an anomaly in his household; his first wife had been a talented pianist, whose eldest daughter followed in her mother’s footsteps, and Muriel Sutherland was a gifted mezzo soprano who had been encouraged in her youth to consider a professional career. Temperamentally disinclined to further her talents in that way, Muriel nevertheless submitted herself to the discipline of daily singing exercises. While Joan Sutherland’s formal training began in her early adulthood, her first ‘lessons’ in the art were taken literally at her mother’s feet, spellbound at the piano at Patonga, as Muriel practiced. With time, Joan was not only Muriel’s audience, but her active mimic in the vocalises and eventually, Muriel’s partner in spontaneous duets.
Muriel Sutherland had received her training from Wilfred Burns-Walker, a Sydney-based teacher and former pupil of the famous Mathilde Marchese, who had been Melba’s teacher - and so an indirect link was established between the young Joan Sutherland and Dame Nellie Melba, the Australian lyric soprano whose international career inspired many young Australian musicians, including the young Joan Sutherland. Among her early memories from the Point Piper days was Melba’s death,17 when a neighbour, Dame Mary Barlow, having heard the news on the wireless, called to her in the garden, ‘Joan! Joan! Go and tell your mother that our wonderful songbird is dead!’18
Despite her natural diffidence regarding public performance, Muriel was happy to contribute musically to social occasions – a small article in the Sydney press noting that in 1929, when Ailsa Sutherland gave a shower tea at Patonga in honour of Miss Dorothy Lyne (daughter of the late NSW Premier and Federal politician Sir William Lyne) she was assisted in entertaining the 30 guests by her sisters Heather and Nancy, while ‘Mrs McDonald Sutherland gave a musical item.’19
The death of Joan’s father and the loss of a family home
The comfortable and seemingly secure way of life for the Patonga family came to an abrupt end on 7 November 1932, with the sudden death of William Sutherland – all the more poignant for Joan in having occurred on her sixth birthday. Having given his youngest daughter a new bathing costume as a birthday present, William accompanied Joan to the family bathing enclosure to swim, and after returning to the house via the 111 stone steps, collapsed and died. ‘Although I was so young, I remember the heartbreak still,’ Joan would write in her biography, published over six decades later.20
While still within the immediacy of this shock and personal loss, the family discovered that William had died intestate, and that the property which was their home, long mortgaged, had been put up against additional debt accumulated by William’s business as the Great Depression deepened. Characteristically, William Sutherland had refused to press payment from the many professional men of the city who owed him for his services, sympathising with their financial circumstances to the detriment of his own, and all the while continuing to attend to their tailoring needs. Equally characteristically, he had not wished to burden his family with his troubles.
Within a month of William’s death, Patonga was on the market, advertised for sale, ‘on account of the administrators of the estate of Mr William McDonald Sutherland.’21 Joan’s adult siblings now made their own living arrangements, and Muriel Sutherland moved Barbara and Joan to her old family home in Queen Street Woollahra.
Clyde Cottage - 115 Queen Street Woollahra
The house where Muriel settled her daughters in 1932 was by no means unfamiliar to Barbara and Joan. Regular visits to their maternal grandparents, whose former house would now become their home, had always been part of the family routine prior to William Sutherland’s death. While their grandmother had died in 1927, in Joan’s infancy,22 she had clear memories of her grandfather Alexander, and his strong views on an expansive range of topics, including the need for a rail link to the eastern suburbs,23 a project delivered just short of fifty years after his death.
Joan Sutherland also retained clear recollections, expressed in her memoirs, of the travel involved in a trip to Woollahra to visit grandfather Alston.
We would catch the bus or tram from the bottom of Wolseley Road to Edgecliff and walk up Ocean Street to my grandfather’s house on Queen Street – quite a stiff climb. The best thing about it was that the return trip was downhill. If we were really lucky it might rain, in which case we would take a horse cab one way at least – hopefully up the hill.
Sutherland, Joan Alston Prima Donna's progress Milsons Point., Random House, 1997 p.5.
Alexander Alston had died in December 1930,24 two years before William MacDonald’s death, but the house he had provided for his family in the 1880s was preserved in his estate, becoming a refuge for his grandchildren in the face of their sudden misfortune.
115 Queen Street Woollahra [a watercolour by John van Vliet]. Image from "Queen Street and District: A History and Guide" 1987, p. 18.
Joan’s new home stood on the south side of Queen Street, in the heart of the Woollahra village, three properties east of the Moncur Street intersection. The land area was generously-sized in proportion to the building’s footprint, allowing for what Joan Sutherland has described as
…a large, somewhat wild, garden at the back of the property with very well cared for lawns and garden plots close to the house.
Letter to the President of the QS&WWA Village Voice No 69 January-June 1999 p. 11
To the immediate west stood St Kevin’s, a house later made famous by the ownership of firstly Sydney journalist Leo Schofield, and then Prime Minister Paul Keating – but which Muriel Alston would have known from her own childhood as the home of Dr Patrick Collins, built for him by architect John Bede Barlow in the early 1890s.25
The Alston’s house was less grand, but its origins considerably earlier – by Joan Sutherland’s own account: a mid-19thcentury cottage on a long-term leasehold taken up by her grandfather, who used his skills as a master builder to add the second storey to the house, and to make extensions to the rear to accommodate his family.26
These details are borne out in documentation contemporary to the events. The original cottage, stone-built with a slate roof and consisting of seven rooms, was built between 1856 and 1858, home to Robert and Isabella Orr, and named by them Clyde Cottage - the name preserved by the Alston family throughout their tenure. Following Robert Orr’s death in 1868, his widow lived at Clyde until her own death in 1884, her personal residency having extended for over twenty-five years.27
The death of Isabella Orr in October 1884 led to the sale of the residue of the lease,28 still with some 71 years to run, transferred to Paddington-based Alexander Alston.29 The new lessee initially let the house, settling his family at Clyde before Muriel’s birth in February 1887,30 and having completed the building work referred to by his granddaughter. Alston more than doubled the capacity of the dwelling, with a second storey and a wing at the rear – recorded in the drawing of the building’s ‘footprint’ as it appears on an 1887 plan from the Metropolitan Detail Series.31
Alston’s work appears to have respected the classic Georgian style of the Victorian-period original. When, in 1978, the National Trust collated a listing proposal for the property – the first of many twentieth-century attempts to preserve the house – the submission noted the proportions of the structure and the fine detailing, still intact: the elliptical fanlight, elaborately moulded timber doorcase, six-panel door, 12-panel windows and louvred shutters. The proposal concluded that Clyde Cottage was a ‘fine Georgian house of a type now rare in this area, which contributes much to the streetscape of Queen Street.’32
Clyde Cottage remained in Alston family hands until after Joan and Muriel had set off in 1951 on their great adventure to launch Joan’s career overseas. The extinguishment of the lease and transfer of the holding from the estate of Alexander Alston is recorded in copies of NSW Valuation records held by Woollahra Library, with annotations indicating a 1958 transaction.33
When, in the late 1990s, Clyde Cottage appeared to be facing firstly disintegration and, eventually, demolition, concern was flagged by the Queen Street and West Woollahra Association (QS&WWA)34 on account of the building’s historical and heritage value. Concern was also raised by Dame Joan Sutherland, personally saddened by the derelict state of her old family home. Writing to the then president of the QS&WWA, Graham Freudenberg, Joan Sutherland noted,
The old house must be in shocking repair, as my family left it in 1954, and it looks as though nothing has been done to preserve it since then…My uncle and mother were keen gardeners and my uncle (Tom Alston) also kept the façade in perfect condition. Unfortunately, from the time my family gave up the house, the deterioration set in, with the new owners closing in the balcony and selling off the lovely old railing. I hate to think what might have happened to the interior and the garden of my childhood.
Village Voice No 69 January-June 1999 p. 11
Despite these years of decay, Clyde Cottage still stands today at 115 Queen Street, now protected by heritage listing on the Woollahra Local Environment Plan, and extensively restored in 2016 – a rejuvenation which Joan Sutherland did not live to see.
Childhood and youth in Woollahra, 1932-1951
‘Whatever happens, life goes on.' In her memoirs, Joan Sutherland would comment that this was a lesson she ‘learned very early,’ as she recalled the changes and disruption that followed her father’s death, and the new circumstances which she came to accept happily.35
Joan now became part of the household at Clyde Cottage, as she and her mother and sister joined an existing family unit made up of her great-uncle Arthur Hiddilston (her grandmother Alston’s brother) and Muriel’s unmarried siblings, Tom and Annie Ethel (Blos) Alston. Thanks to Alexander Alston’s extensions, the house was able to accommodate them comfortably, and Joan would remember Clyde Cottage affectionately as,
‘our old house in Queen Street, which, while not the greatest, had a big garden and rooms enough.’
Sutherland, Joan Alston Prima Donna's progress Milsons Point., Random House, 1997 p.5.
Uncle Tom looked after the family’s somewhat dwindling property portfolio (a legacy of his father’s building career) and kept Clyde Cottage in repair, while also working for a friend’s picture-framing shop. Auntie Blos kept house with Muriel, and helped the girls with their studies as their schooling began. Tom also gardened, growing many varieties of flowering plants which, along with her father’s plantings at Patonga, Joan would remember with pleasure. Gardening remained an interest for her always, and one which she was finally able to indulge in her retirement.
As it had been at Patonga, music was a vital part of family life at Clyde, with the three Alston siblings joining together in outbursts of light-hearted song, and organising social evenings around the piano with friends and extended family. Uncle Tom was inclined to include items from his music hall repertoire, which were not always considered, by his sisters, to be suitable for the ears of children.
The young Joan was surrounded by kindly influences in this new household, tempered with the continuing discipline which her late father had also exercised, carried on through the no-nonsense approach to parenting of her mother. When it was noted, as she ascended her career in the operatic world, that she lacked the bearing of a prima donna, Sutherland replied,
You couldn't possibly be a prima donna in my family, because if you showed even a hint of temperament you'd have been packed off to bed without any supper.
‘Dame Joan Sutherland: obituary’/Alan Blyth; The Guardian 12 October 2010
Joan also learned that her mother was ‘as good as her word,’ when Muriel abruptly cancelled her piano lessons with Miss Lily Juncker, daughter of successful local composer and organist Augustus Juncker.36 Having gained sufficient proficiency as a pianist to act as her own accompanist, Joan had acquired all she believed she wanted of the skill, and ignoring both her mother’s warnings and her teacher’s instructions, neglected to practice the exercises and pieces which did not interest her. Muriel terminated the arrangement,37 a life lesson learnt for Joan: opportunity should not be squandered.
Whatever else was intended, Muriel Sutherland’s action was not intended as a punishment for a failure to achieve. Her response was in part a practical one, with family finances tight. It was no doubt also an expression of maternal disapproval for this evidence of poor discipline and commitment on Joan's part - and in particular, of Joan’s disrespect to Miss Juncker. Regarding her mother’s approach to achievement, Joan’s childhood was the antithesis of the stereotypical prodigy’s; her mother quite determinedly shied away from encouraging precocious ability in her daughter, feeling there was time enough ahead.
Joan’s biographer Norma Majors has written of a child who enjoyed singing to the birds in the back garden from her swing, suspended from a large camphor laurel which flourished behind Clyde Cottage, and with the opportunity to day-dream, her ideas becoming more expansive as her awareness grew of what might be achieved. To sing at the Sydney Town Hall was an early ambition, usurped by the thought of performing at Covent Garden.38 She would achieve both, and more.
Much of Joan Sutherland’s childhood story, and her first steps towards her operatic career, are tied to Clyde Cottage and the Queen Street neighbourhood. From this home she received her schooling, trained as a secretary, entered the workforce, and began her venture to create vocational opportunities for herself as an international performer and artist.
From Clyde Cottage she entered singing competitions and joined musical societies, through one of which she would meet her future husband and life-long musical partner, Richard Bonynge. And when the good news was delivered that she had won a career-changing competition, granting her two years of free voice tuition from two of Sydney’s specialists, she received it on the telephone at Mr Coleman’s grocery shop on the corner of Queen and Spicer Streets.39
Looking back on her childhood in Woollahra from across a gulf of over fifty years, much life experience and a career which had taken her widely across the globe, Dame Joan pronounced it, ‘A very happy period of my life which has stood me in good stead ever since.’40
School days and early working life
Joan Sutherland began her schooling at the Fairy Godmother’s Kindergarten – where, to Muriel’s consternation, Joan’s vocal talents were recognised, and she made a radio debut singing The Bonnie Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond.41 Then, beginning at the age of seven, she attended St Catherine’s, an Anglican school for girls in the neighbouring suburb of Waverley. St Catherine’s would be Joan Sutherland’s world for nine years, from 1934 to 1943, until she left to enter the workforce.
The opportunity for Joan and Barbara to attend St Catherine’s came courtesy of the loyal service to the Masonic movement of their late father, the Freemasons now paying his youngest daughters’ school fees. Joan in turn rewarded this kindness by embracing school life, working diligently and participating wherever she had something to contribute. She won several school prizes and at age 15 was successful in her Intermediate Examinations with an A in six subjects
She was conscientious, cooperative, good-natured and generous, even to the point of allowing tardy classmates to copy her homework. She sang in the annual school concerts, although not in the choir as she tended to drown everyone else …
Major, Norma Joan Sutherland, Lond., Macdonald/Queen Anne, 1987 p. 5.
However, Joan’s schooling came to a close at age 16, not from a want of academic ability or effort, but because of her mother’s view that the family should not prevail upon the generosity of the Freemasons once her daughters had achieved the level of education deemed sufficient for young women in the 1940s.42 Barbara had left school to train as a nurse after attaining her Intermediate qualifications. Joan followed her lead, but in the direction of the Metropolitan Secretarial College, where she received a year’s training – studying by night a course of tailoring and dressmaking so she could practice the economy of making her own clothes.
Joan’s first secretarial job was based at the University of Sydney, typing manuscripts for the Radio Physics Laboratory of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. She enjoyed the university surroundings and atmosphere, and even auditioned, unsuccessfully, for a part in The National Standards Laboratory Radio Physics Review.
But she found the campus too far removed from the centre of the city, and more significantly, too distant from those various organisations which she hoped might offer her a chance of pursuing musical opportunities. So in 1946 she accepted a secretarial job with a firm specialising in farm supplies - unromantic but well situated, and with a boss who was not only sympathetic towards, but actively encouraging of, his new employee’s musical ambitions. Joan continued to work reliably and competently while keeping her central focus elsewhere.
First steps towards a career in opera
Joan had continued to profit throughout her childhood from sharing in her mother’s vocal exercises, absorbing effortlessly the foundational techniques that would later serve her well, and unconsciously following her mother’s lead as 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?
(Sutherland, Joan Alston Prima Donna's progress Milsons Point., Random House, 1997 p. 4.)
Sutherland would later consider this influence a contributory factor to the richness and depth which underpinned the brilliant quality of her higher range – the latter developing only after she discovered, to her own surprise, her rare capacity to reach those difficult notes. It was a duality which set her apart from other coloratura sopranos.
Before [Joan Sutherland] when operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula had been revived at all, their heroines had been sung by sopranos with bright but rather colourless voices. Sutherland combined richly varied tone with breathtaking brilliance of technique, which gave her audiences the best of two worlds. She filled out perfectly steady legato lines with golden colours, then threw off elaborate cadenzas with a dazzling ease which left the lightweight canaries open-beaked with envy.
‘Dame Joan Sutherland: obituary’/Alan Blyth; The Guardian 12 October 2010
However, while Muriel Sutherland recognized something of the potential of her daughter’s vocal ability, she held firm views about over-taxing the young voice by introducing formal training too early. Her caution was supported in hindsight by the observations of British Broadcaster and music critic John Amis, who wrote at the time of Joan Sutherland’s death,
From the beginning she had a beautiful singing voice, and she was lucky that it was never tampered with by a misguided teacher.”
‘Dame Joan Sutherland: obituary’/Alan Blyth; addendum by John Amis The Guardian 12 October 2010
If Muriel was fully aware of Joan’s early hopes for an operatic career, she may also have held some maternal misgivings. Prime among obstacles to any advancement were the family’s finances, but a further consideration was the probable impact of her daughter’s chronic and severe sinusitis upon a career which demands prime health. Joan had suffered many childhood visits to specialists, regularly enduring painful procedures to temporarily remedy this condition, and impressing a succession of physicians with her stoicism.
Her Sydney physicians were impressed not only by Joan’s fortitude and endurance of pain, but by the perfectly formed and responsive vocal cords which they discovered on investigating her problems, cautioning Muriel, when she enquired about the possible benefits of a tonsillectomy as a solution to Joan’s recurrent sinus infections. Emphatic advice was given that no operation should ever be made on Joan’s tonsils or throat.43 This opinion was validated years later in London when Ivor Griffiths, the Royal Opera’s medical specialist who, in this role, had attended many patients in Sutherland’s field, declared that he had never seen ‘such a large and perfect set of vocal cords’ as hers.44
When, in 1959, Joan’s sinus problems were finally corrected by surgery in London, it was undertaken most reluctantly and warily by Griffiths, especially given the operation closely followed the breakthrough performance of Sutherland’s career. The inevitable changes to the resonance chambers of this newly recognised vocal instrument were not to be taken lightly – but Joan insisted on proceeding, and her judgement proved sound. Her vocal abilities survived the procedure, aided by the hard work she was prepared to contribute towards their recovery, and she was finally free of the suffering which had endured since childhood.
Competitions, scholarships and musical societies
To reach the point in her career where the Royal Opera Covent Garden feared for the medical welfare of their overnight sensation had taken Joan some seventeen years of post-school effort. Working at her day job, she entered eisteddfods and contests, joined musical societies and gave recitals and performances.
A great advance came in 1945 with her success in winning two years of free tuition with the highly regarded John and Aida Dickens, who recognised her potential immediately. This began the process of raising Joan’s voice out of the mezzo range, against her own conviction of where her vocal strength lay – and certainly against her mother’s – and contrary to her personal longing to sing Wagnerian roles as a dramatic soprano. The full shift to coloratura would only be completed under the tutelage of Richard Bonynge, in London, which would pave the way for her international triumphs.
Under the regimen of John and Aida Dickens, Joan’s singing technique blossomed, and she benefited also from the advice on deportment and dress freely given by her new teachers. She separately began to study languages, and enrolled in classes with Judy Rathbone Lawless at her Academy of Dramatic Art – neither pursuit approached with any great enthusiasm, but with an understanding of the need for her to acquire these skills.
Her conscientious, rather than effortless socialising through musical organisations via the Affiliated Music Clubs of New South Wales, was also bearing fruit in the area of making connections within the Sydney musical network. At age 20, Joan reached the first of her childhood goals – singing as a soloist at the Sydney Town Hall, at a December 1946 performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by the newly formed Bach Choral Society. As Sutherland’s biographer Norma Major would write, it was ‘an achievement which was to be the bottom rung of a long ladder to international success.’45 The report of the concert in the Sydney Morning Herald the next day included the following:
There was another soloist, a mysterious young lady who arose from behind the orchestra and gave some of the best singing of the evening, but her name was not even included in the program.
‘Christmas Oratorio’ The Sydney Morning Herald 13 December, 1946 p. 5.
The mysterious young lady was, of course, Joan Sutherland.
The generosity of John and Aida Dickens, and their commitment to their exceptional pupil was only fully appreciated when, at the end of her two years of free tuition, they indicated they were happy to continue her training under the existing no-fees arrangement.
With these many advantages, and her own persistence and industry, Joan began to win some minor competitions – a further boost to her confidence, and also to her funds. It was the prize money from two much more prestigious competitions, and some help from her music-loving cousin John Ritchie, which would give her the needed finances to leave for London.
On the 1 October, 1949, Joan Sutherland won the prestigious Sun-Aria competition run by the Sydney Eisteddfod, the prize money for which was £300. The adjudicator, Harold Williams, noted that Miss Sutherland had ‘a really fine soprano voice,’ adding ‘I think she should do well in opera.’46
Almost a year later, at the Melbourne Town Hall on 10 September 1950, Joan was the winner of the Vacuum Oil Company’s Mobil Quest – for which she had been a runner-up in 1947. The prize-money of £1,000 was doubly welcome, for her cousin John had promised to match it, pound-for-pound. With these funds behind her, and the knowledge that she could always earn her living with her secretarial skills, Joan Sutherland decided it was time to head to London – but not before honouring a commitment to sing the title role in Eugene Goossens’ opera Judith, at the Sydney Conservatorium on 9 July, 1951 – her first performance in a staged opera.
Over the last of this final period of Sydney life, during which she consolidated her early career, Joan was driven not only by her own passion for developing her art, but by the memory of her late sister Barbara, who had placed enormous and unwavering faith in her younger sister’s abilities. Barbara did not live to see her foresight fulfilled,47 but the knowledge of her sister’s belief in her drove Joan forward.
The move to London
Joan Sutherland and her mother arrived in London in August 1951, Joan bearing a letter from John Dickens to Professor Peter Carey of the Royal College of Music, where she was accepted to study for a year – and which today lists Dame Joan Sutherland as one of its distinguished alumni.48 During that year of study she auditioned three times, each unsuccessfully, for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and as the year drew to a close and she contemplated requesting a fourth audition, she was contacted unexpectedly by the ROH with the offer of a contract for a year, and asked to begin preparing for the roles of the First Lady in The Magic Flute, Clotilde in Norma and the High Priestess in Aida.
Joan Sutherland made her professional debut in the first of these roles on 28 October 1952. Singing at Covent Garden marked the attainment of another childhood ambition. The following month she performed as scheduled in Aida and then in Norma – the latter to the lead of one of her idols, the great Maria Callas. This began a period of some seven years of Joan appearing at Covent Garden, or touring the regions for the company as a ‘utility soprano,’ gradually increasing her standing, collecting some recognition, but failing to make the necessary impression to lift her career to the next level.
There were moments where her potential shone through and she surprised her peers at the Opera House – such as when she valiantly stepped forward into the lead role, at very short notice and all but no preparation, for a performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo in maschera when there was no other soprano available. It was December 1952, she was still very new and not yet quite ‘accepted,’ but her performance, after which she took five curtains, drew the greatest admiration, and gratitude, from all involved in the performance.
Forming a new musical partnership
Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland at the piano, London, 1959. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg No 79003
London had reunited Joan with young musician Richard Bonynge, whom she had first met through her participation within the Affiliated Music Clubs organisation in Sydney, sometimes singing at recitals where he had accompanied her. In London their friendship flourished, and Richard became a constant visitor to Muriel and Joan’s flat. He recalled, years later,
We first met in the 1940s in Sydney, and we were very companionable, but didn’t really know each other all that well. I went to London in 1950 and she came a year later – that’s when it suddenly caught fire. Apart from anything else, we became great friends. We did everything together: we loved to go to the theatre, the ballet, the opera… It just became a part of our life: we spent our whole lives together from that moment on.”
Merson, Francis “Dame Jon Sutherland: the true story” Limelight : Australia’s music and classical arts magazine 31 January 2012
On 16 October 1954, Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge were married in a ceremony arranged impulsively, and with none of the trappings of convention – ‘no guests, music or presents’. The only flowers were a bouquet sent by the Administrator of the Royal Opera House, Richard Webster, and Joan was ‘given in marriage’ by Professor Carey of the Royal College of Music. Having sent their respective parents a telegram to inform them of this development, Richard received good wishes in reply from his family – although his sister remarked that she ‘would have preferred a contralto – but good luck anyhow.’ Muriel Sutherland, in Sydney visiting Auntie Blos, responded, ‘You naughty children. Watch yourselves. Love Mum.’49
Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge were married for just short of fifty-six years, their time together ending with her death in October 2010. Together they were the parents of a son Adam, born in February 1956 after Joan had sung her way through most of her pregnancy as Carmen’s Micaela, in an increasingly voluminous peasant skirt. Richard and Joan would later enjoy two grandchildren.
Creating a coloratura soprano
The marriage of Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland was the beginning of a famous musical partnership. Richard had already formed a suspicion that Joan’s voice was capable of the agile, brilliant singing required by the bel canto tradition, which was undergoing the beginnings of a revival in the 1950s and had caught Bonynge’s interest. Joan was equally certain she was not able to reach the heights which this style of singing demanded – and her mother, still fearful that Joan’s voice might be ‘spoiled’ in the wrong hands, even more so.
However, now that he was able to observe Joan singing, as she always did, spontaneously and unselfconsciously ‘about the house’, Bonynge’s conviction grew, and since neither his wife nor mother-in-law were possessed of perfect pitch, he exploited their ignorance when accompanying Joan at the piano through her daily singing exercises, artfully resetting the accompaniment to lead her into a higher register without Joan or Muriel’s knowledge.
Eventually confronted with the evidence that she was capable of the terrifying "high F" (F6), there was no longer any point in Joan denying her range. Instead, she began to work with her husband and musical partner to explore the full possibilities of her voice, and to set the groundwork for the next phase of her career. Bonynge worked equally hard, as Joan’s constant répétiteur, and in researching music and sourcing manuscript of the bel canto tradition which would eventually add to their shared repertoire once they became performance partners. He also tirelessly petitioned senior members of the Royal Opera, at any opportunity, socially or in backstage encounters, to consider staging productions which might showcase his wife’s talents. As it happened, he was not the only admirer of Joan’s work to do so,50 and eventually a collective persistence would be rewarded. The fact that the British press also began to condemn the program of opera on offer at Covent Garden at this time as ‘uninspired and dreary’ was a further aid to Bonynge’s arguments for variety.
Unseen forces from within the Royal Opera House were also working to help Joan fulfil the potential of her singing ability by enhancing other aspects of her performance. ROH Assistant Director Lord Harewood proposed, and it was approved, that Covent Garden arrange and fund coaching for Joan in dramatic skills with Norman Ayrton of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. This saw work begun to address shortcomings in her diction, her physical negotiation of the stage and her ability to interpret a role. Harewood also looked to means to increase Sutherland’s public exposure, arranging for television performances and recommending her for the role of the Countess in Figaro at Glyndebourne in 1956, the bicentenary of Mozart’s birth. A return invitation from Glyndebourne in 1957 to sing Madame Herz in The Impresario led to an invitation from the visiting Director of the Vancouver Festival to sing in Canada in July 1958.
As Joan’s confidence and technical skills accumulated, audiences responded. A 1958 performance of Let the Bright Seraphim - described as positively ‘ethereal’ – saw a ten-minute ovation ensue.51 However it was her 1959 performance in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia de Lammermoor at Covent Garden, on 17 February of that year which was the breakthrough moment for Joan Sutherland.
Richard Webster and Lord Harewood had managed to persuade the board of the ROH to undertake the costly step of staging a new production, the risky step of programming an opera not performed at Covent Garden for some 35 years, and the riskier step of casting Joan as Lucia – a technically and dramatically demanding role where the lead soprano is onstage for almost the entire performance. Her advocates, however, knew the role was the perfect vehicle for Joan’s voice. There may also have been a certain sense of destiny in their minds. The great Australian soprano, Nellie Melba had made her mark on Covent Garden in this same role, some seventy years earlier.
Remembering the production in 2012, Richard Bonynge acknowledged the efforts of the Royal Opera and the opening this created for Joan.
[The first big break] was the Lucia di Lammermoor in Covent Garden in 1959, a gloriously tasteful production – Covent Garden went all out. The conductor Tullio Serafin was a great maestro of bel canto, and director Franco Zeffirelli as a young man was just brilliant. This was also one of the first roles in Covent Garden that Joan had sung in Italian, which was interesting.
Merson, Francis “Dame Jon Sutherland: the true story” Limelight : Australia’s music and classical arts magazine 31 January 2012
Joan – and Richard’s – preparation for the role ensured the trust placed in her by the Royal Opera House was amply repaid. Zeffirelli’s direction taxed Joan to deliver complex cadenza while running, and created a mad scene which dramatically articulated derangement. At the dress rehearsal – attended by Callas and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf – the orchestra put down their instruments and along with the onstage operatic chorus joined in the applause, and on the opening night Joan received a 19 minute ovation. Between acts she was visited by representatives of recording companies and at the conclusion introduced by Zeffirelli, who had begun his career at La Scala, to Signor Luigi Aldani who expressed his hopes that Joan would soon sing in Milan.
The following morning’s reviews in the London Press were unsurprisingly exultant, and her success was relayed to Australia.
At Covent Garden, Joan Sutherland in “Lucia di Lammermoor” aroused a frenzy of applause such as I have never heard in that theatre except for specially imported Continental stars. Let me be bold, and say there was no-one I should have preferred.
‘Joan Sutherland’s triumph’/Arthur Jacobs ABC Weekly Vol. 21 No. 1118 March 1959 p. 40
Seemingly a star was born overnight, but success and fame – which in themselves meant less to Joan Sutherland than might have been supposed – had in fact been attained after decades of dedication and sheer hard work.
Joan Sutherland went on to perform in all the great centres of opera – Paris, Milan and New York - within three years of her 1959 performance of Lucia at the Royal Opera House: Paris in 1960; Milan, in May 1961, and the Metropolitan in New York in November 1961. From this time her career became a truly international one. In Venice she was hailed as La Stupenda – a title which was then widely adopted in homage to the size and range of her voice.
In 1962, in Rome, Richard Bonynge stepped in when the conductor scheduled for a performance became ill, and from 1963 he became Sutherland’s preferred conductor – an arrangement which became part of the standard contract when Sutherland was engaged.
In 1965, Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland returned to tour Australia, heading an impressive touring company, which included the young Luciano Pavarotti, and staging 120 performances – forty-two including Sutherland. Nine years later, in 1974, Sutherland performed with The Australian Opera for the first time, at the Sydney Opera House (which had opened the previous year) in The Tales of Hoffman and the appointment of Richard Bonynge as the Australian Opera’s Director of Music in 1976 established a relationship which brought the couple back to their homeland on a regular basis.
Joan Sutherland’s easy manner won her great affection with the local musical fraternity, and her association with the Australian Opera greatly boosted the profile of opera in her home city. Neither did Joan Sutherland forget her connection with Woollahra. Among the many requests she received to sponsor causes, she was happy to accept the role of Patron of the Queen Street and West Woollahra Association in 1978. Her acceptance letter was published in the September 1978 issue of the Village Voice (the newsletter of the QS&WWA).
Extract from the Village Voice (the newsletter of the QS&WWA)September 1978 p 4.
By the end of her career, Joan Sutherland’s repertoire was extraordinarily broad, a tribute to the versatility of her voice, and also demonstrative of her ability to interpret – and enjoy – a wide variety of music, just as she had been exposed to in her childhood and youth. She retired before her voice could fail her, giving a farewell in both hemispheres – her native Sydney and adopted London. Her last Sydney performance was held at the Sydney Opera House on 2 October, 1990 singing the role of Margaret de Valois in a local production of Les Huguenots. She reserved for her final song an operatic version of "Home Sweet Home" – a tribute to the great Melba’s memory.
In her retirement, Joan Sutherland lived in Switzerland and continued, with Richard Bonynge, to maintain a connection to the world of music. She taught occasional masterclasses and provided encouragement to individuals and support for organisations. At her home, Les Avants, she enjoyed needlepoint and took great pleasure in her garden – a love forged in the brilliant floral displays which were a part of her childhood on the terraces of Patonga and her ‘wild ‘garden at Clyde.
It was a fall in her garden, in July 2008 which led to her health taking a downward turn. Dame Joan Sutherland died on 10 October, 2010. Memorial Services were held at Westminster Abbey and the Sydney Opera House.
Legacy and achievements
Over the course of Dame Joan Sutherland’s long professional career, which spanned almost forty years, she had performed in 48 operas, and had recorded 60 albums. She had also sung the role of Lucia, which had made her an instant phenomenon, a total of 223 times.
It was inevitable given the heights which Joan Sutherland attained that comparisons would be made with her to others in her field. As a fellow Australian soprano of note, she was compared and contrasted with Melba, with one commentary noting that,
Comparisons are difficult given Melba died when Sutherland was four. But the younger woman almost certainly made a greater contribution to the development of opera, although Melba, with her scandals and ostentation, was the greater celebrity.
Among her peers, she was most often assessed against Callas, who brought an emotive quality to her performance which Joan Sutherland could never emulate – nor perhaps wished to do so. However, Joan’s vocal qualities were often judged to be superior. The two women enjoyed a friendship and mutual respect for each other’s abilities which defied press attempts to pitch them as rivals.
What contrasted Joan Sutherland from both Melba and Callas was her essential ordinariness, which endeared her to many, but did not suit everyone. Australian author Patrick White was disappointed when he met La Stupenda in person, feeling that he and Callas would have understood each other more readily - although he was much moved by Sutherland in performance.52 For others, this 'ordinary' quality was the strength of Joan’s charm. Guardian opera critic Martin Kettle reminisced,
Normally when I interview musicians I manage to keep my inner fan well under control. Not with Sutherland. She was the nicest and most straightforward person you could ever imagine meeting. I even asked her for an autograph. I think she was the best bel canto soprano I'll ever hear: the vocal phenomenon of the post-war era indeed [as Lord Harewood had pronounced]. And of plenty of others besides.
Kettle, Martin. ‘Joan Sutherland the greatest soprano ever?’ The Guardian 12 October 2010
As the milestones of her life and career accumulated, Sutherland’s peers from the international community of musicians were prepared to make absolute statements attesting to the extraordinary qualities of her voice and her achievements.
The Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti pronounced her ‘the voice of the century’, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa observed at the time of her death that ‘It will be a very long time before we hear such a voice again’, while Spanish diva Montserrat Caballe described its quality simply as ‘heaven’.
Awards and honours
Joan Sutherland was honoured many times by many administrations:
- Created CBE in 1961 and elevated to Dame Commander in 1978.
- Australian of the Year, 1961
- Orpheus award, Paris 1961 (for the best singing disc of the year.)
- Order of Australia – Queen’s Birthday Honours 1975
- Order of Merit – 29 November 1991
- National Trust of Australia (NSW) Living National Treasure, 1997
- Honoured by the Kennedy Center, Washington in 2004.
- Distinguished Member of the Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity.
- award La Siòla d'Oro at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, 2007
- Voted into the First Hall of fame of the magazine Gramophone 2012
A number of facilities are named for Dame Joan Sutherland –
- a Theatre at the Australian Opera House
- a Music centre at St Catherine’s School
- a Performing Arts Centre at Penrith
- a walking trail at Mosman to mark Sutherland’s patronage of the Mosman Festival
Halliday, Alison and Brampton, Robin Queen Street and district: a history and guide to Woollahra’s famous ‘Village High Street’ Syd., QS&WWA, 1987.
Major, Norma Joan Sutherland: the authorised biography, Lond., Macdonald/Queen Anne, 1987.
Sutherland, Joan A Prima Donna's progress: the autobiography of Joan Sutherland,
Milsons Point, NSW, Random House, 1997.
Archival, manuscript, etc
NLA Trove data base - Newspapers
NSW BDM NSW online index
Sands Sydney Directory
Archival resources of Woollahra Council
115 Queen Street – Woollahra Local History Research File.
2 Sands Sydney Directory , John Sands, 1926 p. 2359.
4 The Sydney Morning Herald 5 July, 1919 p. 12.
5 BDM NSW online index reference: 5037/1921; The Sydney Morning Herald 28 May, 1921 p. 12.
6 BDM NSW online index reference: 10823/1887
7 BDM NSW online index reference: Tom - 1816/1876 ; Annie -425/1879; Minnie - 3508/1880. The third child of Alexander and Mary Alston, Minnie, died in the same year as her birth BDM NSW online index reference: 2405/1880
8 WMC Assessment February 1902 – January 1903 – amendment records transfer to William Sutherland.
9 ‘Tommasini, Anthony ‘Joan Sutherland, 1926-2010; Flawless Soprano and the Essence of Bel Canto’ New York Times Oct. 11, 2010 p. 1
10 Advertisement, The Sydney Morning Herald 7 December, 1932 p. 19. Note: the house was converted into flats by the subsequent owner, Henrietta Joan Turner, c 1934/7 – NSW VG records 1934,1937.
11 'Leases granted for special purposes.’ New South Wales Government Gazette 26 April, 1895 p. 2716.
12 Braddon, Russel 'Joan Sutherland', The Australian Women's Weekly 13 February, 1963 p. 18. [Braddon’s 1962 biography was serialized in the Australian Women’s Weekly the following year.]
13 “We shall not see the like of her again - Dame Kiri remembers Dame Joan Sutherland”, Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation
14 Heather Sutherland became a noted architect, in partnership with her husband Malcolm Moir.
15 Sutherland, Joan Prima Donna’s progress Milson’s Point, Random House, 1997 p. 6
16 The Sydney Morning Herald 8 November, 1932 p. 10; 'Death of a popular Scot', The Labor Daily 8 November, 1932 p. 4.
17 Dame Nellie Melba died on 23 February, 1931 when Joan was aged four.
18 Sutherland, Joan A Prima Donna's progress: the autobiography of Joan Sutherland, Milsons Point, NSW, Random House, 1997 p.7
19 'Talk of the Town', The Sun 15 December, 1929 p. 42.
20 Sutherland, Joan A Prima Donna's progress p.7
21 The Sydney Morning Herald 7 December, 1932 p. 19.
22 BDM NSW online index reference: 8279/1927
23 Sutherland, Joan A Prima Donna's progress p.5
24 BDM NSW online index Reference: 19033/1930; The Sydney Morning Herald 8 December, 1930 p. 8.
25 Queen Street and district: a history and guide to Woollahra’s famous ‘Village High Street’ /Alison Halliday and Robin Brampton, Syd., Queen Street & West Woollahra Association, 1987 pp.29-30.
26 “Where Dame Joan found harmony” Village Voice: official journal of the Queen Street & West Woollahra Association No 69 January-June 1999 p. 11
29 WMC Assessment 1885-1886, assessment No 996
30 Sands Sydney Directory Syd., John Sands, 1858-1932 – issue for 1887 p.420; BDM NSW Online index reference - 10823/1887
31 Sydney metropolitan detail series - City of Sydney section [...] ... [cartographic material] / lithographed & printed at the Surveyor General's Office Sydney N.S.W. SL NSW M Ser 4 811.17/1 - Woollahra Sheet 9.
32 Sheedy, David 115 Queen Street [National Trust Listing Proposal]. The Trust classified the house in 1980.
33 New South Wales – Department of the Valuer General Valuation List 6.2.1958 – T691/1958.
34 Village Voice: official journal of the Queen Street & West Woollahra Association No 67 May-August 1998 p. 1; No 70 July-December 1999 p. 2; No 71 November 2000 p. 7
35 Sutherland, Joan A Prima Donna's progress p.5
36 Meyer, Peter ‘Sydney organist topped the pops’ The Sydney Organ Journal Vol 44, No 4 (Spring 2013) p. 28.
37 Sutherland, Joan A Prima Donna's progress p. 11
38 Major, Norma Joan Sutherland, Lond., Macdonald/Queen Anne, 1987 p. 4.
39 Halliday, Alison and Brampton, Robin Queen Street and district. Syd., QS&WWA, 1987 p. 49
40 “A Shambles where Dame Joan taught the birds to sing” Sydney Morning Herald 6 March 1999 p. 3
41 Sutherland, Joan A Prima Donna's progress p. 9-10
42 Major, Norma Joan Sutherland, Lond., MacDonald/Queen Anne, 1987 p. 4.
43 Op.cit p. 10
44 Amis, John (‘Dame Joan Sutherland: obituary’/Alan Blyth; addendum by John Amis, The Guardian 12 October 2010
45 Major, Norma Joan Sutherland p. 1
46 The Sun 2 October, 1949 p. 2.
47 Barbara McDonald Sutherland died in September 1948 - BDM NSW online index Reference: 16715/1948 The Sydney Morning Herald 3 September, 1948 p. 12.
49 Braddon, Russel 'Joan Sutherland', The Australian Women's Weekly 20 February, 1963 p. 46.
50 Cecil Smith, opera critic for The Express wrote to the ROH more than once to point out that the company was overlooking a ‘goldmine’ in Joan Sutherland. Braddon, Russel 'Joan Sutherland', The Australian Women's Weekly 20 February, 1963 p. 46.
52 White, Patrick Flaws in the glass Syd., A&R, 1986