GENEVA - Joan Sutherland, a former small town secretarial school student whose mastery of tone, astonishing range and vocal control vaulted her into the top echelons of opera, has died at 83 after a four-decade career that won her praise as the successor to legend Maria Callas.
Nicknamed "La Stupenda" - the Stupendous One - by her fans after a fantastic 1960 performance of Handel's Alcina and lauded by Luciano Pavarotti as "the voice of the century," she died Sunday at her home near Geneva, after what her family described as a long illness.
And it was not only Italian fans who were entranced. For Germans, she was the "Koloraturawunder." English-speaking opera-goers called her "The Incomparable" for her mastery of the coloratura - the vocal ability to effortlessly sing difficult trills and rapid passages in high registers.
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli said he knew Sutherland's voice rivaled that of Callas from the moment he heard it, and he recalled taking Callas to hear Sutherland at a Covent Garden dress rehearsal.
The two sopranos, he said, were never artistic rivals.
"They were two enormous artists. People should stop indulging in gossip. They respected one another. When you reach that kind of level you are beyond how normal people react. They were absolutely above these petty jealousies," Zeffirelli told The Associated Press by telephone.
Sutherland, Zeffirelli recalled, was discovered by Tullio Serafin, who also worked with Callas and who urged Zeffirelli to direct her in her 1959 Covent Garden performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor," which launched her to international stardom.
"I went to the hotel, and he said, 'I want you to meet someone. Don't worry about her looks,' " Zeffirelli recalled. "We went to the theater and I saw her, as big as a sergeant in the army with a terrible Australian accent. I was really embarrassed."
"We started to hang out and play the piano and she started to sing, and she conquered me. I said, my God, it is going to be big trouble for Callas."
The late tenor Pavarotti, who joined with Marilyn Horne in Sutherland's farewell gala recital at Covent Garden on Dec. 31, 1990, called her "the greatest coloratura soprano of all time."
Sutherland was the soprano to Pavarotti's tenor when he delivered nine high Cs in the 1960s at the Met in a role that earned him world fame - Tonio in "La Fille du Regiment." He made his debut in the United States in 1965 thanks to Sutherland.
While under contract at London's Covent Garden she sang Mozart, Poulenc, Verdi - even Wagner.
But her 1954 marriage to pianist and conductor Richard Bonynge, a fellow Australian whom she had met in the 1940s, set her on her future bel canto path after he persuaded her it was this for which her voice was best suited.
Close friends say Sutherland, who broke both legs during a fall at her home in 2008, had been unwell recently but didn't share the details.