Master's Thesis

On October 9, Richard Bonynge gives his first-ever public New York City masterclass, at the Juilliard School of Music. BRIAN KELLOW speaks with the veteran conductor about bel canto style, current teaching standards and his life with La Stupenda.

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Richard Bonynge, leading a coaching session at the Georg Solti Accademia in Ladispoli, Italy
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Maestro Richard Bonynge
© Paul Gosney 2013

ON: This is your first public master class in New York. Why the long delay?

RB: Simple. Nobody asked me! 

ON: What's the first master class you ever conducted?

RB: I'm not sure. Early on, I did some in Aldeburgh, and I've done them in London and in Australia, but I haven't done that many, to be quite honest. 

ON: In such a short time, what do you hope to achieve?

RB: If you ask my candid opinion, I think they're a great waste of time, because you don't have the time to do anything. You get the odd person who will catch on to what you're after, and maybe it makes a little bit of difference, but with so many of them, nothing happens. One tries hard, but…. I enjoy them if you get a good singer to work with, someone musical who has some idea of what's going on, but so many of them are unmusical and lazy. 

ON: Why do you think that is the case?

RB: Well, the world has changed. Look at the television: they expect everything in a minute, and they all want to be stars yesterday. And to teach them to have a lot of patience — well, they don't want to know that. There are the odd ones who do. But so many singers today, and I include some of the most famous, are careless, and they don't really study hard enough. They get up and just do it. It's what I call "approximatura." 

They have all these television contests to see who's the best singer, and they've just done a survey, and not one of these people has amounted to anything. They're using microphones — and that's another thing that's bad about today. Amplification just kills the opera. 

ON: One of the most memorable master classes was one that your wife gave at the Juilliard School back in 1998. It was one of the funniest things I've ever experienced. A woman got up to sing from Anna Bolena

RB: Well, that would be a red rag to a bull!

ON: [Laughs] Right. This woman was quite talented, but she refused to tell her age at the beginning. And Dame Joan asked her twice, and finally the girl said, "A lady never tells her age." And your wife said, "Maybe you'd like to come over and whisper it in my ear!" I was laughing so hard.

RB: [Laughing] That's marvelous. I think that mid-thirties is a bit old to be doing master classes! When I say "red rag to a bull" with Joan, it's a bit like that with me, too. They come along as kids singing this very difficult repertoire that they should maybe be singing by age thirty. And in Australia, Liza Connell died and left money for a scholarship for a dramatic soprano. And they were asking my advice, and I said, well, you can't have a dramatic soprano who's thirty — there are hardly any dramatic sopranos under thirty-five. You can have a good shout, but….

ON: With the bel canto repertoire, why don't we heard so many of these individual features that we heard in the past — like that elasticity of rhythm, or a great trill?

RB: It's a matter of discipline. I think the teachers, by and large, are pretty bad. Dennis O'Neill is marvelous, I think — he's an inspiration. He doesn't talk a lot of psychological and physiological rubbish, which I think gets quite confusing. But so many of the singers don't knuckle down to really working. I feel that every singer should study for several years before getting up in public, but today they study a year or two, and up they go. But it's discipline that's lacking. In our society, there's very little discipline. My father said you do this, and I did it. It's not just in the arts. People say, you're getting old, and you think it was better fifty years ago, but it's true. It was. I don't think we're going to hear those monumental singers that we heard in the '50s, '60s, '70s, but on the other hand there are some young voices that are very interesting, and I don't think the human body has changed that much, so the voices must be there. But I don't think they get the chance to develop. Most of the great old singers sat in companies for years. Even in Sydney, from 1976 to 1986, we had a company of thirty-six people, and they sat there year after year, and things were double- and triple-cast. But that doesn't happen much anymore. They just bring in singers to do certain things. Sometimes they rehearse, and sometimes they don't. I'm a great believer in rehearsal. And the theaters are big, and the young singers think they have to yell. But they don't learn to project the voice properly, especially to project it in piano. And with so many of the bel canto singers, you can hear them counting, which drives me nuts. And they're not saying anything. They forget that they're there to interest and amuse us. 

ON: When you were first beginning Dame Joan's transition into bel canto, what was the biggest challenge you faced?

RB: The biggest challenge was to get out of her head that Wagner was the greatest composer of all. Wagner was a wonderful composer, but she believed Wagner was God. Not early on. Her mother was a very nervous woman, and she refused to go on — she should have, because she had a great mezzo voice. I remember when she was in her seventies, she could still sing marvelously, and float the top, and Joan listened to this as a kid. Her mother didn't teach her, but Joan listened. And then, in her late teens, or at twenty or so, she won a scholarship in Sydney, and these teachers decided, here's the new dramatic soprano, and they had her singing Isolde and Lohengrin and all those things. Of course she had a natural voice, and she could manage them quite well. When she came to London in 1951, I started working with her, and I would hear her, and when she was singing without thinking about it, it was a completely different sound — a more beautiful sound, an easier sound. My job was convincing her that that was her voice. In trying to sing Wagner, she would crack on Bs and Cs. And she was a hard worker, and she came to love bel canto, so there was no longer any trouble. The only trouble was the words — so many of the bel canto roles have similar words.   

ON: Was there ever a role that you wanted her to sing that you wound up having a tug-of-war over?

RB: Not really. When she began Esclarmonde, she didn't want to do it, because she was getting on a bit, and she didn't want to learn it. But then it was a big success, and in fact, Esclarmonde was the one disc she used to put on when she was retired. She never listened to herself — she wouldn't even go into the control room and listen to takes — but she liked to listen to that one. Anna Bolena she found difficult because it's so long….

ON: And dramatic.

RB: Very dramatic. She enjoyed singing Turandot, because it lay easily for her. And she had the bottom voice for it. 

ON: A lot of singers complain now that the musical preparation is so far outstripped by the time devoted to working with the stage director. 

RB: When Joan was doing operas with Serafin, you went in in the morning and did the entire opera, and when he was happy with that, you went home, and the next day you did the entire opera again, and the next day, and the next, and this went on for a couple of weeks. And you really got to know how to sing it and how he wanted it to go. Today, you go to the first rehearsal and it's staging. I had to fight sometimes to get the musical rehearsals, and some directors don't like you poking your nose into their productions. Bad luck as far as I'm concerned — I do it all the time. 

ON: What do you feel was your wife's greatest complete performance — as singer and actress?

RB: Her best Sonnambulas were charming, because it was so unlike her. She studied with Alicia Markova, and it was almost as if she was dancing Giselle. She was a big girl, and she managed that. Tebaldi did something similar with Butterfly; she suddenly became small. Stuarda was quite marvelous. Esclarmonde. Bolena could be exciting.

ON: I was there for her first Bolena, in Toronto in 1984. She was wonderful — very dramatic. 

RB: Lotfi Mansouri could push her into doing lots of things. He got her to do Hamlet, which she didn't want to do. She said it was ridiculous at her age. I said, "Well, Ellen Terry did it when she was sixty." But she was amenable. She could generally be talked into things. The only opera I didn't succeed in getting her to do was Così Fan Tutte. Someone told her it was the longest role in the repertoire, and that was that. I adored her singing Mozart. Her Donna Anna was very fine. 

ON: You've done some fantastic work with Sumi Jo, beginning with Carnaval!: French Coloratura Arias, which Decca released back in 1994.

RB: The first disc I did with her, I rang her up, and we had a chat, and she came to see me. We worked together. She was a good pianist and a very good sight reader. And she was strong; she didn't get tired. I remember we did a concert in Carnegie Hall, and she came to rehearsals, and it was a big program — Mozart and Puritani, everything you could think of — and she said, "I'm going to sing seven encores." I said, "You're joking!" She said, "No — here they are." She brought me six encores, and then she finished with an unaccompanied Korean folk song.

They were talking to me in Australia about doing a film about Melba, and they wanted us to make the soundtrack there, and I'm agreeable and she's agreeable, but they have to find the money. 

ON: Do you find, when you're doing master classes, that the Korean and Chinese sopranos often triumph over the others?

RB: Well, there was an old lady teacher in Korea who taught Sumi Jo, and she taught another young woman I worked with, and you could tell they came from the same stable. A lot of them have very good techniques and sing very well. The Chinese are amazing — I heard two Chinese tenors recently, and both of them are taller than I am, and they had biggish voices, and quite Westernized, and sang very well. The world has changed, so you grow up and get along with it! The Asians also have a work ethic. Some of them actually work too hard. I did a piano competition in Sydney, and out of about forty entrants, I think thirty-four or so were Asian or Asian–Australian. Just fantastic — some wonderful playing. It's funny, because today the standard of instrumental playing has gone up, the standard of dancing has gone up immensely, but the standard of singing has not gone up. But there are some very good voices. I heard La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden, and Colin Lee was better than Florez! Marvelous, beautiful singing. That I found encouraging. 

ON: Thank you so much. And thanks for all of the great performances that the two of you have given us. They mean more to me than I can tell you.

RB: Well, thank you. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It was marvelous. I've always been lucky. And I hope my luck holds out still!

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