The Authorized Biography
Introduction by Dame Joan Sutherland
Queen Anne Press, 1987 (and others)
Exactly ten years before Joan Sutherland published her own autobiography A Prima Donna’s Progress, Norma Major sent to press her volume about the Australian soprano. Considering that Sutherland’s book is ten years more recent and it is written by the great soprano herself, perhaps someone might think that it is not necessary anymore to waste time with any other book written before it. This is true to a certain extent because, after reading both books, I came to the conclusion that Major’s biography can be complementary to A Prima Donna’s Progress. I will immediately explain why.
Norma Major ’s Joan Sutherland v. Joan Sutherland’s A Prima Donna’s Progress
Simply entitled Joan Sutherland, Major’s biography can be roughly summarized in this way: it is a quite accurate account of the art and life of “La Stupenda”; it is half the length of the singer’s autobiography; it is less detailed but perhaps more fluent. While Sutherland’s autobiography is mainly an informative book, Major’s taste for writing is much more enjoyable than the dry style of the primadonna. And this is a strong point that will be hard to deny to Norma Major.
The downside of Major’s Joan Sutherland is that it is not as exhaustive as A Prima Donna’s Progress. In Sutherland’s book, you can find at least a scrap of information on everything you need to know about the Australian soprano. Major, on the contrary, lingers on her most significant performances only and virtually avoids every reference to her immense discography, as if this were an insignificant aspect in Sutherland’s career.
When you have to decide which book about Joan Sutherland to read, you will have to choose if you prefer a precise but schematic account of all her performances and recording sessions with just few digressions – and in this case, the choice will be A Prima Donna’s Progress – or a more enjoyable but less exhaustive volume – Major’s Joan Sutherland. Both volumes have their merits and defects; the good thing is that you will find that one or the other will be of your taste.
Major’s Joan Sutherland takes into consideration the most significant stages of the soprano’s career, offering from time to time digressions about the genesis of the operas (which are interesting especially when they give hints on the vocal style of the singer who created the role) and comparisons with other remarkable singers: Maria Callas and above all another great Australian soprano, Nellie Melba.
Quotes from the reviews of the time are attached to the narration of the debuts and the performances of the most important roles. In this selection, positive reviews have greater prominence, while the less favourable to Sutherland and to her husband Richard Bonynge are completely ignored or – and this is the most unpleasant cases – “corrected”, even though Major is never as biased as Marina Boagno in her biography of Franco Corelli.
Major’s sympathy towards Sutherland is manifest, but definitely not to the point of spoiling the book. It is honestly written and it include also pieces of information on Joan Sutherland’s private life, especially for what concerns her early years and the relationship of a perpetually travelling mother with her son.
Norma Major’s Joan Sutherland is still a book that is worth reading if you are curious about the great Australian primadonna. It has its limits, it is far from being complete and of course it is less authoritative that the autobiography written by Sutherland herself, but it is coherent, pleasant and well researched.