The purity and balance of the emission, the flexibility of the instrument, the beauty of the timbre and the breath control that made the wildest fiorettature sound so apparently effortless -- Sutherland had everything to become the greatest coloratura singer of the 20th Century. She even turned her limitations -- the downright bad diction that not even her most ardent fans can seriously defend -- into her trademark.
Her talent was so astonishing that she made you forget everything else -- she's the anti-realist soprano, there's no opera as musical theater in her universe (no wonder she thought modern stagings were ridiculously beside the point). Sutherland is there, tall and gawky and who cares if she's double the size of the tenor unless the tenor is Pavarotti, she's soaring above that, bending sound to her will, creating extraordinary music that, if you listen close enough, will reveal you secrets -- it's the stuff the Sirens were supposed to do, "tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world", according to Homer (via Butler).
Not to mention, the favorite pastime of some opera lovers, taxidermy, is ill-fitted to explain her work and her life. Thanks to an extraordinary husband -- a much better musicologist and vocal coach than a conductor, but, another of her wonders, she makes his limitations in the pit beside the point -- Sutherland made opera travel in time, bringing the past back to glorious life. She and Bonynge revived a repertory that was considered inferior simply for the lack of the right voice to bring it back to us -- they went back in time and gave a most conservative opera world an actual revolution. Her range and versatility always beat the odds, laughed at the nay-sayers (just consider her mid-career Turandot), taught us that it's pointless to look back at Malibran and Pasta and all the other great dead singers who might or might not have sounded the way we've been taught they did.
Sutherland makes nostalgia look silly -- there's no repertory that's too hard to bring back to life, if you have the talent. She makes us hope that someone else -- with the right voice and, maybe, the right mentor -- will come after her, to surprise us, to show us once again how it's done, here and now. Her work -- and Bonynge's -- remains so fresh because it's so open to new possibilities.
But then, Joan Sutherland made everything look effortless -- the very definition of genius.