“I never wanted to be an opera singer,” soprano I Barbara Bonney said in an interview with Opera News. “It just kind of happened.” And happen it did. Called “one of the great sopranos of her generation,” Bonney possesses “rare intelligence and powerful expressiveness,” according to the Guardian. She got her start singing German Lieder, but the power of Bonney’s soprano voice helped the singer rise quickly in the world of opera. After years of playing demanding operatic ingenue roles, Bonney has begun to gradually phase herself out of opera, opting instead to sing in concert. With performances in more than 45 operas and 200 songs in her repertoire, Bonney looked forward to retiring as a singer and focusing on her true love—teaching.
Born on April 14, 1956, in Montclair, New Jersey, Bonney inherited her grandmother’s love for music. She began piano lessons at age five, but dropped piano for cello at age eight. Her first vocal solo was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in her grade school’s Christmas concert, but she did not pursue vocal studies until much later. At age 13, she joined the Portland Symphony Youth Orchestra after moving to Maine with her family. She graduated from high school in 1974 and went on to study music and German at the University of New Hampshire. She was there two years before deciding to refine her German language skills by spending her junior year abroad at the University of Salzburg.
It was in Salzburg that Bonney’s vocal education blossomed. There, she was accepted in the vocal program at the Mozarteum and became a soloist with several Salzburg choral groups. Previously a dedicated cellist, Bonney had never planned to pursue voice. Regardless, she excelled and became a member of the repertory with the State Theatre in Darmstadt and sang 40 roles with that company during the next four years; her first role was Anna in Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor. In 1983, she became a member of the Frankfurt Opera. Her days in Germany were not completely glamorous. To support herself, Bonney worked in a vegetable stand, as an au pair, and as a cook for Russian immigrants.
Some of Bonney’s important debuts with leading conductors included her first role as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier with Carlos Kleiber at the 1984 Munich Summer Festival and her debut at Covent Garden, again as Sophie, later that year with Sir Georg Solti conducting. She then debuted at La Scala as Pamina in The Magic Flute with Wolfgang Sawallisch, at the Vienna Philharmonic in the Brahms Requiem, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1987 as Nyade in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Bonney’s classic roles include Pamina, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, and Sophie, which she has performed more than 250 times. Her first recording was Shoenberg’s Moses and Aaron; her second was Haydn’s Nelson Mass in 1984.
Born on April 14, 1956, in Montclair, NJ; married Håkan Hagegård (divorced); married Maurice Whitaker. Education: Studied music and German, University of New Hampshire, 1974-76; studied vocal technique and Lieder, Salzburg Mozarteum, 1977-79.
Became a member of the Darmstadt Opera and made professional debut in the Merry Wives of Windsor, 1979; appeared with the Frankfurt am Main Opera, Hamburg State Opera, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany, 1983-84; first recorded album, Shoenberg’s Moses and Aaron; Metropolitan Opera debut, New York, 1988; signed recording contract with Decca Records, 1996; taught and performed in concert, 2000; released Gramophone Award-winning Diamonds in the Snow, 2000; released Fairest Isle, 2001; has released more than 70 works recorded on the Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, EMI, Teldec, Sony, and Hyperion labels.
Awards: Gramophone Award, Best Solo Vocal Recording for Diamonds in the Snow, 2000.
Addresses: Publicist —IMG Artists, Lovell House, 616 Chiswick High Road, London, England, W4 5RX, phone: (020) 8233 5800.
The multilingual Bonney—fluent in German, Swedish, and English—is known for her “fresh, urgent response to the text,” according to Richard Wigmore in BBC Music magazine. She pays close attention to the meaning of words and to their sound. The words are as important to her as the music, and she learns them first. “Only when you’ve thoroughly digested the text can you allow it to wash through you,” she told Wig-more. Bonney also said that she appreciated the danger and self-exposure of performing songs she loved in front of an audience that she could make eye contact with, such as a concert performance, rather than at a complete opera, where the audience is too far back behind the orchestra pit to be seen.
In 1996, Bonney signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca Records. In 2000, she released a CD of Scandinavian music called Diamonds in the Snow. After living in Sweden for eight years with her first husband, baritone Håkan Hagegård, Bonney fell in love with the place. “I love the country, and love the way the Swedes sing, with their natural, beautiful voices, their directness and lack of artifice,” she told Wigmore. “That’s the way I’ve always tried to sing, and I’ve felt totally at home there.” Learning the language also offered Bonney the opportunity to expand her repertoire. She recorded 25 songs by Swedish composers, including Gireg, Sibelius, and Stenhammar on Diamonds in the Snow, many of which were previously not often heard outside of Scandinavia. The release won a Gramophone Award for Best Solo Vocal Recording. “It would be hard to find a more seductive recital disc than this…,” wrote one critic in a Gramophone review. Fairest Isle, Bonney’s recording of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century English songs, was released in 2001. “Her sweet, unblemished tone and refined legato are a pleasure in themselves,” wrote a critic in the Telegraph. During her career, Bonney has recorded more than 70 releases for various major labels.
The year 2000 saw Bonney at the peak of her career, yet gradually phasing herself out of opera. She claimed age as one of her reasons; she was tired of physically demanding operatic roles and found it silly for a woman over 40 years old to be playing many of opera’s girlish roles. She performed no operatic roles in 2000, instead dividing her time between teaching, concert performances, and exploring her long-time love for Lieder, the German song style. “I’m a Lieder singer who happens to do opera,” Bonney explained in BBC Music. After auditioning for the Darmstadt Opera, she said she got stuck on the “operatic treadmill,” torn between her love for Lieder and the living to be made singing opera. Bonney, who lives in London with her second husband, Maurice Whitaker, predicted in 2000 that she would quit singing in ten years to teach. Breakthroughs with students are “so moving for me and so much more important than standing on stage at the Met and having people shout ‘Bravo!’” she told BBC Music. “Opera is, in a sense, anonymous. Teaching is so personal, so real.”
Mozart: Lieder, Teldec, 1992.
Mozart: The Magic Flute, L’Oiseau Lyre, 1994.
Lehár: The Merry Widow, Deutsche Grammophon, 1995.
Schubert: Lieder, Teldec, 1995.
Hasse: Salve Regina/Symphonies/Fuga and Grave, Archiv, 1997.
Schumann, Robert & Clara: Lieder, Decca, 1997.
Barbara Bonney Sings Mozart, Decca, 1998.
Sallie Chisum Remembers Billy the Kid, Decca, 1998.
Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4-6, Decca, 1999.
Pergolesi: Stabat Mater, Uni/Decca, 1999.
Strauss, R.: Four Last Songs, Decca, 1999.
Diamonds in the Snow, Decca, 2000.
Fairest Isle, Decca, 2001.
The Radiant Voice of Barbara Bonney, Decca, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th-century Classical Musicians, Schirmer Books, 1992.
BBC Music Magazine, December 2000, p. 38.
Forte, May 1995, p. 52.
Gramophone, Awards Issue 2000, p. 16.
Guardian, January 24, 2001, p. 13.
Opera News, February 14, 1998.
“Barbara Bonney,” Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com (June 27, 2001).
“Barbara Bonney,” Decca Classics, http://www.deccaclassics.com (March 30, 2001).
Additional information was provided by IMG Artists publicity materials, 2001.
Bonney, Barbara, admired American soprano; b. Montclair, N.J., April 14, 1956. She received training in Canada and with Walter Raninger at the Salzburg Mozarteum. In 1979 she became a member of the Darmstadt Opera, where she made her first appearance as Anna in Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor; among her subsequent roles were Blondchen, Adina, Cherubino, Gilda, Massenet’s Manon, and Natalie in Henze’s Der Prinz von Homburg. In 1983–84 she appeared with the Frankfurt am Main Opera, the Hamburg State Opera, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. In 1984 she made her first appearance at London’s Covent Garden as Sophie. In 1985 she made her debut at Milan’s La Scala as Pamina. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y on March 3, 1988, as Najade in Ariadne auf Naxos, where she returned to sing Adele and Sophie. In 1989 she made her first appearance at the Chicago Lyric Opera as Adele. In 1991 she sang in the Mozart Bicentenary Gala at Covent Garden. After singing Sophie at the Metropolitan Opera that year, she returned there as Adina in 1996 and as Susanna in 1997. She was engaged in 1997 as a soloist in the centenary performance of the Brahms Requiem in Vienna. On Aug. 7, 1997 she made her N.Y recital debut at Alice Tully Hall, followed by her Carnegie Hall recital debut on Jan. 31, 1998. In addition to her distinguished operatic career, Bonney has won acclaim for her appearances as a soloist with the world’s leading orchs. and as a recitalist. She has made frequent appearances with her husband Håkan Hagegård.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire