Richard Bonynge might be a boy from Bondi but his cultural roots have grown deep in the history and conflicts of late medieval Europe and surprisingly, he has family connections with Ireland.
This came about when his Huguenot ancestors fled persecutions emanating from rivalry with Catholics in France in the late 16th century, at which time Bonynges migrated first to England and in 1601 moved to Ireland. "My family was in the south of Ireland for centuries, and my great-grandfather had four sons. One stayed in Ireland, one went to England, one to America and one to Australia. I've come from that one. But most of the Bonynges had female issue and I think that our lot are the last of the line," Bonynge said.
Which explains his affinity with and love for Ireland and its music. His family lived in County Clare. "I adore Ireland. It is a marvellous place. I don't go as often as I'd like, but in the future I hope to do more. I want to go and discover where my family came from which I haven't had the time to do as yet.
"Two of the composers I'm delving into at the moment are William (Vincent) Wallace and Michael Balfe. They're very neglected and I think their operas are quite wonderful. Some of them are a little hampered by rather quaint Victorian libretti but the music is wonderful. I did a concert recently with all music of Wallace in London and it was very exciting and I enjoyed it very much."
This is just part of the music harvest of centuries to come under Bonynge's keen research eye. Over the years it has become a major part of his involvement in music and his accomplishments as both conductor and music scholar were recognised when he received the award of Commander of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth during her Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977.
"I have always enjoyed researching. I'm a dreadful collector," Bonynge confesses. "In the early 1950s I used to do all the shops in London and Paris and Brussels. You could pick up music and scores, even autograph scores for a song in those days."
If the British award seems apt for this conductor who went to England and has been part of its music scene since he left Australia at the age of 19, so too is the Chevalier de l'Ordre National de Mérite awarded to him by the French government, since France was the Bonynge home all those centuries ago. He has also championed French music at a time when it was not in vogue.
"In the '50s people were not interested in the music of Gounod, Massenet, Delibes and composers like that so I picked up an enormous amount of scores. I have a huge library at home. I go to other libraries at times but I can really do most of "my research in my own home. I used to get really excited about it.
"I remember going to a music shop in Paris, well behind the opera, where there were two rooms with music stacked from floors to ceilings and I would spend the whole day rummaging through this stuff. I'd have a pile maybe two feet high that I couldn't really carry.
"The woman there just ran her finger down the pile and said ‘a franc each’ without even looking at what I'd bought. You could discover things then but these days it's very difficult because everybody seems to know the value, or even put too high a value on things. It's difficult to find what you want now. But I've got everything so it doesn't matter."
The Bonynge home in Switzerland was a convenient location during the years when Joan Sutherland's career was flourishing in Europe. Now it is a refuge where he finds privacy. "I've lived in Switzerland for 45 years practically. That's where I have all my things. I'm a very possession conscious person. I love all my collections of pictures, porcelain and I like to be surrounded by them.
"We also have a home in Sydney which I love to come to. I come thinking it will be a nice holiday but it never works that way. There are so many things you're likely to do. In Switzerland I live way up in the mountains and have absolute privacy. I can do my own thing all the time."
The story of Bonynge's early studies as a pianist in Sydney and at London's Royal College of Music is well known, of how his interests shifted to opera, a repertoire he pursued seriously when Joan Sutherland arrived in London to study voice, and he became her accompanist, voice coach and eventually, her husband.
In October next year he recalls Dame Joan's early success in Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden, when he conducts the John Copley production of the opera for Opera Queensland. It is many years since Bonynge has been involved with opera in Brisbane but he remembers "the marvellous old Her Majesty's Theatre where you could smell the fish and chips coming up." The old theatres are always much better than the modern ones. I much prefer them.
"We have just been in South America, at Buenos Aires, which has one of biggest theatres of all and its got one of the best acoustics you could ever hear, that and at Naples. They are in the horseshoe shape."
He has lost count of how many Lucia performances he has conducted. "I've done a lot of them. I don't know how many. I'd have to count up again, certainly more than 200, different productions in so many different countries, and even different productions in the same countries.
"The one I remember most is the Zeffirelli in 1959. It was quite extraordinary and was repeated many times in London. We did a wonderful one in Hamburg and there is the one we're doing in Brisbane, and a very lovely old production it is too.
"Those three stick in my memory. There was one in San Francisco where the backdrop looked like Swiss cheese. It was full of holes. I don't like those updated productions. I like a real old-fashioned production. An opera belongs in its period and I don't think it should be taken out of it."
Every time he conducts an opera it is a learning experience. He finds out more about it. You must never stagnate with a piece. You have to keep looking at it and keep thinking about it, he says.
"The Scott novel is riveting to read. It makes a very great opera because it's very taut. To me in many ways, the greatest scene is the last scene which is for the tenor and is the most glorious music. It's a real good melodrama that works in the theatre and holds your interest. It's a first rate opera and deserves to be taken very seriously. It's beautifully written. The recitatives are wonderfully written.
"It's a very interesting thing that Donizetti, himself a manic depressive who died of madness in the end, would write this opera about a woman who was slightly insane at the beginning and going absolutely insane towards the end. It's a marvellous music setting of insanity, really."
It is among his favorites, although he admits he has so many favorites it is difficult to choose. He is also renowned for his ballet recordings. With Dame Alicia Markova he recorded The Art of the Prima Ballerina, Homage of Pavlova and Pas de Deux, among many others. He loves the big romantic ballet scores, Tchaikovsky in particular.
"If I could actually choose what I would do I'd like to do much more of the Mozart repertoire. I've done all the big ones but I don't do them often enough. To me he was the greatest genius of all time, greater than Bach, but then I'm very theatrical minded."
Much has changed in the world of opera and singing since Bonynge left Bondi all those years ago to find fame in Europe. The taste in music has changed. Rossini operas were not popular in the 1950s. They were too difficult to sing. Nor did people care much about early Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini or Massenet. Bonynge's research helped change that.
"In the 1970s it started to change and all these pieces have become absolute repertoire. Bellini's right up the top there and all the early Verdis are highly considered which is a great thing as far as I'm concerned. I always have great fun with them. I buy these scores and then I go home and read them as one would read a book, just lying in bed.
"Then I'd play them and sing, or rather make a noise to myself, and discover things.
"I would read about which operas had been performed a great deal in the 18th and 19th centuries and would think: ‘This opera was such an enormous success in those days, why is it forgotten?’ So I'd take the time to really study it, and most of the ones that were really famous stood the test, and one brought many of them back to the public domain, which was great."
Now the experience of television has changed how operas are cast. They are done visually rather than vocally, Bonynge believes. Young singers get pushed into big roles before they are ready for them, before their voices have had a chance to develop. The man who coached Sutherland into the great bel canto coloratura roles would now advise young singers to have more patience, realise that they must forge a great technique and learn how to breathe properly.
"So many of the young singers don't breathe properly," he said. "They don't have a solid technique to fall back on when things go wrong. You know singers get colds, and you can't cancel every time you get a cold. You have to sing under all sorts of circumstances and it's technique that's important for young singers. But they must study hard and they must be patient and not jump into big roles too soon.
"The great old singers, by and large, had a big apprenticeship. Rossini himself said it took seven years to make a voice. Financially a lot of singers today have to do as they are told and accept what they're offered because they have to live. So it's all a vicious circle in many ways.
"Today there's very much a paucity of great large voices. That's not to say opera is on a down scale. It's just different. Today you can perform all the Rossini operas, and operas which require slightly lighter voices are much easier to perform than the big things like the heavy Verdis and the Wagners which have become very difficult to cast these days.
"I admit that I am very spoilt but I grew up on all the early Wagner performances. I saw Flagstad, Hans Hotter and Gottlob Frick and they were absolutely sensational. I don't think I've ever enjoyed any Wagner performance as much as I did those of the early 50s. And I don't think it's just distance lending enchantment because you can find recordings of some of these performances and you realise just how great they were.
"It's changed, that's for sure. What you hear today is not what one heard years ago. Recordings are not honest any more. They twiddle with knobs and all these small voices sound as if they are big voices and when you hear them you are disappointed. I don't like that at all. What I really like to collect are all the old recordings from all over the place, in London, New York.
"In Argentina I found a whole stack of them and they told me you can find them all on the internet, but I haven't really discovered the internet yet. I'm frightened of it because I think if I get too interested in the internet I won't get enough stuff done that I need to get done."
So what else does Richard Bonynge want to do, apart from conducting more Mozart?
"Write a few books, that's what I really want to do but I travel so much I don't get time. I've been very lucky all my life and had opportunities to do so many of the things I've wanted to do.
"There are always new things I'm happy to do but I can't say that I'm dying to do any particular piece. Perhaps more of the French 19th-century music, and I'd like to do some more of the Irish music. I'd really like to go into that if I can."
Coming up are a couple of months free of engagements before he starts the New Year with a Lucia in America, Lakmé in Australia, some concerts, a Sonnambula in America, some recordings.
"I do like recording very much. I started in '62 and have been at it every year since," says the maestro, with no mention of retirement.
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