The notoriously formidable Italian press dubbed her “La Stupenda.” An earlier article sought to describe the sheer exhilaration the late Dame #Joan Sutherland brought ecstatic audiences everywhere in every performance. How did she do it every time? The three chief ways she invariably drove audiences wild include her: spectacularly vigorous trill, mind-boggling agility dispatching the most intricate vocal passages and breathtakingly massive stratospheric notes climaxing arias or ensembles.
Quiet debut, later breakthrough
After an inauspicious 1952 debut at London’s Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the soprano’s big break came in 1959, in the title role of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Offstage, in Act III, Lucia comes unhinged and murders her just-wed husband on their wedding night. In the famous #mad scene, Joan Sutherland not only intoned the myriad notes of flighty scales, rapid-fire roulades, and abundant trills flawlessly; she also made a dramatic departure from every soprano who came before her.
Her signature role’s trademark
Lucia’s mad scene: In an extensive flute obbligato (see second video below), Lucia mimics its wispy, florid passages. Joan Sutherland reacted to it with a frightened jolt. Cocking her head, wide-eyed, she tentatively repeated the passage with her crystalline voice, looking around frantically during the next phrase, lavishly imitative of it, eyes darting everywhere as if hunting its source. She essentially made the unseen flute, which mesmerized and enthralled Lucia, a virtual cast member. The audience, er, um … went mad. Thus overnight, fully 12 years into a steadily building career, a star was finally born.
A voice like no other
What set Joan Sutherland apart from her mortal counterparts? The enormity and strength of her voice, with slicing, penetrating power that easily reached the remotest corners of the largest venues, without sounding like she was screaming. A chorister standing onstage behind her once said, “With her back toward me, it sounded like those extraordinary sounds emerged from the back of her head.” Gorgeous tone to boot, she could achieve seemingly impossible feats.
Cue-up and listen
Merely describing how she deployed her stupendous arsenal of vocal weaponry won’t do. So read each verbal description, then cue up the videos to sample her remarkable skills. (00:00 = minutes : seconds)
A thrilling trill
The trill challenges even the most accomplished singers. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, practically every singer trilled, multiple times in each opera performance, whether or not the composer had thought to include such instructions in the score. A real trill quavers between two notes that are a whole step apart—say, C and D—or at least a half step (C and C-sharp). Few singers nowadays have an authentic trill, but Joan Sutherland remains its undisputed queen. (Cue to 2:43.)
Vocal gymnastics: career-changing Mad Scene
The sonic equivalent of lofty leaps, astonishing flips, and dizzying spins would be what Joan Sutherland did, with seeming ease, in singing rapid-fire passages that include 64th-note staccato scales, dazzling turns and florid embellishments inserted with her own brand of ravishing vocal filigree to already-ornate phrases. (Cue to 1:37:21.)
Luciano Pavarotti early in his career became “King of the High C’s” due to Joan Sutherland’s mentoring. Four whole steps above his feat is high G above C, a note she could cleanly hit and hold with beautiful tone, without blasting, unlike him. More frequent was her high E (or at least E-flat) above C, which capped many an aria, duet or ensemble number. (Cue to 45:15.)
Any one of these elements never failed to generate excitement aplenty. Imagine performances that included them all, in ample supply. Joan Sutherland is sorely missed. It is somewhat comforting that we can still hear an approximation of her unique voice in recordings, like those featured here. But the sad truth is: There will never be another. #Everything Music and Theatre