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Joan Sutherland was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1926, to a religious, hard-working, middleclass family of Scottish Presbyterian descent. Her father was a master tailor, her mother a gifted singer. With years of careful study with her mother and, later, Richard Bonynge (whom she married in 1954) her childhood wish to sing at Covent Garden one day -- to whatever degree her talent would allow -- came true in 1952 (her operatic debut had occurred five years previously, in Sydney), where she was cast as the First Lady, a supporting part in Mozart's "The Magic Flute." In 1959, after singing the title role in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" for the first time, her career started on an upward trajectory. By the time of her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1961, she was ranked in the stellar company of her contemporaries Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. Long before she retired in 1990, Ms. Sutherland was regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of the century, the Queen of Song.

She had a large voice with a three-octave range. But she also had the coloratura flexibility of a light Iyric soprano. In its upper reaches, where most sopranos begin to sound as though they're produced by ventriloquism, her voice retained its characteristic timbre. And Ms. Sutherland was famous for her deadly pitch accuracy.

Drawing from the looks her Scottish ancestry provided her, many of the heroines she played were the result of the Italians' love of Sir Walter Scott and the fog-shrouded British Isles -- the Druid priestess Norma, Elvira in "I Puritani," Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda. She specialized in bel canto opera of the 18th and 19th centuries, helping to restore to the standard repertory music that had not been heard within living memory and sometimes longer.

 

Source: The Wall Street Journal Bookshelf, March 25, 1998 pg. A19