Australia salutes a great musician
On Australia Day, 26 January 2012, Richard Bonynge was named Companion of the Order of Australia for “eminent service to the performing arts as an acclaimed conductor and musical scholar, to classical singing and the promotion of opera, and through the collection and preservation of operatic manuscripts”.
This is Australia’s highest civilian award, and richly deserved for this great Australian musician.
Richard Bonynge’s illustrious career in musical partnership with his wife Dame Joan Sutherland is well known and documented, as is the international acclaim he won as musicologist for his revival of many rarely performed 19th-century operas of the bel canto school. His stagings of the great works of Handel, Donizetti, Rossini and Massenet have preserved these masterpieces for our generation.
As musical director of The Australian Opera from 1976-86, Bonynge led a golden era in Company history. Already famous when he returned to Australia as artistic director and chief conductor of the Sutherland/Williamson International Grand Opera Company in 1964, colleagues found him a genial man and professional artist. Moffatt Oxenbould writes warmly of his first encounter with Bonynge in Timing is Everything: “Richard was magnetic, certainly, but there was no sense of grandeur or attitude of superiority in his work in the rehearsal studio, which was absolutely professional and also seemed to give him genuine pleasure. He found time to talk with all of the local singers and staff and very soon there was a sense of family.”
Bonynge has said of his 10 years as musical director of The Australian Opera that the most gratifying part of it was bringing into the repertoire numerous operas which had not been performed in Australia for many years: works such as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Alcina, (the first Handel opera to have been performed by The Australian Opera), Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Lucrezia Borgia, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Rossini’s Semiramide.
Thanks to Bonynge’s international contacts and reputation, many successful Australian artists who were working overseas returned to work with the Company, including Margreta Elkins and Heather Begg. He was also able to bring out international stars like Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti, which was a tremendous boost to the Company’s profile.
Bonynge believed in staging operas which The Australian Opera could cast from within the ranks of its ensemble, and which the public would want to see. The success of this approach was evident in the full houses that were a feature of his time as musical director.
“To me it was a great time because we had a lot of fun and it was a lovely company,” he has said. “I don't remember too many instances of strife and unhappiness; the only problems were when people couldn't get the roles they really wanted to sing.”
After his musical directorship came to an end, Bonynge continued to conduct with Opera Australia for many years. His most recent engagement with Opera Australia was for La sonnambula on 24 August 2010.
In his 36-year association with the Company, he was a tireless advocate for young Australian singers. Soprano Emma Matthews (pictured with Bonynge right), whom Bonynge has coached tirelessly in the bel canto repertoire for which she has become known, describes him as the biggest musical influence on her career. “[Richard] has driven me crazy, and pushed me to my limits vocally and patience-wise, but there's nobody else I trust as deeply. I miss him whenever I learn a new role and I will always be grateful to him,” she has said.
Bonynge has conducted in the world's leading opera houses in Europe, North and South America and New Zealand, as well as the Far East. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut on 12 December 1966, and his last performance there was on 6 April 1991.
His other awards include a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to music in 1977, an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1983, un Commandeur of the L’Ordre National du Mérite in 1989, and the Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award in 2009.