News of the death of Dame Joan Sutherland in Switzerland on 10th October at age 83 has been met with a tidal wave of tributes and remembrances right around the world, and marks the passing of a remarkable era for opera and music generally. Coming so soon after the death of another great Australian musician earlier this year, Sir Charles Mackerras, it begins to look as if an entire generation of great 20th century musical figures is slowly “leaving the building”.  Fortunately their legacies live on in so many ways, and we can only count ourselves lucky that 20th century technology has been able to preserve so much of this extraordinary talent for future generations.

A prima donna’s progress : the autobiography of Joan Sutherland

Random House, 1997 Random House, 1997

Dame Joan’s memoir met with some fairly chilly responses when it first came out, possibly failing to live up to the expectations brought to it by a public too well versed in the backstage shenanigans of the operatic world, and fully expecting some major dirt-dishing. What they got instead was a cool and somewhat dispassionate survey of her professional career, a print version of the drumtight privacy she always maintained around her personal life; hardly surprising!

The Joan Sutherland album: compiled by Joan Sutherland with Richard Bonynge.

Craftsman House, 1986 Craftsman House, 1986

A lovely book full of terrific images from two remarkable careers. The photo of Bob Hawke kneeling before her says it all!

La Stupenda by Brian Adams

Random House, 1993 Random House, 1993

One of two major biographies to appear in the 1980s, this one was revised in 1993 after the diva’s retirment in 1990. The other is an authorised biography by Norma Major, wife of the former British Prime Minister.

Joan Sutherland by Norma Major:  introduction by Dame Joan Sutherland

Queen Anne Press, 1987 Queen Anne Press, 1987


The Art of the Prima Donna

Decca, 1960, 1985 Decca, 1960, 1985

Of course you can read all you want, but to hear Sutherland at the very height of her powers in 1960 singing repertoire that might have been tailor-made for her, you understand what all of the fuss was about! And any recording that begins with a totally breathtaking rendition of Thomas Arne’s The soldier tired, and then just gets better and better over 2 discs has well and truly earned its place as one of the greatest operatic recitals ever produced.


Joan Sutherland live in Australia, 1965

Désirée Records, 2002 Désirée Records, 2002

Despite attempts to do so, Dame Joan could never be accused of neglecting her homeland, and the Sutherland-Williamson tour of the mid-1960s has definitely passed into Australian performing arts legend. How wonderful then to now have a series of discs with substantial excerpts from many of these incredible performances compiled from “unofficial” (yo, ho, ho) tapes, etc., and supported by Sutherland herself.

Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti

Pioneer Classics, 2000 Pioneer Classics, 2000

It was her performance in Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden in 1959 that made Sutherland an “overnight” sensation, and it remained a signature role throughout her career. You can watch her perform it at the Metropolitan Opera in 1982 in this lovely production, which also stars another operatic legend, Alfredo Kraus.

Esclarmonde by Jules Massenet

Decca, 1976 Decca, 1976

Sutherland often stated that the title role in Massenet’s opera Esclarmonde was one of her favourites, going so far as to say that the duet she sings on this recording with tenor Giacomo Aragall was the most erotic piece of music she had ever sung.

This is a nice tribute on YouTube:

For more material on the life and career of Joan Sutherland, just search the catalogue.

You can also check Trove for resources around the country.



This article has 2 comments

  1. When I was at high school in the mid 1960s I read a book that contained a thrilling account of Joan Sutherland singing Lucia di Lammermoor. I am trying to find out what the book was and whether I can obtain a copy of it. Any hints?

    • There has been so much written about Sutherland and her early performances in Lucia di Lammermoor that this particular account may be difficult to pinpoint. You might try Russell Braddon’s biography titled Joan Sutherland published in 1962, which is available here.

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