Dame Joan Sutherland on stage holding flowers with the cast applauding her.

Before They Were Famous: Joan Sutherland

Joan Sutherland wins 1950 Mobil Quest Singing Competition

Emerging Singer Wins 1950 Radio Contest
 Adam Blackshaw

It was 70 years ago – on 10 September 1950 – that the 23-year-old Joan Sutherland won a major singing competition that helped set her on the road to international stardom.

The world has come to know Dame Joan Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE (1926 – 2010) as one of the greatest opera voices of the 20th century and one of the finest dramatic coloratura sopranos ever to appear on the international stage.

She was dubbed ‘La Stupenda’ – the stupendous or astounding – in 1960, for her performances of great beauty and power. But as with all great talent, she had to start somewhere.

From Secretary to Singer

Portrait of Dame Joan Sutherland
Dame Joan Sutherland, 1964. Photo: Geoff Charter. Courtesy: Sharon Terry.


In August 1947, when Joan Sutherland made her debut in a concert performance as Purcell’s Dido, she was working as a secretary.

It wasn't until 1949 that she felt secure enough to resign her day job to concentrate on her singing.

That was the year, at age 22, that she won the prestigious Sun Aria award, run by the Sydney Eisteddfod. 

Later that year she was a runner-up to Australian baritone Ronal Jackson in the Mobil Quest competition, a classical music contest produced by radio station 3DB in Melbourne and relayed to over 50 stations across Australia.

Devotion to the Quest

Mobil Quest had been a launching pad for many successful artists and offered the lure of generous prize money.

In 1950, according to newspaper reports, more than 900 singers entered the contest, with 54 participating in heats and finals that had been broadcast by radio.

Joan was one of the final six competing on 10 September 1950, performing before a live audience at Melbourne Town Hall alongside David Allen, baritone, from Melbourne; Robert Allman, bass baritone from Melbourne; Edwin Liddle, tenor, from Melbourne; William Smith, bass, from Newcastle; and Maureen Boyce, soprano, from Melbourne.

Each singer had to perform an operatic aria and a ballad for a chance to win £1,000. In this clip, Joan is announced as the winner and she performs her aria, ‘Dich teure Halle (Dear Hall of Song)' from Act II of Wagner’s 1845 opera, Tannhäuser:

Joan Sutherland performing ‘Dich Teure Halle (Dear Hall of Song)' from Tannhäuser at the Mobil Quest singing contest, 1950. NFSA title: 242106

Newspapers described Joan as ‘obviously overcome by her success’. In this clip from the original broadcast, having already been announced as the winner, she performs her encore, ‘Devotion (Widmung)', composed in 1840 by Robert Schumann:

Joan Sutherland performing ‘Devotion (Widmung)' at the Mobil Quest singing contest, 1950. NFSA title: 242106

'I wanted to sing at Covent Garden'

Following her Mobil Quest success, Joan was on her way. The following year, she made her first appearance in a staged opera, singing the title role in Judith in Sydney.

With the proceeds of her winnings, and funds raised by a Mobil-sponsored farewell concert, Joan travelled to London to further her singing education and pursue her dream of performing at Covent Garden.

She soon earned a place at the Royal College of Music in London and in 1952 was accepted into the Royal Opera company at Covent Garden.

Here she describes to Australian interviewer Binny Lum in 1964 what it was like to achieve her dream:

Binnie Lum interviews Dame Joan Sutherland (excerpt), 1964. Courtesy: Sharon Terry. NFSA title: 1108374

Dame Joan Sutherland's career spanned another 40 years from her Covent Garden debut until her retirement in 1990. She passed away in 2010.