Interview: Barbara Bonney returns to London to sing Strauss' Four Last Songs

'I had a thirty-year career, and sometimes I think "It would be lovely to do Susanna again". But there are plenty of wonderful young singers who sing the same repertoire, and now it's their turn.'

30 May 2008

Barbara Bonney, ©J McMillan/DeccaIn the 1980s and 1990s, American soprano Barbara Bonney was practically unrivalled in Mozart's soubrette roles such as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and Pamina in Die Zauberflöte; her Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier has been regularly placed in the higher echelons of Strauss interpretations. A noted recitalist, she is fluent in numerous languages and has made over ninety recordings.

When Bonney suddenly cancelled her appearance in the 2006 Salzburg Festival and withdrew from all forthcoming engagements, many in the opera world wondered whether she'd ever sing in public again. But last summer, she returned to public performance with a concert at the Verbier Festival, and now British audiences will finally have the chance to savour her unique artistry with a recital at Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square as part of this year's Chelsea Festival.

In a rare interview, she tells me how she has finally found contentment from teaching at the Mozarteum and running the Young Singers scheme at the Salzburg Festival – though it seems her opera singing days aren't entirely over.

First, we chat about the forthcoming recital in London on 17 June. Choosing the repertoire for a concert is no mean feat, says Bonney: 'It depends on what you've got going round with you at the same time. The thing with me is, I've done such a lot repertoire over the course of my career that there's an awful lot to choose from. It's like when you have twenty dresses in front of you and you don't know which one to put on!'

Five songs by Grieg form a big portion of the programme. 'These have always been my party pieces,' she enthuses. 'I've sung them nearly everywhere, normally with orchestra. I've always loved the sound and feel of the Scandinavian languages and the sentiment of the poetry.' The main feature for many will be a performance of Richard Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder, the elegiac 'Four Last Songs', which will be given, slightly unusually, with piano accompaniment (played by Wolfram Rieger on this occasion).Bonney explains the decision: 'I've witnessed many great singers perform them, and nearly every time I've found the same problem: you never understand the words. Strauss creates such long lines in the orchestra, and it's written so densely, so thickly, that the singer really has to fight to compete. Yet it's so important to hear the text in these songs, and I find it's easier to do that with piano.' But surely something like the famous violin solo in 'Beim Schlafengehen' is hard to replicate on the piano? 'Actually, I find it rather touching. You're not overwhelmed by this long, legato line with lots of vibrato – you can actually hear where the melody lies. I certainly find it a different experience doing it with just piano.'

Barbara Bonney, ©J McMillan/DeccaThe first half of the recital contrasts Schubert's Goethe Lieder with eight songs by Mendelssohn, including 'Neue Liebe', 'Pagenlied' and 'Der Mond'. The latter composer's name sparks a chuckle from Bonney: 'Mendelssohn? Oh, he's always great fun! I'm jumping ahead a bit, because next year's the anniversary year for him. He's so witty – very "jolly hockey sticks", somehow. I think it's good to follow the Schubert Goethe songs, which can be a bit heavy, with something lighter.'

Barbara Bonney is a legendary Lied singer, having sung at every major venue around the world. 'Recital has always been my favourite genre,' she enthuses. 'At the same time, it's the scariest – just you and a piano, singing two hours of songs from memory, is absolutely terrifying. But it's a bit like climbing Mount Everest: very challenging but very satisfying.'

Bonney's final opera appearance in London was in the Royal Opera's controversial production of Richard Strauss' Arabella, which she describes as 'great - one of my favourite productions'. No more opera, then, I ask? 'I find it too much, emotionally and physically – it's quite draining, to be honest. I would rather conserve my energies and channel them elsewhere.'

But she is back next year, in May 2009, for a performance of Brahms' A German Requiem with the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. Of the continued appeal of this work, Bonney says: 'People always love hearing choruses sing, and the choral writing in that piece is spectacular. It speaks to us so directly about what it's like to lose our loved ones, and confronts us with the truth: we will all die at some point. Yet it does it in a very positive, uplifting way and reminds us that this is the natural way of things.' No more London engagements? 'Are you kidding? I don't have time! My work as a professor at the Mozarteum takes up a huge amount of time. But I'm a Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, so I'm doing some masterclasses there in October.'

Most of Barbara Bonney's current activities are focused on two special projects in the same city in Austria, as she describes. 'The Young Singers Programme is something I'm setting up at the Salzburg Festival with Michael Schade. We've been brainstorming about that – it's very much a full-time focus for me. The Programme consists of several different things, but it's mainly trying to give these eleven singers – we wanted between ten and twelve so we chose eleven! – the chance to really observe from the cream of the crop at Salzburg. It allows them to look over the shoulders of the finest singers in the world. It would be wrong to refer to it as a 'cover programme' – it's much more than that, because the focus is on observation. If by some crazy chance we need someone to step in, we have a singer on hand ready to go. Most of these kids are already advanced in their careers. We have Shen Yang, for instance, who won the Cardiff Singer of the World, and another who's a member of the ensemble in Berlin. It's a platform for them to make the jump from being a young artist to being a star; it gives them the final polish.'

During the rest of the year, Bonney gives both public and private classes at the Mozarteum, where she once studied herself. She explains her approach to teaching: 'You see the singer as a whole person with a heart and soul and mind and talent, and of course a voice: it's a whole package. You have to ask yourself, 'What are their fears?' and make them care about themselves. I can't really distinguish the way I approach my teaching from one situation to another.'

Barbara Bonney, copyright: DeccaOne reason that Bonney is so keen to spend her time looking after young singers is that, as she herself says, it's more difficult to become a professional singer now than it was when she became one. 'The profession has become much more difficult. There are so many spectacularly talented people out there – a lot of singers have come in from the Eastern block, Russia, and of course from America, and the benchmark has been raised higher. It's hard to explain why, really, it's just that things have changed so much.' Bonney really seems to have no regrets about making this shift of focus in her career from singing to teaching: 'I'm passionate about it – I really have landed where I want to be. Teaching is the greatest profession in the world. I was a good singer and I enjoyed my career, but I prefer to take the experience to others now.'

Yet I can't help but ask the soprano how, as one of the greatest singers of all time, she can sacrifice her stage career in favour of so much time spent teaching. 'I used to sing ninety performances a year. Doing that for twenty-seven years is not helpful!' she laughs. 'For one thing, it involves too much travelling. For another, you're alone too much. So I've reduced my performance calendar by half. It's now about forty times a year. For me, teaching gives me so much back – it's a real shot in the arm.'

When did she first hear music? 'I think I was three years old. We had a Westminster Clock on our mantelpiece, and when we came back from a vacation, I pointed to the clock and sang the chimes perfectly in pitch! So I had remembered the sounds from before we went away. Mum studied the piano at Julliard and was very musical, so she could tell straight away that I was going to be musical. Then when I was six, I learned to sing, and that was that. I studied in the USA and at the Mozarteum, and sang in lots of choruses.'

How easy did she find it to enter the profession? 'I did an audition and three weeks later I had a job. That's unusual – it's not normally that easy – but perhaps it's because I didn't really want it. Sometimes it's easier to get things when you don't want them than when you desperately do want them.'

Bonney cites a number of projects as the highlights of her career. 'Singing Rosenkavalier with Solti and Carlos Kleiber were both amazing experiences. I've had wonderful collaborations with Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt has always been a special mentor for me. Then there have been great friends like Andre Previn, who have enormous charisma, are very open and caring, and splendidly talented. I'm so grateful for all the experiences I've had.'

Although Bonney seems noticeably contented with her new direction, I ask her whether she has any ambitions for the future. 'I've just created a company to help singers on all sorts of levels. We're trying to create a format of analysis that gives everything information as quickly as possible. It's meant to open doors. Other than that, I'm just going to continue being a professor and I'm structuring my life around it so that I can do that for the next fifteen years or so.'

Barbara Bonney, copyright: DeccaWhat would she like to be remembered for? 'For being a really great golfer! Other than that, I'd like to be remembered for my Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier – though I think I already am, which is lovely. I'd also like people to remember my mentoring capabilities. Classical music is very important, and although I love pop music, I really don't want us to go in that direction and get turned into products. Before all else, we are here to serve the music.'

No gala farewell to opera, then? 'No, why would I do that? Nobody misses me! I am doing an opera project next year in Japan – Hansel und Gretel with Seiji Ozawa and Angelika Kirchschlager – but the thing is, I can't be away from the Mozarteum for more than ten days in every month, and in the summer I have the work with the Salzburg Festival. The life I've chosen just makes sense for me. I had a thirty-year career, and sometimes I think "Oh, it would be lovely to do Susanna again", and I might do Pamina occasionally. But there are plenty of wonderful young singers who sing the same repertoire as me, and now it's their turn to sing it.'

By Dominic McHugh

Barbara Bonney gives a Celebrity Recital at Cadogan Hall, London, as part of the Chelsea Festival, on 17 June 2008 at 7pm. The programme includes Schubert, Mendelssohn, Grieg and Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs. More details at