• Exclusive Interview with American baritone Liam Bonner

    Liam Bonner, baritone, sung Il Conte di Luna in production of Il Trovatore by our partner North Carolina Opera. Luiz Gazzola interviewed him about his role, the opera, the production, and the contemporary opera Silent Night for which he created recently a role during the piece's world première. [Opera Lively interview # 15]

    This is a very interesting interview, and at the end there was a rather funny exchange that, with the artist's permission, we made the editorial decision to preserve so that our readers get a hint of Mr. Bonner's friendly personality.


    Praised by Opera News for his “rich, versatile voice” and “beautiful instrument,” rising baritone Liam Bonner sang the role of Lieutenant Audebert in the world premiere of Silent Night at Minnesota Opera in the 2011–2012 season. Other engagements in the current season have included his debut at Los Angeles Opera as Sid in Albert Herring under James Conlon and at Palm Beach Opera in its Golden Jubilee: 50th Anniversary Concert. After his North Carolina Opera Il Trovatore, he will return to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis as Guglielmo in Così Fan Tutte. Next, he'll go to the Bard SummerScape festival for a rare new production of Auber's Le Roi Malgré Lui directed by Thaddeus Strassberger.

    Future seasons will see Mr. Bonner at Houston Grand Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia (again in Silent Night) and Washington National Opera.

    Last season, Mr. Bonner sang his first performances of Pelléas in Pelléas et Mélisande with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in a new production by David Alden, a role which he also covered at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the role of Raimbaud in the new production of Le Comte Ory. He also sang his first performances of Zurga in Les pêcheurs de perles with New Orleans Opera, Ned Keene in Peter Grimes in a return to Houston Grand Opera, Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia with Ash Lawn Opera Festival and Valentin in Faust with North Carolina Opera.

    In recent seasons, he made his Washington National Opera debut as the title role in Hamlet to great acclaim, returned to Houston Grand Opera for Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore and made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Moralès in Carmen. Mr. Bonner was also seen at the Metropolitan Opera as Horatio in Hamlet in the worldwide HD broadcast. He sang his first performances of Malatesta in Don Pasquale with Opera New Jersey and Der Geliebte von Gestern in Weill’s Royal Palace at the Bard Music Festival. He also made his Carnegie Hall debut singing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen as an alumnus guest artist with the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic.

    Mr. Bonner made his European operatic debut as Guglielmo in Così Fan Tutte at English National Opera. He maintains a strong relationship with Houston Grand Opera, where he has sung numerous roles that include Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, Redburn in Billy Budd, the baritone soloist in Theofanidis’s The Refuge (a recording of which is available commercially on the Albany Records label), Harašta in The Cunning Little Vixen, the Witch in Basil Twist’s production of Hänsel und Gretel, and both Moralès and El Dancaïro in Carmen. He joined Wolf Trap Opera for Il Cavaliere di Befiore in Verdi’s Un Giorno di Regno and Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Berkshire Opera for the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, Aspen Opera Theatre for Sid in Albert Herring and L'Opéra de Québec for its annual opera gala concert.

    The baritone has appeared with the Houston Ballet as soloist in Stravinsky’s Les Noces and in Orff’s Carmina Burana at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. He has also joined the Pittsburgh Symphony for highlights from Mozart’s operas and the Filharmonie Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic for a concert of opera favorites.

    He earned his Master of Music from Manhattan School of Music where he sang his first performances of the title role of Don Giovanni as well as Belaev in Hoiby’s A Month in the Country (also on the Albany Records label). He also holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University in his home city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Additionally, Mr. Bonner is a former member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, as well as San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program and Studio and Apprentice Artist at Central City Opera. He is the recipient of the Richard F. Gold Career Grant from the Shoshanna Foundation, a first-prize winner of the Gerda Lissner Foundation Competition, a national semi-finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and an award winner from the George London Foundation and Houston Grand Opera’s Eleanor McCollum Competition.



    OL - First, let’s talk about your role as Il Conte di Luna. What sort of special vocal challenges do you see in this role?

    LB – This is my first time singing this role. That provides its own challenges; just anytime you are learning a new role and figuring out how it fits and works in your voice, and how to meet the expectations and challenges that come along with that.

    You have to make sure that you don’t let the drama overtake your voice. You are telling the story and you are involved dramatically but you are not driving the voice because of the drama -- because that is harmful. You are letting the voice happen naturally, and trusting that the intention and interpretation will come through the way Verdi has already written it. You don’t have to do any extra, you want to make sure you are not pushing your voice.

    OL - In my opinion, this role requires a standard Verdi baritone that needs some very good top notes to sing the wonderful aria “Il balen del suo sorriso”. It’s a glorious melody that ascends slowly to the high end of the singer’s tessitura. How do you go about it?

    LB - The tessitura for the Conte di Luna is quite difficult. There are lots of baritones that sing it well, but when they get to the aria and for whatever reason they can sometimes crash and burn because the aria sits so much higher in the tessitura. So the aria itself ends up being the most difficult part of it, in my opinion, not only for the tessitura but also for breath control and keeping the legato line. And then in the ensembles it is vocally tricky because you have to keep the placement in your voice so that you can cut through the orchestra when it gets really thick, and to be able to be heard over the tenor and the soprano who are singing at the same time. So, to have that cut and bite in your voice without damaging your voice while doing it healthily and properly is another issue.

    You say one needs very good top notes; that’s exactly it, it’s about keeping my voice specifically – as every voice is different – with a placement that is vertical and always in the same vocal position so that I can easily maneuver through the top, and then down into the middle register when I have to do that as well, so that it all sounds very even and easy. Mostly I’ve just taken this role to my voice teacher Stephen King – not the author (laughs) – this last couple of months and we’ve been working.

    OL - Then, more dramatic singing is required for the terzetto “Di geloso amor sprezzato”, or the cabaletta “Per me ora fatale”. Is it difficult to oscillate between these two styles of singing, the more melodious one, and the more dramatic one?

    LB – Actually I don’t find it difficult to switch between the two styles. Verdi just wrote it so well! Because the singing before both the terzetto and the cabaletta allow for very legato easy singing, again you just let it happen and it will be there. You don’t get it in your own way. Then you do the cabaletta. They take care of themselves as well, they just require a bit more of that balance of not getting too excited and ramped up and driving the voice again, but letting it happen. Because the way Verdi wrote it with the rhythms and the tempo takes care of a lot of that natural drama that you are going to add to it.

    OL – So, would you say that Verdi compared to other composers takes good care of the singers, making it easier to sing than the music of other composers?

    LB – It is for me on many levels, because the baritone voice was not written for until the 19th century. So while I do Mozart, it doesn’t show off the special parts of my voice like Verdi does, because Verdi tends to sit higher. Mozart can be a bit low for me. In fact I’m doing Così Fan Tutte right after this. It is drastically different, doing di Luna and Guglielmo! (laughs) Verdi for whatever reason – I don’t understand how he did it – understood the human voice extremely well and I think it’s one of the reasons singers in general love singing his repertoire. He gives them a lot to work with, not only vocally but dramatically. It’s one of the reasons why the audience responds to his music so well.

    OL - Comparing with other baritones in Verdi’s past, like Nabucco, Macbeth or Rigoletto, this role is psychologically simpler, no? How do you read the psychology of this character, and how to you try to make it interesting for the public? Is he an archetype or a human being?

    LB – You know, it’s interesting when you talk about the psychology, because when I was talking to our director David Paul, he actually is under the impression that di Luna is the only three-dimensional character in the piece. Granted that we’ve only started stagings; we’re still working on that aspect of it so I don’t want to talk too much about the psychology because we’re still figuring it all out.

    Probably regarding what you said about an archetype, he is more of the real human being because he is constantly going through these ups and downs throughout the whole piece. He desires this woman, he thinks he is going to have her, he finds out that she is in love with this other guy so suddenly he is against this other guy, and while that is going on he is also still living his life with regards to trying to find his lost brother.

    So he’s got all these aspects going on that suddenly come together at the end when he finds out that his rival is with the woman that he desires, and that he’s captured the mother of his rival, and so he’s got all these pieces that he feels he is in such control of, but before putting all the pieces together calmly and rationally, evaluating something, he jumps to conclusions and just sort of lashes out, and then pays the price for it in the end on every level.

    He loses her, and while he thinks he is getting rid of a rival, he ends up losing his brother which spirals him downward. But he has these extreme highs and lows throughout the piece, and I think he is actually quite human. I don’t know, there are some days that I wake up and I just feel awful and sad, and there is no explanation for it, but later in the day something happens or I get that piece of news that just changes all of that. So I can relate it a lot to everyday life.

    OL – Maybe I’ve underestimated the character a bit (laughs).

    LB – Maybe. I mean, it can be tricky with regards to this story, because a lot of the action happens off-stage and we’re telling the story on stage. So there is not a lot of action.

    OL - This is a role that was cherished by some excellent baritones like Apolo Granforte, Carlo Tagliabue, Sherrill Milnes, and Leo Nucci. Do you look up to any of them? Is listening to them part of your preparation?

    LB – Of course! Obviously being American, Sherrill Milnes has had tremendous effect on every American baritone one way or the other. He is an absolute legend. But I’m so thrilled that you placed Leo Nucci on this list, because he is absolutely my favorite baritone. Now, that’s not to say that I want to sing like him because we actually have quite different techniques and styles and different colors in our voices. But there is something about his singing that has always drawn me every time I’ve heard him sing something. Unfortunately I’ve not seen him sing anything live; only recordings or DVDs.

    In a way I think it’s good that I latched on to him as an artist even though we have such different voices, because one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve got was actually from the bass Sam Ramey, and he said “I listen to recordings when I’m studying roles that are new and new sorts of things, but I purposely listen to singers that I don’t like so that I am not inclined to copy them and try and sing like them.” He uses the material only for reference. Because a lot of singers studying in school tend to listen to their favorite singers and try to emulate them and try and mold their voices to sound like them and take on their style. I have some colleagues who have done masterclasses for undergrads and grad students, and they sing an aria and the statement is – “OK, that’s exactly how Renée Fleming would sing it but can you sing it like you?”

    So I can understand what Leo is doing and appreciate it and add my own vocality to it, not to feel tempted to try to sing like him. Not that I don’t like his singing. I just understand that we have different voices.

    OL – Great, good answer! Given Caruso’s famous quote that for a successful Il Trovatore you need the four best singers in the world, how scary is it to tackle it? Are you confident that this NC Opera production will be good?

    LB – (laughs) Scary is exactly the word! I’m not going to lie, I’m a very confident singer overall but I feel that a lot of my strengths as a singer come from acting ability on stage and the ability to tell the story. I’m not a good 'parker and barker' so to speak; I don’t like to just stand and sing to somebody. I like to be active. And I know you can be active while still standing still and expressing the story, but for me it’s one of the biggest factors for this piece, because as I mentioned a lot of the action happens off-stage so we’re telling the story as a narrative on stage, which makes it difficult to provide any physical action within the piece, as opposed to something like Die Fledermaus where you are walking around stage, being in all sorts of crazy and goofy or cozy situations where there is a lot of physicality to it.

    I am absolutely confident, though, that this production will be good. I don’t know how they’ve done it. I was here last year for Faust, and they assembled this incredible cast for that production last year, and they’ve done it again this year. We had our sing-through, our first day of rehearsal, and my jaw was just down on the floor with the talent they’ve assembled. So I think the audience here is going to be quite pleased, and we will continue to work to make it the best way we can.

    But I will say that Caruso really nailed that; there is a reason that quote has lived on because, man, it is a sing-and-a-half for all four characters.

    OL - How different is it to prepare for a semi-staged production? I’d imagine that it requires less acting and more focus on the music. Any comments on this?

    LB – I will definitely agree with you that it requires less acting and more focus on the music, but again like I mentioned because of my natural inclination to move around, I feel fortunate to work with our director again. I've worked with him before, he actually directed my first Barber of Seville last summer; there is a huge jump obviously between Figaro and di Luna. But he understands me, and I understand his desire to not make it as static as one would expect from the words ‘semi-staged concert version.’

    OL – Can you tell how you guys are going about it, and what we the public can expect from a semi-staged version?

    LB – Well, there will be costumes, I believe they’ve rented costumes from another production, I’m not exactly sure where. So we’ll have the costumes, and basically the only difference is that we don’t have a set, which for a piece like this doesn’t matter so much because we can suggest the set with the lighting. We can suggest a dark forest by dimming the lights and throwing some filters over the lights to show branches and trees and these sorts of things. It worked extremely well last year when we did Faust, which was slightly different because they did projections above the orchestra. We don’t have projections this year. There are some set pieces, some furniture. And of course the orchestra will be behind us.

    So you get to watch the orchestra playing away in some of their great moments as well, which has a nice aspect to it. I know a lot of patrons who like to sit up in the balcony area because as well as taking in the visual and oral aspects of the opera, they like to see the orchestra playing; they like to see the instrumentalists and the conductor.

    OL – But what about eye contact with the conductor; wouldn’t it be harder if he’s behind you?

    LB – Yes, it’s definitely harder. There are moments when we have to cheat and do a few things physically within the staging to catch him, but that’s part of what we do in the rehearsal. We need to say "OK, in this moment we need to make sure that we are connected, that we’ve got each other." But there are also monitors out in the house that will be live and in time with the maestro, so we can cheat that way and watch the monitors. It’s just knowing in which moments very specifically we have to be connected, or the tempo and everything will be off. But that, we figure it all out in the rehearsal process.

    OL – Good. Let’s talk about your career a little bit. I’ve noticed that you’ve tackled a very diverse repertory – from Mozart all the way to Britten and Debussy and contemporary opera, with some emphasis in the French repertory of the second half of the 19th century such as Hamlet, Carmen, and The Pearl Fishers, but also including for instance Mahler’s lieder. Where do you see your niche as a singer, today? Are you interested in doing a bit of everything, or in specializing?

    LB – Oh wow, look at you, you’ve really done your research, good Lord! OK, so my niche as a singer is definitely in the French repertory, I feel, because of a lot of the tessitura sits higher. And again, a lot of that repertory later in time suits me. I enjoy the way the French language sits in my voice, and I’ve been working to perfect my language skills, specifically in that language. Not a lot of German repertory for me, and obviously this one of my first Verdis. [Editor's note - previously, Ballo with HGO's Studio, and Un Giorno di Regno with Wolf Trap Opera]. I do see myself doing some more Verdi later on in life. This is an opportunity to get my feet wet, try it out, see how it feels so that I know for the future, four or five years down the line, if someone is interested in me doing this. That may be a bigger house, and I can evaluate and say, "This is how it felt when I did it in North Carolina and this worked well" – this is really helpful to have this opportunity now. But I definitely feel that the French repertory is where I can focus a lot of my ability.

    OL - For reasons unrelated to the topic of our interview today, I’m very interested in the Bard College upcoming production of Le Roi Malgré Lui, in which you will participate. I’m considering a possible trip there to attend it in person. Have you started preparation already? What can you tell me about this opera and this production, including director Thaddeus Strassberger’s concepts?

    LB – Oh wow, OK! I have started a little bit of preparation for Le Roi, but actually I don’t know much about the concepts or the piece right now as I’ve been working on di Luna exclusively, and then right after this I’ll start working on Le Roi while rehearsing and performing Così in Saint Louis. That’s the way my schedule has worked out. I always make sure I put in the time I need for various projects.

    I can tell you that I worked with Thaddeus in his production of Hamlet for the Washington National Opera, and I absolutely adore him and his concepts. He is an incredibly brilliant young director whom I look forward to working with more and more over the coming years, given the opportunity. I really think he is an incredible talent.

    OL – We will be interviewing Thaddeus for Opera Lively, so that’s one of the reasons I am interested, and the other one is that I’ve been exploring a list of ninety one operas in French as a personal project, and there are about 12 left which are hard to get. Le Roi Malgré Lui is one of them, so maybe I’ll be up there.

    LB – That will be wonderful, if you make it.

    OL – Yes. At Opera Lively, both staff and members are very interested in contemporary opera. I see that you participated in the world première of Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning new opera Silent Night as Lieutenant Audeber. We’d love to hear a bit about this experience. First, we’d like to ask you about the challenges of creating a new role in a contemporary opera.

    LB – I honestly can’t say that there were many challenges in creating that piece. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had thus far, and one of the things I’m extremely proud of having accomplished. Kevin is an incredible composer. I remember thinking, before I went to Minneapolis after learning the piece and studying it, that it would be a good opera. I didn’t realize fully what we had until we had all gotten together and had started rehearsing it. Then I said, "Oh my God, this is going to be something out of control on the best level."

    It was like doing ... I imagine what doing Billy Budd for the first time might have been like, with regards to just having an all male cast, a few females, but really the vast majority all male cast, and just this sort of -- for lack of a better explanation -- a frat boy mentality. We all hang out together outside of rehearsal, and just spent a lot of time together, working on the piece and outside of it, which I think added a lot to the camaraderie which people saw on stage, which I think it is so important to have those relationships.

    It’s based on the movie Joyeux Noël, which I purposely only watched once, because I didn’t want what I saw in the movie to inform me too much in the way that I would interpret the character as an opera, because there are different things. For one, Mark Campbell, the librettist, wrote an extra scene for my character -- basically my aria -- that isn’t in the movie, so it’s connecting all of that and adding something like that seamlessly that fleshed out the character a bit more and gave me a lot more to work with than just what the movie had given.

    We are so thrilled that we’ll fortunately be able to do the piece again next season in Philadelphia! So if you have an opportunity to come and see that I highly recommend it.

    [Editors' note: here is the link to the Philadelphia run - not to be missed! Click [here]]

    The piece moves, it’s moving. I don’t know how to explain it without getting quite cheesy, but I absolutely love the piece. I think it’s going to have a life outside of these first two seasons. I know that there are some other companies interested in doing it, as well as it receiving the Pulitzer now.

    And I have to say, I told my manager, "Any opportunity I have to create a new role, sign me up." I’d absolutely jump at the opportunity. There is something very free, creatively, to be able to originate a role like that. You know you are not going to be compared to anybody else because nobody else has done it. And there is something very artistically freeing about that, to not be concerned about what they are going to think, or "Oh, he didn’t sound like so and so," or "They don’t have the right voice for that"; these sorts of things I have actually to deal with in Il Trovatore, where some people may say, "Oh, he didn’t sound like Sherrill," or "Leo did it so much better." For Silent Night there was not that worry; I could just be myself, and create and interpret what I saw on the page for myself.

    OL - Second, can you tell us a bit about Silent Night, the opera? Our organization being headquartered in the United States and having as a mission the fostering of the art form, we have a keen interest in American contemporary opera, and it is always good when we have an opportunity to generate exposure for this kind of work.

    LB – Silent Night is based on the true story of the World War I armistice on Christmas Eve, when the troops voluntarily put down their weapons and celebrated Christmas together. See, you have the camps, with these French and Scottish troops and they can’t understand each other because the French speak French and the Scots speak English, and you have the German soldier who was conscripted into the army, who was actually an opera singer. And because he was an opera singer he knew these other languages, and he actually becomes the translator for everybody to discuss this truce. And so on Christmas Eve they have the truce, then on Christmas Day they decide to have another truce so that they can bury the dead as a sign of respect.

    Here are soldiers who are seeing what they’ve been forced to do, and they don’t agree with it. It is particularly poignant today when you have things like sending soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they may not know why they are going there; they don’t believe fully in why they have to be there. They are doing what they are ordered to do because they are soldiers. And it is very fascinating to take a story that is almost a hundred years old now, and see how relevant it is today. This is one of the reasons why it was so moving to people, because they can absolutely relate to it.

    OL – How is it musically?

    LB – I have to plead ignorance on that because my strength is not music theory (laughs). But I will say that Kevin writes very melodic things. I can’t say that when you leave Silent Night for the first time you’ll be humming any sort of tune, but it is extremely accessible to first time audience members. The audience’s reaction was more than I ever expected. They just absolutely ate it up and loved every moment of it.

    A lot of it had to do with the way it was staged by Eric Simonson and the set design and how it kept everything moving. There was never this dead space, there was never any waiting around, it just moved along but with the right pacing, and the moments that needed to be tender and intimate were there, but in the moments that you needed to get through, there was not a lot of repetition. The libretto is from the movie script, adapted for the opera. So it’s very theatrical.

    OL – Any closing statements, something I haven’t addressed about this Trovatore production that you’d like to add?

    LB – No, I think you’ve covered a lot, actually, I don’t think I need to add anything. I’m just very excited to be back here with NC Opera, and hope that people enjoy it. I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing a lot of new younger opera goers, especially when we do the second performance in Chapel Hill [Editor’s note: at Memorial Hall, in the campus of the University of North Carolina], hoping to grab the attention of a lot of the college kids, and trying to get them into this art form, which I think is very important.

    OL – Your answers were very good, I think our readers will love them. Thank you for your time.

    LB – My pleasure. Thank you so much.

    OL – By the way, you sounded like you were sniffing a little bit at some point, do we risk a cancellation?

    LB – No, I’m not sniffing, it’s some sort of background noise.

    OL – I have a cold, that’s one of the reasons I’m doing a phone interview, not to spread the bug to the singers one week before the performance.

    LB – That sounds great, I appreciate it! (laughs hard) No, no, I’ll be fine, baritones rarely cancel. It’s a well known fact that tenors and sopranos make more money than baritones, so baritones can’t *afford* to cancel.

    OL – (laughs) I think I’ll put that in the interview as well, if you don’t mind.

    LB – (laughs) Oh, OK, sure! My colleagues will kill me! (laughs)

    OL – (still laughing) Thanks a lot, see you.

    LB – Thank you, see you Friday.

    Here is a sample of Mr. Bonner's singing:

    Actually the best way to get acquainted with his beautiful voice (other of course than attending his live performance) is to visit his official website where an mp3 player provides some very beautiful fragments; click here:


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