Richard Bonynge and the Pursuit of Beautiful Sound

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We have all just celebrated the bicentennial of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi with renewed astonishment at his genius and vitality. As has often been remarked, he was the musical Shakespeare in that he presented the full range of human emotion and experience in one of the longest careers of any creative artist.

Although we think of Verdi’s birthday as October 10, some scholars insist it was October 9. I saw this discrepancy not as a cause for concern but as an opportunity for a total immersion in Verdi for 48 hours rather than 24. In addition to listening to some favorite music in historical performances I did not know (Simon Boccanegra from about 1950 with Astrid Varnay, Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren; a 1940 Requiem led by Toscanini), I tuned in to WQXR’s ongoing presentation of Verdi Week and spent time reading correspondence between the composer and Arrigo Boito, who wrote the librettos for Otello and Falstaff.

I also prepared a meal that Verdi and Boito might have enjoyed at Verdi’s farm at Sant’Agata: a platter of prosciutto di Parma followed by tortelli d’erbette (pasta filled with Swiss chard and tossed in butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese) and then crostata con marmellata di cachi, an open-faced tart with persimmon jam (Verdi was one of the first persimmon farmers in Italy).

But the absolute, unforgettable highlight of these giorni verdiani was being in the presence, and then the company, of Sir Richard Bonynge, the conductor and nonpareil authority on everything bel canto. For him, the foundation of all good singing is a thorough and secure knowledge of bel canto technique, “whether you are singing Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, or even Berg or Britten.”

The occasion for maestro Bonynge’s visit to New York was a master class he gave on October 9 at the Juilliard School in collaboration with the Georg Solti Accademia. This school in Castiglione della Pescaia in southwestern Tuscany is now in its tenth year. Founded by Lady Valerie Solti to continue the mission of education of promising young musicians begun by Sir Georg, it offers three weeks of intensive training with leading performers and coaches in a setting Solti loved where the students not only absorb the Italian language but that nation’s way of life. Twelve students come to the Accademia each year.

Georg Solti died in 1997. According to Lady Solti, he "was always grateful to his mentors and felt he had to hand on to others.” The great conductor studied with fellow Hungarians Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok. Two days spent with Richard Strauss had a profound effect on his approach to conducting, as did study with Arturo Toscanini.

In a panel discussion before the class, both Bonynge and Ms. Solti did not mince words about the state of singing and opera, although they spoke with utmost graciousness. Their message, with which I fully concur, is that there are no short cuts if you want to excel at your work. Whether it is about learning to sing or how directors can present operas in meaningful ways on the stage, what is required (in addition to great talent) is a lifetime of passionate engagement of which both Solti and Bonynge are sterling examples. 

Bonynge recalled the decade when he and his wife, the stupendous soprano Joan Sutherland, did what Verdi would have called anni di galera (galley years) of solid work with slow but gradual improvement and consolidation of talent, knowledge and skill. "When Joan and I worked with Tullio Serafin on roles in the 1950s, it was full opera every day for three weeks with no staging," he said. "Now, it is theater from day one and the producer scowls if musical issues are brought up." He lamented that most young artists do not have the opportunity to fully develop: “Joan worked 12 years before doing Lucia. Nowadays, singers are thrown in too soon and the theaters don’t care tuppence! To me, the only career that is worthwhile is a good long one.”

Ms. Solti made a succinct yet profound assessment of the more extreme productions of opera that audiences have faced in recent decades: "They do not look like what the music sounds like.” 

The master class featured five talented singers now studying at Juilliard. They are sopranos Raquel González, Hyesang Park and Elizabeth Sutphen, mezzo Virginie Verrez (below) and baritone Takaoki Onishi. All sang bel canto repertory by Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.

How to Make a Beautiful Sound

Bonynge was remarkable not only in terms of imparting culture and style, but in how he got each singer to make his/her sound more beautiful, more personal, less forced. In different ways with all of the singers, he politely but persuasively made the point that too many singers in their careers sing too loud for too long, not only damaging their voices but making less than ideal sounds.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it takes courage and discipline to sing quietly and beautifully," he explained. "It is much harder than all the loud singing you hear every day. The voice is more beautiful when you control the volume and keep the purity of line. When you start with much less voice in an aria you can have a gradual crescendo to the end. Only make beautiful sounds in this music and never louder than beautiful. Never give your maximum—ever! Eighty percent is enough.”

He frequently encouraged the students to give their singing more gloss, velvet or cream. I later asked him to define gloss: “It is sound which floats on the air and has wonderful resonance with no pushing. You hear the basic sound of the voice.”

I am sure I was not the only person seated in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard who was thinking how Joan Sutherland performed the music the sopranos sang at the master class. Listen to her and think about how she imparted beauty and meaning to three fiendishly hard arias: In “Care compagne...come per me sereno” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula; “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto and "Al dolce guidami” from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

On October 10, the day after the Juilliard/Solti Accademia classes, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend three hours with Bonynge for a wide-ranging conversation with a lot of focus on Verdi. When I sat down with him, I began by wishing him a happy 200th Giuseppe Verdi birthday. He said, “You know, today has another meaning for me as well. Joan died three years ago today.”

Clearly, Bonynge and Sutherland were very close and I reminded myself that they were artistic as well as personal partners. For me, when I knew them in the 1980s while I worked at the Met, they not only were performers who provided countless thrills but paragons of professionalism. Above all, they put the music first, never cut corners and always had fun. Audiences understood this and were able to share that feeling while reveling in what I now know was only eighty percent of the possible volume!

I asked him about the assertion that conductors tailor their playing according to who is singing. He replied “Tullio Serafin said to me, ‘My dear, the tempo is the tempo your singer can sing it at!’” We talked about singers he admired—Zinka Milanov, Kirsten Flagstad (“Wonderful bel canto singer”), Montserrat Caballé, Ebe Stignani, Marilyn Horne, Alfredo Kraus, Mario del Monaco, the young Luciano Pavarotti. 

And then, unbidden by me, he said, "I think Carlo Bergonzi is the great Verdi singer of our day." He cited not only the beauty of the voice but the naturalness of the singing, without undue effects not found in the music. He said, “Verdi knew rhythms. He wrote music you could sing with, not against. He never unnecessarily doubled instruments in the orchestra if it did not serve the drama. This allowed singers to sing in a beautiful way, even if not all of them do when it comes to Verdi.” Bonynge gave the example of Bergonzi’s singing of the aria “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller, an opera he would like to conduct. Here it is:

In September 2011, not quite a year after Sutherland’s passing, I published an article about Richard Bonynge. In it, I described some of his incomparable contributions to opera as a conductor, teacher and scholar. I also pointed out how precious and rare are his gifts and encouraged opera companies and educational institutions to secure his services. We need them now more than ever.