Dame Joan Sutherland, hailed as the greatest opera soprano of her time, has died in Switzerland at the age of 83.

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The Australian opera singer made her debut at the Covent Garden Opera House in 1952 and within a few weeks she was called on to sing a leading role at six hours notice when a prima donna from the Hamburg State Opera fell ill.

Dame Joan married Charles Bonynge in 1954 - they had known each other in Australia and he came to London just a year before her on a pianist scholarship.

He set aside his work as a concert pianist to become her manager, coach and accompanist before he took up a serious and successful career conducting in 1962.

Bonynge persuaded her to give up heavy Wagnerian roles and devote herself to the bel canto operas but initially she had difficulty associating herself and her physique with that repertory and frail heroines.

She was helped by the acting lessons given to her at Covent Garden by Norman Ayrton but she finally overcame her inhibitions under the coaching of Franco Zeffirelli who was responsible for the first production staged at Covent Garden with her in mind in the title role - Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor.

Dame Joan Sutherland dies aged 83 (credit:Getty Images)

La Stupenda
When the company took the production to La Scala in Italy she was hailed as La Stupenda - a tribute that stayed with her for the rest of her career.

Over the years an enormous list of live performances and recordings have borne out the breadth of her repertory.

In 1961 she was awarded the CBE and in 1978 she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her services to the performing arts.

The Royal Opera House presented her with its silver medal for long service in 1980.

She was still returning to Covent Garden for performances when she was over 60.