A Prima Donna’s Progress
The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997
Many Books for Joan Sutherland
Although the number of books written about Joan Sutherland is not as large as that of another great soprano of the 20th century, Maria Callas, the Australian primadonna too had her own good amount of publications. Among the most notable biographies, there are the early work by Russell Brandon Joan Sutherland (1962), which now is definitely dated; La Stupenda by Brian Adams (1981); and Norma Major’s Joan Sutherland (1987). However good these books are, anyway, they do not cover the entire subject in detail.
Then there are several photographic collections. The most interesting is for sure the one Sutherland edited together with her husband Richard Bonynge and which is entitled The Joan Sutherland Album. Other remarkable volumes are Joan Sutherland. A Tribute by Moffatt Oxenbould (1989) and finally Bonynge’s wonderful Designs for a prima donna, which was published in five-hundred copies only.
Joan Sutherland’s Dry Style
None of the previously mentioned books is more exhaustive than Sutherland’s autobiography A Prima Donna’s Progress, published in 1997. This volume epitomizes in the best, even though mainly informative, way a long and glorious career and summarizes everything has been written before about Sutherland.
From her early years in Sydney to her final performances, Sutherland outlines an accurate and precise picture of her life and career and the only regret is that she has omitted any personal consideration about the events. There is no room for idle speculation or gossip in A Prima Donna’s Progress, but there are also no digressions on the art of singing or on the reason why she had chosen to sing one role or the other. Of course, Sutherland offers to the reader an account of her family life with all the joys and sorrows, her recollections of interesting and usually funny anecdotes about the rehearsals of the operas and the most significant quotes from reviews of the time, but all this material is collected in a way that makes the book more similar to an impersonal diary rather than to a confession.
It seems that Sutherland’s primary interest is to list in a chronological order virtually all the most significant events that led her to become “La Stupenda”. Unfortunately, the downside is that in the end her narration runs the risk of becoming monotonous.
A Well-Ordered Book
The good think is that A Prima Donna’s Progress includes the account of every significant debut and recording Sutherland has made during her career, so that you will find in this book at least a scrap of information on everything you need to know about her.
Moreover, differently from the autobiographies of other singers, A Prima Donna’s Progress is noteworthy for its coherency and logical order. Its strict structure avoids the confusion that sometimes makes a little difficult to enjoy the autobiographies written by Placido Domingo or Marilyn Horne. In this regard, A Prima Donna’s Progress is perhaps the most considered and the clearest book about an operatic singer that has ever been written and it explains perfectly its title. If Sutherland’s purpose was to illustrate the development of her career, definitely A Prima Donna’s Progress allows to understand fully this advancement, even though her narration is not one of the most effective.
The autobiography is completed by Sutherland’s List of Performances, where every role she sang, every album she recorded is carefully listed.