Joan Sutherland Biography

Joan Sutherland, an internationally acclaimed Australian opera singer, captivated audiences with her honey-like melodious voice. From her early days of winning singing competitions to her grand debut as ‘Lucia’, she quickly earned the moniker ‘La Stupenda’ and became a sensation worldwide. Despite facing criticism for her diction, Sutherland worked hard to improve and went on to win numerous prestigious awards, including a ‘Grammy’. Even after her retirement, her fame remained intact, with educational institutions in Australia honoring her contribution to music. Sadly, Joan Sutherland passed away at the age of 83, leaving behind a remarkable legacy in the world of opera.

Quick Facts

  • Australian Celebrities Born In November
  • Also Known As: Joan Alston Sutherland
  • Died At Age: 83
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Richard Bonynge (m. 1954)
    • Father: William Sutherland
    • Mother: Muriel Sutherland
    • Children: Adam Bonynge
  • Born Country: Australia
  • Occupation: Opera Singers, Soprano Singers
  • Height: 5’9″ (175 cm), 5’9″ Females
  • Died on: October 10, 2010
  • Place of death: Les Avants, Montreux, Switzerland
  • Notable Alumni: Royal College Of Music
  • Cause of Death: Cardiopulmonary Failure
  • City: Sydney, Australia
  • More Facts:
    • Education: Royal College Of Music

Childhood & Early Life

Joan Alston Sutherland was born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, on 7 November 1926. Born to William Sutherland, and his second wife Muriel, a mezzo-soprano singer herself (whose shyness prevented her from singing professionally), Joan Sutherland first started learning to sing by imitating her mother. She attended St Catherine’s School. She started professional voice training with John and Aida Dickens. They were the ones who persuaded her that her voice was suited for a dramatic soprano. Making her concert debut in Sydney in 1947, in a concert performance of Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’, Joan Sutherland won singing competitions in 1949 and 1950, with a stage debut in 1951, as Judith, in a production by Eugene Goossens. She went on to study at the Opera School of the Royal College of Music, using her winnings from various singing competitions.


Joan Sutherland made her debut at the Royal Opera House on 28 October, 1952, playing the First Lady in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’, with her first leading role coming in December that year, playing ‘Amelia’ in ‘Un ballo in maschera’. She sang as ‘Lady Rich’ in Gloriana, in 1953, a few months after its world premiere. On 27 January, 1955, she sang the role of ‘Jenifer’, in Michael Tippett’s ‘The Midsummer Marriage’. 1957-1958 saw her sing at the Handel Opera Society, and Vancouver, respectively, receiving positive reviews for her performance at the former. Little did she know that singing ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ at the ‘Royal Opera House’ in 1959 would catapult her into instant success, with newspapers around the world giving her the nickname, La Stupenda. She underwent a sinus surgery immediately after this, which is considered risky for singers, but by all accounts the surgery was successful. She made her US debut in 1960, singing ‘Alcina’ at the ‘Dallas Opera’. She sang ‘Lucia’ again in Paris (1960), ‘La Scala’ (1961), and her debut performance of ‘Lucia’ at the ‘Metropolitan Opera’ drew large crowds; she even got a 12-minute standing ovation. While she continued to sing at the ‘Metropolitan Opera’ until 1989, her relationship with them was strained during the period 1978–82, owing to her declining a role in Mozart’s ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’. She made various appearances in operas around the world in the 1960s, singing for the title role in Rossini’s ‘Semiramide’ in 1962, Marie in Donizetti’s ‘La fille du régiment’ in 1966, and touring Australia in 1965, with the ‘Sutherland-Williamson Opera Company’. Her crystal-clear diction showed signs of wear and tear in the 1960s, which did not go unnoticed. Her quest to try to achieve a perfect legato (when a singer makes a transition from one note to the next with any periods of silence) was responsible for this problem, according to statements her husband made during an interview. She strove to better this fault in the 1970s, with later performances showing a much-improved vocalisation. Under composer Zubin Mehta, she recorded ‘Turandot’ in 1972 in a studio, but never sang the same on stage. She was active well into the 1980s, with roles like Anna Bolena, Amalia in ‘I masnadieri’, and Esclarmonde at the ‘Royal Opera House’ (November and December, 1983). She made her last dramatic performance at the ‘Sydney Opera House’ in 1990, singing ‘Home Sweet Home’. Her last public appearance was made that same year, on New Year’s Eve, at ‘Covent Garden’. In 1992, she founded and was a patron of the ‘Tait Memorial Trust’ in London, which was set up to help young UK-based Australian performing artists. Author Norma Major (wife of then British Prime Minister John Major) published Joan Sutherland’s official biography in 1994, named ‘Joan Sutherland: The Authorised Biography’. She acted as ‘Mother Rudd’, a leading role in the comedy film ‘Dad and Dave: On Our Selection’, in 1995. She published her autobiography in 1997, ‘A Prima Donna’s Progress’ which got mixed reviews. She became the patron of the ‘Cardiff Singer of the World’ competition in 2003, after being a juror five consecutive times since 1993.

Awards & Achievement

Joan Sutherland featured on the ‘Queen’s Birthday Honors List’, getting awarded the ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.)’ on June 10, 1961, and the ‘Companion of the Order of Australia (A.C.)’ on June 9, 1975. She also won ‘Australian of the Year’ in 1961, the first woman to ever do so. She won a ‘Grammy’ in 1962, for ‘Best Classical Performance – Vocal Soloist (with or without orchestra)’. She was the first Australian to win that award. The award-winning album was added to the ‘National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia’ registry in 2011. She was awarded ‘Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire’, as per the 1979 ‘Queen’s New Year Honors List’. She, along with music greats like Elton John, John Williams, Warren Beatty, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, received the ‘Kennedy Center Honor’ in 2004. Music magazine ‘Gramophone’ voted Joan Sutherland into their first ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2012.

Family & Personal Life

Joan Sutherland met her future husband, Richard Bonynge, an Australian conductor and pianist, when they both worked in Sydney. They were married from October 16, 1954, to October 10, 2010 (her death). They had a son, Adam, in 1956. She fell while gardening at her home in Switzerland, on July 3, 2008, breaking both her legs. While she recovered from this, it led to more grave health problems. She died of heart failure, at her home in Switzerland on October 10, 2010. She was 83 years old at the time, and was survived by her husband, son, and two grandchildren.


Her childhood home had a garden, and the hillside near the beach there sported a wide arrangement of wildflowers. This inspired her lifelong love of gardening.

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