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Dame Joan farewelled at Westminster Abbey


The voice of Dame Joan Sutherland has flooded London's Westminster Abbey during a thanksgiving service for the late opera great.

The Australian diva died at the age of 83 in her Switzerland home in October last year.

On a cold, grey and miserable winter's day, more than 2,000 fans, family and dignitaries, including Prince Charles, packed the famous church for one last performance.

The former Royal Opera House director, Sir John Tooley, spoke of a shy ungainly girl who ended up, as Luciano Pavarotti described her, the "voice of the century".

More than two decades since her final bow, recordings of the Australian's breath-taking renditions of Casta Diva from Norma and Let The Bright Seraphim from Samson were played out during the emotional ceremony.

It is a tremendous and rare honour to be farewelled at Westminster Abbey. Its last memorial service for an Australian was for former prime minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1978.

Her family was involved in the ceremony, with her husband of 56 years, Richard Bonynge, composing himself for a reading, while her grandson, Vanya Bonynge touchingly walked up the aisle carrying her honour medals on a cushion.

Dame Joan made her name just a walk away from the Abbey at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, propelling herself to international acclaim in the production of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959.

'Cream of the music world'

Young Sydney-born soprano Valda Wilson was the soloist for the ceremony and joked that she feared she would have a heart attack during one of her performances.

"The sense of occasion and the people in the room, it was the cream of the music world. I was a bit worried I was going to have a cardiac [arrest]," said the former recipient of a study grant from the Joan Sutherland Society.

"I sat down after one of the songs and my heart was going da-dum, da-dum, da-dum."

Ms Wilson said she had never met Dame Joan, not wanting to "annoy" her when she had the chance at her 80th birthday celebrations.

The 28-year-old said that despite Dame Joan having not sung in public for 21 years, she remained an inspiration for young Australian opera singers.

"There are a lot coming through, I am not quite sure what it is," she said.

"Maybe it is something to do with the wide open spaces but we seem to produce a lot of big, clear voices, which is great for opera."


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