Husband: Joan Sutherland never knew own greatness

AP News
Posted: Oct 18, 2010 4:48 PM
Husband: Joan Sutherland never knew own greatness

Joan Sutherland, one of the most celebrated opera singers of all time, never recognized her own greatness despite wide public acclaim that earned her the moniker "La Stupenda" _ "the Stupendous One" _ and comparisons with legendary fellow soprano Maria Callas, the late singer's husband said in an interview Monday.

Sutherland, who died at age 83 on Oct. 10 at her Lake Geneva home, "never thought she was anybody very special," said Richard Bonynge, who accompanied and later conducted many of performances during her 40-year career.

"I don't think she ever recognized the greatness of her talents," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "It wasn't a pretense on her part at all. She never really understood it."

Australian-born Sutherland was known in the opera world as humble and hard working _ the "anti-diva" to Callas' diva _ though Bonynge insisted the two always enjoyed a good relationship and denied rumors of a rivalry between the great sopranos.

"Maria Callas was extremely nice to Joan right from the beginning," he said. "It wasn't that they were great friends. They didn't know each other that well. But Callas was very gracious to her, always."

The two singers shared in the revival of bel canto, a school of early 19th-century Italian opera that Bonynge guided his future wife into despite her initial reservations.

"She thought this was all canary bird stuff. It took a while to convince her," he said, recalling how Sutherland's mother accused him of ruining her daughter's voice.

"It was very difficult because the change was enormous," admitted Bonynge. "We had a few rows along the way."

The two first met in Sydney in the 1940s, performing as young students for operatic music clubs, before Bonynge left for London in 1950. Sutherland followed a year later.

"I met her coming off the boat and everything went from there. We were hardly apart after that," he said, describing how together they soaked up the cultural offerings of Europe.

"In Sydney there were some things going on. You would have visiting artists from all over the world but it was nothing like London and Paris in those days. We went the pair of us practically every night of the week to the theater or the ballet or the opera. It was a new world for us really."

They married in 1954, by which time Bonynge had decided to encourage his wife to develop her astounding coloratura, which she soon demonstrated with celebrated performances in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Bellini's "Norma."

Sutherland had been brought up to believe she was destined to sing powerful, commanding roles, but would change her voice unconsciously when she believed herself to be alone, he recalled. "Her voice went more easily, it went further, but when she thought about it a lot of things didn't happen. She would crack at the top.

"It was a matter of changing her whole idea of music because she was brought up to believe that Wagner was the great god," said Bonynge.

Had Sutherland stayed with Wagner, "her career would have gone in a different direction," he said. "If she had become a Wagnerian singer she would have been a very good one but she wouldn't have become the very greatest."

Her retirement in 1990 was part of the discipline she enforced upon herself throughout her career, said Bonynge.

"She felt that the public expected a great deal from her and she wanted to give them a great deal," he said. This is the reason she retired when she did, because she said 'I fear it's getting difficult for me and I don't want the public to ever hear that.'"