Beautiful singing, according to Sir Richard Bonynge



Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer

Beautiful singing embodies what illustrious conductor and pianist Sir Richard Alan Bonynge and his late wife, Dame Joan Sutherland, a celebrated singer, brought to the stage for more than 50 years.

After a gentle coaxing from good friend and vocal master Marlena Malas, Bonynge makes his first visit to Chautauqua’s grounds, as he imparts invaluable wisdom on young vocalists.

“I thought it was out in the forest somewhere,” Bonynge said about Chautauqua. “To me, it’s the embodiment of Americana, with these wonderful old houses and the lake.”

Bonynge’s strength is bel canto, an operatic style that translates to “beautiful singing.” His experience and expertise in the form makes him arguably the most sought after man in opera.

“It is a real coup to have him here,” Malas said about Bonynge, with whom she, alongside her husband, Spiro, has worked since the 1960s. “He’s the last of the era that has that knowledge of bel canto singing. And I felt as if the students heard it from him, it would carry much more weight.”

The Voice Program is performing Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto-inspired L’elisir d’amore at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Fletcher Hall. It will be the second consecutive night, featuring an alternate cast from Wednesday night’s performance.

“There’s not a note in the opera that’s not wonderful,” Bonynge said. “It’s very moving and charming. And one has to teach that to the students to sing in the same way.”

The comedic Romantic opera, sung in the bel canto style, follows Nemorino as he vies for Adina’s affection. In this modernized performance, by John Giampietro, Adina’s love for cinematic romance clouds her real world view of love.

“What (Giampietro) does with moving the scenes around is extremely good,” Bonynge said. “It’s very inventive, and it’s very musically charming. I think he’s got a big talent.”

Alexander Lewis, who played the lead tenor role of Nemorino in last night’s performance, shares more than an Australian upbringing with Bonynge.

“He’s so passionate about bel canto music, because it requires a lot of finesse and grace,” Lewis said about Bonynge, who has worked with Lewis’ musical family since the 1970s.

This fall, Bonynge will conduct Lewis’ father, Michael, in Rodelinda.

“They both want to work, and they both want to sing,” Bonynge said about the similarities between Lewis and his father. “They both also have the instincts to do so. And I think Alex has got the potential to be a very good singer.”

Bonynge added he has enjoyed the talent and respect from all the vocalists he has encountered at Chautauqua.

“They don’t object to being told things,” Bonynge said. “And I tell them like it is. They’ve got to be told the truth in order to realize their fullness. Until they realize it themselves, there’s no way they’re going to start correcting their flaws.”

A noticeable flaw Bonynge sees in young vocalists is their reliance on booming their voices, rather than singing.

“One wants to feel great pleasure in singing,” Bonynge said. “But it’s hard when you’re listening to someone yell at you all the time. Real opera is about real voices projecting naturally into a theater.”

Bonynge said vocalists should never use 80 percent or more of their voices. But the demand for loud stage performances has bombarded theaters and ears alike.

“They tend to belt it out at you,” Bonynge said. “But I don’t want to be assaulted, because my ears are delicate.”

By adding the bel canto repertoire, Bonynge said he thinks young vocalists can properly use their voices without much strain. It also helps them overcome being miscast or overworked.

“So many young people want to make this a career,” Bonynge said. “But only 10 percent of them are going to make it. That’s something that’s tough to live with.”

It takes patience, focus and time to truly develop a role correctly. And Bonynge, along with Sutherland, personifies that commitment.

“They took a really long time to break things down,” Lewis said. “They were training voices to be able to bring as many different colors out.”

Bonynge continues his teaching internationally, but is very impressed with Chautauqua’s Voice Program, its professional teachers and its young vocalists.

“I know nowhere that’s quite as all-around as here. I think it’s a wonderful place,” he said.