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LONDON (Reuters) - Australian opera star Joan Sutherland, known by her legion of fans as "La Stupenda," has died in Switzerland aged 83.
Her family said the soprano, once described by Luciano Pavarotti as "the greatest voice of the century," passed away peacefully in the early hours of Sunday morning after suffering a long illness.
She died in Switzerland where she had retired to live near Montreux.
"She's a very important person all over the world, but for us this is our family and we're just trying to come to terms with this," her daughter-in-law Helen told the Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian daily.
Leading figures in music paid tribute to the singer, best known for the bel canto operas of Donizetti and Bellini.
"She actually was 'Stupenda'," said Antonio Pappano, music director at the Royal Opera in London.
"A lovely human being who could sing anybody off the stage. And I mean anybody. What she did for bel canto music and its technique cannot be underestimated. We have lost one of the true greats."
The daughter of a gifted singer, Sutherland studied piano and voice with her mother, and made her singing debut in a concert performance of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" in Sydney in 1947.
Her operatic debut came in the title role of Sir Eugene Goossens's "Judith" in 1951.
The following year Sutherland was accepted into the company of London's Royal Opera House, where she first performed as the First Lady in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
She sang a wide range of roles, but her husband and long-time collaborator, the conductor Richard Bonynge, was convinced that her future lay in the florid passages of the coloratura repertoire.
Although initially doubtful about the change of style, Sutherland achieved lasting fame in 1959 when she sang Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in a Franco Zeffirelli production at Covent Garden.
Descending a staircase in a bloodstained nightgown in Lucia's mad scene, Sutherland was hailed as a star for a performance dubbed by one critic as one of the greatest sensations in operatic history.
Her execution of the same role at New York's Metropolitan Opera was equally revered. "Joan Sutherland came, sang, and conquered," one reviewer wrote in 1961.
She won a Grammy award that year and another one in 1981.
Sutherland sang in nearly 50 operas, performing with many of the greats of her generation and making dozens of acclaimed recordings.
Increasing problems with arthritis and fears that her voice was showing its age persuaded Sutherland to retire in 1990 after a career spanning some 40 years.
Her farewell performances in her native Sydney were as Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots" and the last stage appearance was alongside Pavarotti in "Die Fledermaus" at The Royal Opera House on December 31, 1989.
After her retirement from the stage, Sutherland remained active in nurturing young singers, and became a regular fixture on the jury of singing competitions worldwide.
Sutherland was made Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1979 and received an Order of Merit in 1991.
She is survived by Bonynge, their son Adam and daughter-in-law Helen.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Mark Heinrich