How did a girl from Point Piper grow up to conquer the opera world and be dubbed the “voice of the century”?

The year is 1931, and a plump, happy-go-lucky four-year-old is singing to herself in the garden, when a neighbour calls out to relay devastating news from the wireless: the great Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba has died. It is a sunny February morning in the Sydney suburb of Point Piper, far from the extravagant world of grand opera in Europe.

And that child, Joan Sutherland, could not have dreamt that she would follow in the footsteps of Dame Nellie, Australia’s most famous export (apart from wool), setting sail to London and securing the fervent adulation of her public in the role of Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden; the same role, on the same stage, with which Melba made her London debut.

Joan’s sensational 1959 Covent Garden Lucia
 made her a household name. And yet later in life, even as one of the two most iconic women of opera (the other being Maria Callas), the intimidatingly titled “Dame Joan Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE” never forgot that she started out as just plain Joan from Woollahra. Before she was made “Dame” in 1979; before the Italians dubbed her “La Stupenda”; how did the “voice of the century”
 make a name for herself?

“The birds could trill, so why not I?”

Joan Alston Sutherland was born in Sydney to Scottish parents – good stock for a future Lucia – on November 7, 1926. In her autobiography A Prima Donna’s Progress, she vividly recalls an idyllic, sheltered early childhood
 at 6 Wolseley Road, Point Piper. Her chief concern was picnicking at the bottom of the garden with her older sister Barbara, three half-sisters – Heather, Ailsa and Nancye – and half-brother Jim (her father William, a Presbyterian immigrant and skilled tailor, had a first wife who died in the influenza epidemic post-WWI). She regularly scrambled up and down the 111 steps that led to the beach, wiling away hours “with a portable gramophone churning out the latest jazz hits or an aria from Caruso.”

Where many mothers might tear their hair out over their young daughters not listening to them, Muriel Sutherland (née Alston), an amateur mezzo-soprano, had her daughter’s rapt attention. “The greatest joy of all was to sit with my mother when she did her daily vocal exercises,” says Joan in her memoir. Muriel (a student of a Mr Burns-Walker, who in turn studied with Mathilde Marchesi, a protégée of Melba) was to be Joan’s sole teacher for 18 years. The eager young songbird would “pester Mother to sing and play the piano”, and proved a natural, quick study. “I always had a voice,” she wrote. “I was able from the age of three to imitate her scales… and even the dreaded trill without thinking about it. The birds could trill, so why not I?”

Joan always expressed gratitude for her mother’s early influence; in a 1949 interview in the Sun Telegraph, the 23-year-old imparts a sense of fulfilling Muriel’s thwarted potential by realising her own ambitions: “Mother gave up singing lessons when she was married. She could easily have had a career if she had continued.” It was Muriel’s tutelage and care, she maintains, that blessed her with vocal longevity and set her on a singer’s path – even if training in the same mezzo range as her mother turned out to be the wrong path.

Not long after the death of Dame Nellie Melba, Joan experienced tragedy firsthand. On her sixth birthday 
in 1932, her father suffered a fatal heart attack after his morning swim. Only then was the full extent of the family’s financial woes revealed: with William’s business going under and a second mortgage concealed from his wife, the reality of the Depression sank in. Joan and her mother moved into Aunt “Blos”(Blossom) and Uncle Tom’s two-storey house, known as “Vine Cottage”, at 115 Queen Street in Woollahra. In later life, Joan looked back fondly on a different kind of musical education with Tom Alston, who had a “reasonable baritone voice” and an extensive repertoire of music hall, vaudeville and comic opera hits. “Tom! That’s not fit for the child! Sing her something decent!” her mother would scold.

A large child, Joan was “never allowed to be the fairy or the beautiful princess in our school games,” at the local Fairy Godmother Kindergarten. She was born a hefty 5.2kg, her height and girth later becoming a source of insecurity that plagued her for decades on the operatic stage. In kindergarten, however, she stood out for her voice, and made her “debut” singing The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond on the Fairy Godmother’s radio show. Around this time, Joan started to suffer from the earaches and blocked sinuses that caused her such pain and discomfort throughout her life.

She went on to St Catherine’s Church of England Grammar School for Girls in Waverley, the oldest girls’ school in Australia. There, she enjoyed weekly Musical Appreciation lessons along with the occasional excursion to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Children’s Concerts at the Town Hall. For two years she studied piano with Augustus Juncker, composer of the popular song I Was Dreaming – a song that was added to the operetta Ma Mie Rosette and recorded at a later date by Joan. But with Mrs Sutherland adamant that she would be her daughter’s only voice teacher, Joan was “never even asked to sing at concerts at St Catherine’s Waverley,” as she told the Sydney Sun in 1951, because the “girls who were taking lessons always performed.”

“I began to visualise myself as Brünnhilde”

By 1942, the austerity of the war years took its toll on the Sutherland family, and 16-year-old Joan was forced to leave the cloisters of St Catherine’s, taking a secretarial course to help support her mother. She was soon working as a stenographer at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Radiophysics Laboratory, a full- time job that made it difficult for Joan to work towards her quietly held ambitions as a singer. “I didn’t like to say too much about it, but I thought it would be wonderful to sing at Covent Garden some day,” she confesses in A Prima Donna’s Progress. “Meanwhile, I’d settle for the Sydney Town Hall.”

Fate intervened when Joan spotted a small advert in The Sydney Morning Herald calling for “an untrained or semi- trained young singer”. The ad offered a scholarship of two years’ free tuition with the “soprano-pianiste” (as the press described her) Aida Summers and her singing teacher husband John Dickens. Joan was one of 40 or so hopeful candidates to audition in their Sydney studio; if the couple had any doubts about the dowdy, awkward 19-year-old, they were convinced of the girl’s immense potential as soon as they heard her rendition of Softly Awakes My Heart from Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah, a favourite of her mother’s.

After a lifetime of being vocally “home-schooled”, Joan at last began to study formally, with Aida Summers as her first teacher. The name of a Verdian heroine is a fitting one for the singer and coach who wasted no time breaking some astonishing news to her teenage protégée: Joan was not a mezzo like her mother; her natural range, thought Aida, was that of a dramatic soprano. The budding singer was “shocked” by the revelation, as she recalls in the memoir. But she soon discovered that the prediction held true. “I had grown to like Aida and felt she was quite justified in her effort to extend the range of the voice upwards, particularly when we began to have results,”
 she agreed. With the great Norwegian Wagnerian Kirsten Flagstad as role model, she “began to visualise myself
 as Brünnhilde or Sieglinde – even Isolde! So I set about trying to make secure the few tentative extra notes I had gained.” In the Sun Telegraph in 1949, she gushed that she “enjoyed singing Wagner better than any other composer” and hoped one day “to have enough experience to sing Lieder with the artistry it deserves.”

The hardest part of unlocking Joan’s range was not the intensive training itself, but convincing Mrs Sutherland
 – who enjoyed the like-mother-like-daughter bond that came with sharing the same voice type, and was ever protective of that instrument in its formative years – that “no harm was being done by taking the voice into a somewhat higher register – especially as it did not always respond easily and smoothly.” This slow, strained process of extension from a high G to the top C a fourth above paid off, with Joan at last ready to present herself to the public. On December 12, 1946, Joan Sutherland made her concert debut at the Sydney Town Hall, soprano soloist in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Also there that day, amid the Bach Choral Society and the Ladies Choir of the Singers of Australia, was another future great: 21-year-old Charles Mackerras, playing the solo oboe part, and just a year older than Joan.

She impressed enough for The Singers of Australia, founded by conductor Henry Krips (brother of the acclaimed Austrian maestro Josef), to engage her again the following year as soloist in a Wagnerian Operatic Concert on March 22, 1947. On that occasion, she commanded a fee of £10. With a program that included the Spinning chorus, Senta’s ballad from
The Flying Dutchman and the bridal chorus and chamber scene from Lohengrin, it seemed Joan was firmly on the Wagnerian path she had envisioned.
 A Sun critic enthused that “the Sutherland voice, powerful and warmly resonant, responded to pressure without stridency.” But the same review notes that “her head tones of much beauty can be made more secure,” suggesting that Joan had yet to master the natural “break” in her voice – smoothing it into one glorious, even line of pitch – as she later did with such extraordinary facility.

September 1947 brought Joan’s first complete (albeit unstaged) operatic role as the ill-fated Queen in Dido and Aeneas. The rather patronising reviewer in Tempo was not enamoured with any of main roles – “The chorus was the most satisfactory element, in its subtlety and polish, and if the soloists did not come up to the same standards, it was certainly not Krips' fault. However, Dido was written for a girls’school, and Purcell himself did probably not expect a display of overwhelming personality, under the circumstances. ”Joan,“ a vocally somewhat lightwinged Dido with promising material, ”got away relatively unscathed (“The other soloists, too, tried to do whatever was in their power,” the author glowered.)

As she became more of a fixture in Sydney’s musical society, Joan began to meet other ambitious young performers. It was at one of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Concerts in the late 1940s that a mutual friend introduced her to a supremely gifted pianist four years her junior: Richard Bonynge, a full- time student at the NSW Conservatorium of Music working with Lindley Evans, Dame Nellie Melba’s last accompanist. Still in his teens, he was already making a name for himself coaching and accompanying singers. The two were often thrown together in recitals together for the Riverina Music Clubs around regional New South Wales (such exotic and far-flung destinations as Narrandera, Wagga Wagga and Cootamundra, always singing exclusively in English), with Joan performing at Bonynge’s 1950 farewell concert as he prepared to take up his scholarship at London’s Royal College of Music; she was among the group of his peers that saw him off as he boarded the P&O vessel Mooltan.

Joan remains adamant, in A Prima Donna’s Progress, that “there was no sudden romance” between her and her future husband during those driven student days. “I think we were each intent on pursuing our own career and although there was a certain admiration of each other’s talent, we were also critical.” Perhaps it was these high expectations of one another so early on that laid the foundation of what was to become the most fruitful and enduring operatic partnerships of the century.

Just as Joan’s star was slowly but surely on the rise, her older sister Barbara, an epileptic, was struggling 
to lead a normal life. The condition was less socially understood or accepted in the 1940s than it is today; Barbara’s unpredictable fits made it difficult for her to keep a job, and she feared that she had no prospects for a normal relationship with her American suitor. Joan was rehearsing for a gig at the Killara Club in north Sydney when she heard the news that her beloved sister had thrown herself off The Gap, a notorious suicide spot at Watson’s Bay. Though grief-stricken and in shock, Joan kept her concert engagement. Years later, on the day of her New York debut in 1961, Sutherland would show the same fortitude and commitment by agreeing to perform after receiving a telegram announcing her mother’s death. Perhaps singing was her way of paying tribute and expressing her grief, as well as a great source of comfort.

“I had no chance of winning, so I tucked a four-leaf clover into my glove”

When Joan’s two-year scholarship with Aida Summers had run its course, the young singer continued to work 
a full-time job in order to continue tuition with her mentor by night, supplementing voice lessons with Italian and German language
 classes (she had struggled
 with French since her 
school days), and drama,
 elocution and movement
 sessions twice a week
at Sydney’s answer to RADA, the Rathbone Academy of Dramatic Art.
 Much is made of the two prestigious and lucrative victories that launched Sutherland’s career: the Sun Aria competition in 1949 and the Mobil Quest the following year. But it is less widely known that, for each of her triumphs, there was a string of disappointments and close-but-no-cigars. She had an early success in 1947, winning the women’s section of the ABC competition at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod (she was offered regular work with the radio station as a result). In 1948, listed as a “dramatic soprano”, she made it only as far as the finals in the ABC’s Concerto and Vocal Competition, singing Elisabeth’s Greeting from Tannhäuser in “a voice of excellent quality, with a range over the best part of three octaves”, The Bulletin noted on June 2.

When she did finally claim the top prizes, her grit, determination and patience didn’t go unnoticed by the press: the Sydney Sun acknowledged that “Miss Sutherland’s success is due to perseverance as well as voice. She set her mind on winning The Sun Aria and competed four years running until she did in 1949.”

That same year was the Vacuum Oil Company’s inaugural Mobil Quest competition, worth £1,000; she walked away from the Melbourne Town Hall grand final in fourth place, with £50 consolation in her pocket. Undeterred, she returned the following year to blitz the finals with Voi lo sapete, O Mamma from Cavalleria Rusticana, Dich Teure Halle from Tannhäuser and When I Have Sung My Song by Ernest Charles.
 The community rallied to her side after the victory, as the proud residents of Woollahra sent their star local more than 200 telegrams and 80 letters of congratulations. But early in the competition, the 23-year-old had a close call that almost saw her eliminated in a heat before the semi-finals. “She missed her entry towards the end of her ballad, and the orchestra finished the number alone,” one paper revealed. “The judges referred to this mistake but declared Miss Sutherland the winner ‘because of her vocal superiority’.” Her luck held out during the final: “I told myself I had no chance of winning,” she told another newspaper, “So I tucked a four-leaf clover into my glove.”

Joan’s good fortune doubled when her cousin John Cousin pledged to match her winnings if she claimed first prize, so she had a sizeable £2,000 to see her on her way to her Covent Garden dream. Ever practical and down-to-earth, Joan told the Sydney Sun in 1951, before her imminent departure: “I’ll brush up on my shorthand on the way to England… It will probably come in useful if my money runs out while I’m away.” But first, she embarked on a national recital tour presented by Mobil Quest, singing for the “sick, for crippled children and disabled ex-servicemen” at hospitals and orphanages on the route. On her return she appeared before her biggest audience yet, at the Sydney Domain with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on February 11, 1951.

One thing Joan still lacked was dramatic experience
 on stage, so she jumped at the chance to play the title
 role in the one-act opera Judith by Eugene Goossens, director of the NSW Conservatorium. The performances were criticised for “poor stage direction” that “left Miss Sutherland and others wondering what to do between the registration of various high points of emotion specified by the text.” In her memoir, she wryly recounts the “mishaps” of her stage debut: “Holofernes slipped off his bed with
a terrible thump and a loud curse just as I was walking offstage with his gruesome papier-mâché head in a blood-soaked bag, rather killing the dramatic effect.”

“I was so scared, I could hardly breathe”

Joan and her mother left Sydney bound for London’s Royal College of Music on July 17, 1951, on the P&O ship Maloja. By the end of the year she had moved into the attic of a house on Pembridge Crescent and arranged for a small, battered piano to be hoisted into the space. By now she had reconnected with Bonynge, who became the second coach to insist that her voice was capable of still greater – even stratospheric – heights. Again, there were the alarmed objections of Joan’s mother to deal with as the pair worked to free her incredible upper extension, coaxing out a brilliant dramatic coloratura no one had guessed was there.

But Joan, unlike her mother, was concerned about more than just vocal strain. As Bonynge later told Sutherland biographer Edward Greenfield, “Joan in the early days had the most utter contempt for coloratura sopranos.” To which Sutherland countered: “Not for sopranos, just for the repertory. I could not associate myself and my physique with the frail heroines of the coloratura repertory.” She never played the princess in the playground – why start now? Weighing 16 stone (over 100kg) at her heaviest by the time she was 16, Joan had grown into a striking woman with a
 big build, and tended to slump and stoop so as not to dwarf her co-singers. Press from the early competition days described her as “handsome” and “a tall attractive brunette”– the latter in bold type, no less! But Bonynge himself, according to Quaintance Eaton in Sutherland and Bonynge: An Intimate Biography, remarked (not unkindly) that Joan “looked as big as a house” when the couple first met in Australia. And in her own memoir Joan agrees, flipping through “funny old photographs”, that there was a degree of ugly duckling transformation as she found her true voice in the early 1950s.

Joan’s vocal transformation, too, spanning three different voice types, was nothing short of remarkable. And as her Royal College of Music teacher predicted in his report, she would “find her way to the very top, for there is nothing that she cannot do”. As with the competitions in the 1940s, however, Joan did not immediately find her way to the very top in London. She was used to being a big fish in a small pond: “I had the audacity to think I might land a contract to appear at Covent Garden if they heard me do an audition! How naïve I must have been.” In fact, it
 took four auditions to secure a contract for £10 per week as a utility soprano with the illustrious
 company. At long last, on October 28, 1952, she
 made that wished for debut at the Royal Opera House, as First Lady in The Magic Flute.

It might be easy to think of the legend of La Stupenda as one in which the golden voice simply conquered 
all, winning instant fame. But, as Bonynge points out, “Joan sang in Australian recitals for five years before she went to London. She then sat in Covent Garden for seven years. And it went on and on and on. Even in the first four or five years in Covent Garden, she was still singing some smallish roles. It’s very important in the opera world to start at the bottom, to know what you’re doing.” From the bottom rung at the Royal Opera House in 1952, it was a seven-year ascent to what looked deceptively like overnight stardom, in the title role of Zeffirelli’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Meantime, there was
 a 1954 provincial tour of Aida in which Joan replaced fellow Antipodean soprano Joan Hammond at the last minute. Then came a performance of Der Freischutz that was “stopped for a number of minutes by applause after each of Miss Sutherland’s two big arias.” (The Sydney Sun followed Joan’s progress from afar.) “I was so scared, I could hardly breathe,” she told the paper. Not even a rogue curtain rod grazing her face and loosening one of tenor James Johnston’s teeth could distract from the glory of that voice. (With her dressing room besieged by expat Australian admirers, Joan celebrated her success “in Australian style – over a glass of beer in The Nag’s Head pub opposite Covent Garden”.) Roles like Clotilde in Norma and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann and Alcina saw Joan at last rise to the dizzying coloratura heights she had worked so hard to master. There were Wigmore Hall and Glyndebourne debuts and, of course, her marriage to Bonynge in 1954, in a quiet ceremony at Kensington Church. The bride wore a red velvet gown – no bloodstained white wedding dress in sight!

Back in Woollahra, the once splendid Vine Cottage 
at 115 Queen Street was sold in the 1950s and now
 sits crumbling and derelict – “propped up by chicken wire,” Joan would joke. Despite its dilapidated state,
it went on the market in 2011 and sold for $4 million.
 It is now listed as a heritage property – because of the historic nature of the building itself rather than its status as the childhood residence of one of Australia’s cultural icons – and is set to be restored to its former glory. But the late, legendary Dame Joan will always have another home in Australia: last year the opera theatre of Sydney Opera House was renamed the Joan Sutherland Theatre in her honour. During the 1970s, the great soprano returned to Australia from an endless parade of international triumphs to give more than 250 performances in the city of her birth. Just like it says
 in her beloved encore song, Home, Sweet Home: “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”