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A career in bel canto

Bonynge: early years

The Conductor

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For Richard Bonynge, London in 1950 was a most delightful place.

But he was not as effusive about his studies at the Royal College of Music. The attraction of the piano as a solo instrument had faded as he became increasingly drawn to operatic music and the magic of the human voice.

Thus he gave up his music scholarship at the College and, while continuing his piano studies privately, became a coach to singers. One of them was the newly-arrived Joan Sutherland, whom he had accompanied back in Sydney, and now escorted in the cultural maze that was London.
It did not take very long for their relationship to strengthen - from coaching to marriage and an inviolable professional partnership. An expert in the music of the human voice, he understood the Sutherland voice best of all.

His performances with Joan Sutherland were for a time confined to recitals. Then in 1962, at a sold-out Sutherland concert of operatic rarities in Rome, the conductor for the occasion fell ill, the replacement conductor was hit by a car, and there was no other but Bonynge (by then a recognized scholar of bel canto) who knew the repertoire well enough to take over. He did, and Joan Sutherland rather liked the arrangement. Not long after, she decided in favor of a total partnership - Richard Bonynge, in her own estimation the 'architect' of her career, would henceforth conduct all her performances.

And so he did, for which he took a great deal of flak. Critics decried his lack of formal training in conducting. But he could take potshots - hadn't they labeled him Svengali to Sutherland's Trilby? So he took it all in stride, worked hard at his "on-the-job-training" and did his best -- confident perhaps that his total education in music would serve him well, and hopeful that audiences would be the better judge, and time the best of all.

Indeed!

Photos courtesy of Maestro Bonynge.


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