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Richard Bonynge in Conversation with Terry Lane and Jon Faine

Thursday, 1 August 2002 - 12:00am

JF: Richard Bonynge , our first guest. World class conductor, worked with some of the finest musicians, singers, orchestras and operas around the world. Visiting Melbourne to promote a new CD that's just been produced - I'll give you the details shortly. Good morning Richard.

Good morning.

JF: Thank you very much for joining us. That was beautiful. Tell us about what we were just listening to.

That was from an opera called Sappho from Massenet. It's one of the operas of Massenet which is very neglected, which I think is a great shame. Everybody knows, in the operatic world at least, knows Manon and maybe Werther, but there are so many other good ones. And Sappho is also a very good story, an updated Traviata.

JF: And so many of the operas that we do get are recycled, because they're popular and commercial and they get put on again and again and again - and others get ignored altogether. It's odd, isn't it?

I think it's a shame. I think that the main repertoire - the Traviatas, the Bohemes and the Butterflies - have to be heard all the time because there are always new audiences for them. The young people want to sing them; they sing them for the first time. But there are a lot of other wonderful pieces which are not performed. A lot of them deserve to be performed. Rather than some of this esoteric stuff that they put on because they think the critics are going to like it.

TL: There is a musical aphorism that there is no such thing as a neglected masterpiece, but it's been an important part of your career as a musicologist, restoring masterpieces.

I think that there have been neglected masterpieces. For example, an opera like Cosi Fan Tutti was neglected for the whole of the 19th century. Nobody was interested in it. And this century, we've revived pieces like Semiramade and Lucretia Borgia and Anna Bolena - they've become now repertoire all over the world. But in the 50s, they were unknown pieces.

JF: Why does it change? What dictates fads and fashion?

Taste, taste, taste. Who knows what dictates it. I mean people, they get sick of one thing after a while and want a change, I suppose.

TL: Through the late 18th century and much of the 19th century, when people went to the concert hall or the opera, they wanted to hear something new, didn't they? That was the difference from our time, when what we want and expect now is the standard repertoire over and over. But there was a period in musical life where if you heard a Beethoven symphony twice, it was an extraordinary thing.

I expect that Beethoven, actually his sound must have sounded fairly modern to the public of his day. But I wonder when people heard Mozart and Haydn for the first time, or even Rossini, did it sound so modern to them? I mean, when you hear modern works today, they're not beautiful on the ear, for the most part. There are exceptions of course. But a lot of them, it's really a pain to sit through them.

TL: Yes, the great pianist, Stephen Kovacevitch once described it - he said 'I don't play modern music; it would be like playing a traffic jam'!

Well, I grew up with a lot of modern music. I think I paid my dues when I was young. I don't bother any more.

TL: Your training was as a pianist, wasn't it?


JF: If you needed training. It sounds as if you were virtually born proficient.

No, I don't think so. I'm no Mozart. But I used to jump up on the piano stool when I was four and pick out the nursery rhymes, and things like that.

JF: But by the time you were twelve, I think you were performing with some orchestration in your life.

Yes, I played my first concerto when I was thirteen or fourteen.

JF: Well that doesn't just come from hard work. There's something else as well that comes into it.

No, I don't believe it does come from hard work. Not with me. I was not a particularly hard worker. I mean I worked, but I wasn't manic about it. No, there's an instinct there. You're born with it. And I was lucky to have it.

TL: Was your original intention to be a concert pianist?

Yes, that's what I wanted to do. Yes. And I loved it when I was young. I couldn't wait to get out there and perform - to get up on the stage and play concertos. I thought that was the most extraordinary thing that one could do. But then when I sort of got to about twenty or twenty-one, I suddenly developed nerves and I was terrified. I'd get out there and I'd sweat; it was rather horrible. And then, thankfully, I became very fascinated by the theatre and the opera, so I switched over a bit.

TL: By that time you were in London, were you?

I went to London in 1950. Yes, I was in London.

TL: So you made the transition from would-be concert pianist to conductor?

Not immediately, by no means. I had a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and I didn't particularly like my teacher. I mean he was probably a very good teacher and maybe he was very good for me because he was a big technician, and I daresay that's what I needed. But I wanted to study with a lady called Kathleen Long, who was a famous Mozart teacher, and that's what interested me. And they wouldn't let me. So I got into a rage and I left my scholarship and I went to study with a wonderful old pianist called Herbert Fryer, who was a pupil of Busoni. So there was a tradition there, and he taught me a lot. He taught me to love the piano. And then I played for a while. I did some work in Europe and in London. But I was much more fascinated by the theatre and the idea of practising piano seven or eight hours a day - which you have to do if you want to be really good - didn't appeal to me too much.

JF: Well I can understand why - the discipline that's required is simply staggering.

I was much more interested in doing lots of different sort of works. Whereas with the piano repertoire, you have to specialise a lot.

TL: When did you develop that interest? If we look at your recorded repertoire, there's a lot of, for instance, neglected French ballet music.

The reason that happened - again it's pure chance. Leaving Sydney in 1950, there was nothing here musically. If you went to the shops, you couldn't find any music to buy much. A little bit. But in London and in Paris, and in Brussels, the place was littered with old shops full of music, floor to ceiling, which cost you nothing. French music in those days was of no interest to people. The French especially, they were not interested in the great French composers. I used to go to the shops and I'd pick up all these scores and pay absolutely nothing for them. You'd pay anything from a franc to five francs for scores. I'd jump up on the ladders and climb up amongst the dust and I'd drag out scores. And they'd be signed by Massenet and Gounod and Delibes, even Meyebeer! So I just started collecting them. And I have a huge library at home now, so if I want to research, I don't have to go outside my own house. I just drag a score out and sit down at the piano and play it.

TL: And true autograph scores?

I have a lot, a lot of real autographs. Yes. Because, again, the autographs of Massenet, Offenbach, Delibes, Gounod were not being bought in the 50s. Nobody wanted them. So I have many complete operas in autograph, yes.

JF: Is there a collectors' market now for those items?

Unbelievably so, yes. I don't buy so much any more because they're very, very expensive to buy.

JF: I can understand why. It's the magnetism of celebrity but magnified, I suppose, by huge rarity.

But also some of those composers - people like Massenet and Offenbach and Delibes - have become much more popular than they were. They were out of fashion in the 40s and the 50s and now gradually they've become more and more played.

JF: It's like fashion, like clothes, isn't it. If you hold onto things for long enough, it all comes round again.

TL: But you're saying the French in particular despised the French.

Yes, you could go to Paris and, for example, they were not playing Berlioz and Meyebeer, of all people. They were not playing -

TL: Not playing Berlioz?

No. Not very much. That came later. And Meyebeer - still they don't play it enough. You hardly ever hear anything. And when they did do the Robert Diable at the Paris Opera they screwed it up by putting it in a horrible modern production. That's something else I can't stand - producers with their concepts of operas instead of doing what the composer and the librettist wanted.

TL: So what were they playing? What was the stock repertoire - was it Italian and German?

Yes, very much so. Especially German. Mind you, they used to do The Ring in French in Paris in the 50s. I used to love it in French; it sounded great.

TL: What point then did your career as a musicologist intercept with the career of Dame Joan Sutherland as a performer.

It all just happened. I never had to do anything about it. Joan and I worked from 1951 onwards constantly. I suppose I pushed her into a different direction. I definitely did, because I thought that she was capable of much more than she was doing. Covent Garden wanted her to take over from Sylvia Fisher, who was their great Wagnerian at the time. And they wanted to groom her to sing the Marschallin and the Brunnhilda and things like that. And I was dead against it, so I wasn't a very popular person around the place. But we won the day eventually. Maybe because David Webster - who was the Intendant of Covent Garden - was very pro. And I think he saw that we were maybe not on the wrong track and he eventually promised Joan 'Lucia di Lammemoor'. The board tried to stop it. They didn't want her to do it because they thought it had been done in London a couple of years previously by an Italian company, and they didn't think she was up to it. But then he insisted and, of course, the rest is history, so they say.

TL: Was Donizetti popular?

Not at that time, no. The only Donizetti that you would hear would have been L' Elisir D'amour and Don Pasquale. Practically nothing else. And now of course, Donizetti has become a famous composer again and the operas are done all over the world. In Italy and the States especially.

JF: Do you feel that you and Joan Sutherland, your wife, you've been responsible in part then for that?

Well, I suppose we had something to do with it because we loved them and we wanted to perform them, and because she had such drawing power, we were able to persuade theatres to put them on for us.

JF: Given your fascination with the history and the collecting of these rare objects - if you're responsible for bringing something out from the back shelf and putting it to the front, how do you feel about that?

I feel quite proud about it, to be quite honest. I was having fun and doing something perhaps good at the same time. Because it's wonderful to think that an opera like Semiramade - which today is quite a popular piece - or Lucrezia Borgia - they were not known at all. Nobody had heard them for 80 years or so.

JF: And then your judgement, your musical judgement is not just accepted but endorsed around the world.

I suppose by a lot of people, but not everyone agrees with me, I can assure you.

JF: But it's not often in anybody's life that you can sit back and say, well, I've made a difference to lives of probably millions.

But I've just been lucky all my life. And I'm a great believer in luck. There are a lot of good musicians around the place that never get off the ground because perhaps they don't get that lucky break. I had the breaks. I was lucky.

JF: Is it just luck or is there something else? Is it the reading of the market?

You've got to be prepared. You've got to work sufficiently so that when it does come, you can make good use of it. I know a lot of people that I think, well, they should be doing something and they're not. And a lot of people come to me and they want me to help them, but what can you do?

JF: You can't do it for them.

You can't do it for them.

TL: There's much talk at the moment about a crisis in the recording industry. That everything has been recorded, everybody has their full set of cherished recordings on CD, they don't wear out; and of course just over the past year, the big record companies like EMI and Universal who now own Philips and Deutsche Gramophon and Decca and so on, have been terminating contracts.

The major companies are existing now very much on putting out all the stuff. All the stuff we recorded in the 60s, 70s, 80s - it's all coming out again. Which of course is lovely; we don't have to work to see it coming before the public again. But I think there are still things being done and I think if the recordings have real quality, then they stand a chance - even today. And I think there are still works that one can find that are worth recording. Maybe something that you wouldn't perhaps put on in the theatre, but it's worth making a document because it's music that's really interesting.

For example, I come to Melbourne because of Melba Recordings and Maria Vandamme's extraordinary ability to produce excellence every time. Because they are interested in recording with real, real quality. I've worked a great deal over the past forty-something years with recording companies in Europe and Melba Recordings is doing something quite wonderful here.

TL: The Massenet certainly filled a gap. As did that wonderful record that you made of - I don't know how to describe them - late 19th century English...

The Balfes and Benedicts. A lot of them were Irish actually. I enjoyed them. That was a labour of love. I had fun digging them all out.

TL: But it's also important, because there is beautiful, beautiful music there which is never going to be performed in the context in which it was originally written; but to lose the individual arias would be a great tragedy.

I think it would be a tragedy. And these pieces were very, very popular in the 19th century. I mean immensely popular. The way [Madama] Butterfly is today. And I think it's good to let people hear them again. Hear what was popular once.

JF: Is there a classical musical equivalent of Napster? I'm just wondering as you're talking about the changes in the recording industry...for rock'n'roll, not rock'n'roll but for rap and other popular music now there's all this downloadable stuff off the internet. Is there a classical equivalent?

I don't know. I suppose something like Puccini is the nearest you'll get to it.

JF: But is there a market also for people putting things into cyberspace and people downloading and selecting and burning their own CDs?

No. Don't ask me about that. I don't know anything about technical things! I live on my instincts.

TL: The answer is 'no' because first of all the sorts of things that classical music lovers are interested in are too long and take too long to download (JF: and cost too much to get) and the second is that Napster and those sorts of bootleg operations use a tremendous amount of compression (JF: so you lose too much quality) which is unacceptable, unacceptable for classical music.