Recollections of Richard Bonelli

by Wayne Conner, Bonelli’s student

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I met Richard Bonelli in September 1952 when I entered Curtis Institute as a voice major, I knew of him only from the Met’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts of Metropolitan performances. Even though I was from my teen years, a voracious record collector, I did not know that he had recorded.

Although he didn’t speak of it much, he was still performing occasionally with the New York City Opera. He told me that he had left the Met when Edward Johnson asked him to undertake the role of Wotan for them, Bonelli said that he had protested, claiming he was a ‘Verdi baritone, not a Wagnerian; but Johnson was in need of a Wotan, The fine Herbert Janssen, although performing Wolfram, Kurvenal and Telramund in the house, had also pulled been pulled into the Die Walküre as Wotan and Bonelli thought, was paying the price vocally, He was determined that was not going to happen to him, so an Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Tourel and Bruno Landi, proved to be his last performance at the Met.

Bonelli was fond of his years at the Met, as he was of his time in Chicago, and he spoke lovingly of his colleagues, both as singers and as people, His admiration in the case of Ponselle was seemingly unlimited, although he had to admit that Claudia Muzio was the more moving theatrical personality. He told me once that it was not unusual for him to have to turn his back on Muzio during the Traviata scene for fear of becoming too moved by her face. He said she managed to sing and cry real tears at the same time, something Bonelli could not understand. Neither can I!

He was in awe of the volume of Rosa Raisa’s voice, claiming it to be the biggest soprano sound he knew. He said the same of Titta Ruffo as a baritone, with the addendum that he, Bonelli, and many other young baritones almost ruined their voices trying to imitate the great Titta.

Bonelli’s teaching was somber, methodical, friendly. He never raised his voice during a lesson but always seemed to me, then in my twenties, like a surrogate father, although he absolutely refused to meddle in the private lives of his students. He seemed to draw from his work with de Reszke, the methods of Sbriglia and analyzed with his students in his weekly seminar class Manuel Garcia’s little booklet Hints on Singing, but he certainly was not a teacher of voice solely on the anatomical viewpoint.

He insisted that he see each of his ten students at Curtis twice a week for a period of thirty minutes each lesson. The first lesson of the week had no pianist attending and was always devoted to vocalises and particular vocal problems in certain songs or arias we were then studying. The second lesson saw a pianist in attendance. It was usually Josef Hoffmann’s former student, Marthe Massena, a superb technician and musician who had chosen to raise a family rather seek a concert career. Massena was also a piano teacher at Curtis. She was later in the same position with Martial Singher, Bonelli;s successor at Curtis, and at the Marlboro School of Music with Singher.

It came as a shock to Bonelli’s students in January of 1955 to hear him announce that he would be retiring from teaching at the end of that Spring semester. With a twinkle in his eyes, he said, “Mona (his wife) has inherited a million. I knew she would pay off!” Mona was Bonelli’s second wife and a loving and nurturing one from the little I knew of her. I spent a full afternoon with her and Bonelli in their home in Los Angeles a few years after his retirement from Curtis. He was jolly, interested in everything, and as usual, appreciative of his wife’s cooking skills. During our discussion of the current day’s singers, he informed me “I still have my high A!”

His ‘reading’ of his students was something unique. I don’t think he really taught any two of us exactly the same way. He seemed always at lessons to be prying into our minds to see what we were experiencing as singers. The most memorable moment of my three years with him came one afternoon during a lesson late in our work together. He said something like, “Now that’s fine, son, (all of the men were “son.”) You did that well but you’re going to teach, so I want to be sure you understand physically what’s happening so you can explain it well. “I immediately told him I had no plans to teach. I wanted to sing.” He calmly retorted, “You’ll teach, so pay attention.’ Indeed I have spent almost fifty years teaching voice, but how could he have known?