A Prima Donna’s Progress
The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997
Books on Joan Sutherland: Review
Although Joan Sutherland cannot boast the large bibliography of another great soprano of the 20th century, Maria Callas, she has her own good catalog as well. You will find both biographies and photographic collections, beginning with Russell Brandon’s old and dated Joan Sutherland (1962); La Stupenda by Brian Adams (1981); and Norma Major’s Joan Sutherland (1987). The most interesting photo reportage is for sure The Joan Sutherland Album, which Sutherland edited with her husband Richard Bonynge. Other remarkable works are Joan Sutherland. A Tribute by Moffatt Oxenbould (1989) and finally Bonynge’s wonderful Designs for a Prima Donna, published in five-hundred copies only.
Joan Sutherland’s Dry Style
None of these books is more exhaustive than Sutherland’s own autobiography A Prima Donna’s Progress, published in 1997. This volume is not perfect, but it summarizes as synthetically as possible a long and glorious career.
From her early years in Sydney to her final performances, Sutherland outlines meticulously her life and profession, with few personal thoughts and a lot of details about the performances. She includes quotes from contemporary reviews and gives accounts of her family life and of funny rehearsals. She avoids idle speculation and gossip, but omits digressions on the art of singing or on her roles as well.
The problem is the reading is boring after a while. The book looks like an impersonal diary, where the main interest is to list all the events in chronological order. There is not a pause, not a change of tone till the end of the chapter, and the next one begins exactly in the same, unemotional way. Sutherland has written a memoir, not a confession.
A Well-Ordered Book
A positive note about A Prima Donna’s Progress is that, due to its concision, it mentions every significant debut and recording featuring the Australian soprano. You don’t have to look any further if you need information about her. However, I consider it a book to consult, rather than one of those you read for pleasure.
One more consideration is necessary as this memoir belongs to the field of operatic autobiographies. Several of these books, like Placido Domingo’s or Marilyn Horne’s, are a little difficult to enjoy because of their inconsistencies. A Prima Donna’s Progress, on the contrary, is noteworthy for its lucidity.
In this regard, it explains its title clearly. If Sutherland’s purpose was to show the course of her career, A Prima Donna’s Progress fully highlights this advancement, even though it has not the most effective style.