Barbara Bonney

Lisa Houston on February 25, 2009

The soprano and teacher discusses her upcoming concert of André Previn songs, her professorship at Salzburg’s Mozarteum, and life on the links.

You performed songs by André Previn in a San Francisco Performances recital at Herbst Theatre on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. This was the U.S. premiere. Have the songs been premiered in Europe? 

André came and played a concert for my voice class at the Mozarteum. So, the girls in my class sang these songs as a world premiere.

And you’re going to Japan this summer to sing Gretel in Hansel and Gretel with Seiji Ozawa?

Yes. My first opera in five years.

You’ve made over 100 recordings. Do you have any plans for more?

Yes. I’ve got a recording with a young tenor coming up this year and most likely another duet recording with Angelika Kirchschlager of Italian and French duets.

How do you like the current balance in your career, doing mostly concert work?

Actually, what I’m doing mostly is teaching. That’s my first job. And then I have my own company for consulting, networking, and supporting young singers embarking on their careers to help them get started in their careers.

You’ve said that you’re “passionate about sharing the secrets of singing and music-making with the future generation of the classical music singer.” Can you say what one of those secrets of great music-making is?

The biggest secret is staying true to yourself. Very often young singers are forced to sing louder than they should and in roles bigger than they should be singing. These younger singers are, in my opinion, being pushed too far, too fast. In my day, we were allowed to develop at our pace.

So when you started at Darmstadt City Opera in Germany you felt well taken care of there?

Yes, on one hand. On the other hand I was well exploited. I was expected to sing things I wouldn’t dream of singing today, but I just sang it with my voice. I had no choice.

Do you feel differently about performing now after taking a break and going through such a difficult time?

It’s not my primary career anymore (I shouldn’t be saying that but I really believe it); I feel like I’ve almost turned into an amateur again in a funny way. And I emphasize a lot of my work on amateurs I know teach. I’ve just set up an academy in Salzburg, and it gives the amateur a real chance to stand up on stage and to make music at home so that their kids listen to it. Otherwise we’re not going to have an audience!

Can you say what you mean when you say that you feel like an amateur?

I don’t take it all that seriously anymore, because I’m focusing my energy on others. And that’s a good thing — after 30 years of it being all about you and all about how you feel, you realize how much pressure you put yourself under. So, it’s more fun now.

What do you do when you’re traveling and you’re not singing?

Play golf!

Where do you play here in California?

Everywhere. I was just in Palm Springs and I played eight rounds in eight days. I’ve played up in Silverado three times now. And the day after my recital I have a game on the Olympic course and then I fly back to Austria.

What’s your handicap?

When I was playing golf every day during my divorce (it was my therapy, it kept me alive) I got down to a nine handicap which is good and now I’m about a 14 because I just don’t have time to play.

What was the point in your life that you felt things really needed to change?

After the divorce was finalized I had to make some money. My ex-husband had taken half — at 52 you find yourself saying: Half of it is gone? One week, when I was playing so much golf, because listening to music was so painful, I thought: What can I do? I thought well, I could be a golf teacher. I could get my handicap down and get the certificate and I would be able to be outside all the time. I was really seriously considering it.

But then I thought about the wealth of knowledge of music from having worked with all these great people in the world and I realized I couldn't just let that go. So, I called the Mozarteum, because I’d studied there, I wanted to go back to my roots, and so I asked them if I had a job. And they offered me a two-year professorship. And then Renée Fleming cancelled at the Verbier Festival for the Mozart Requiem and I went and sang and it was so wonderful to be singing that music again with friends. That’s why I’m doing this concert. I just love singing this music.

Interview conducted and edited by Lisa Houston

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