IN MEMORIUM A tribute to soprano Joan Sutherland and a look at the great sopranos down time. KISHORE CHATTERJEE

E arly October the coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland died. She had retired from active singing in the late 90s but her death marks the end of an era for coloratura style of singing. Today her mantle has fallen on Sumi Jo. Coloratura is the highest reach for the soprano which is already a high voice and only a few can sing in this style which was the hallmark of the Bel Canto era of Bellini and Donizetti, though even Mozart used the coloratura soprano in the role of the “Queen of the Night in Magic Flute.”

Sutherland has left behind a huge recorded legacy but her most daring role was the Woodbird in Wagner's “Sigfried” where the Woodbird sings and leads Sigfried into the cave where the giant Fafner is hiding, transformed into a dragon. Sutherland was a very generous superstar and she helped in the career development of singer Luciano Pavarotti at a time when he was just becoming well- known. She insisted on taking Pavarotti as her co-star in recordings of Verdi and other composers.

Over the last 20 years, the classical music world has lost several great singers. The first to go in the early 90s was Lucia Popp, a wonderful voice and also a coloratura. Some regard Popp as one of the finest singers of the 20th Century and indeed for sheer vocal qualities she is hard to match. She sang in Mozart's “Magic Flute” and also in many religious compositions like Schubert's masses. Sadly, she died in her early 50s just when her career was blooming.

Another Bach specialist was singer Arleen Auger who died in the early 90s at the height of her career. Both Popp and Auger left behind a rich recording legacy. Auger was a regular in the Bach cantatas and other religious works by composers.

If Popp and Auger's passing was a tragedy for the music world, the death of singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was a disaster. She was the first internationally renowned soprano to pass away in the present century. A specialist in Handel and Bach, she made it possible for researchers to bring to light rare Handel Oratorios like “Susana and Theodora” and many of the Handel operas. She was also equally breathtaking in Bach and the French Baroque. Handel's operas were neglected and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sung them and made them popular. Another great soprano who passed away in first decade of the current century was none other than the golden voiced Victoria de Los Angeles. Many believed that she possessed the finest voice amongst sopranos and considered her the singer of the millennium. Her recordings of Carmen and Verdi's “La Traviata” and Puccini's “Madame Butterfly” and “La Boehme” are landmarks in recording history. Her voice not only had sweetness but a special dramatic quality that was unique and razor sharp. Once you heard this voice, it was impossible to forget it. A Spanish singer, she created a renaissance of Granados. Her rendering in Gabriel Faure's “Requiem” was just sublime.

From good to great

Fortunately, singers like Victoria de Los Angeles and Joan Sutherland have been very well represented through recordings. But younger singers like Popp, Auger and Hunto Lieberson were just beginning a transition from just being good to being great when they passed away. That's why their recordings are less in number. The soprano is a very rare voice at the highest level and today among living sopranos one can place Cecilia Bartoli, Angela Gheorghiu, Sumi Jo, Barbara Bonney, Kathleen Battle and Don Upshaw, to mention just a few, who have lasted in the limelight. The opera world, where sopranos are born and slowly achieve greatness, has a tendency to bring to light new talents. But no soprano can be called great unless she has been constantly in the limelight for at least a decade . The few names mentioned above have done so.

Battle in fact is quite senior and many consider her past her prime but she has given a good idea of her class in her recordings. Mention must be made of Gundula Janowitz who has long since retired. Like Popp she had the most beautiful voice and was equally at home in opera and recitals. It is difficult to forget her singing in Schubert's “Ave Maria” and Richard Strauss's “Four Last Songs.”

Another singer who has passed away and was the queen of many recording projects was Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. She was married to the brilliant recording producer Walter Legge which made it possible for her career to take off. But she had a limited voice compared to say Janowitz or Popp. There are no great sopranos today and one looks forward to the future where a star may rise.