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Reigning Ambassador of All Sounds Swedish

Music * American soprano Barbara Bonney says she's starting to 'scratch the surface' of Scandinavia.


The soprano called "The Swedish Nightingale" was famous the world over for her beautiful voice. In the 19th century, the title applied to the legendary Jenny Lind. Today, however, it fits the blond-haired, blue-eyed and beloved American soprano Barbara Bonney.

Bonney has acknowledged the connection by creating a lecture/concert devoted to Lind, which she's performed on many stages. Moreover, as fans of her extensive work on the opera stage may not be aware, she's established herself as a major proponent of Scandinavian music. Southern California audiences can get a taste of this over the next two weeks as the soprano presents three recitals in La Jolla, Costa Mesa and Glendale.

Bonney isn't actually Swedish; she grew up in Montclair, N.J. But she was married for eight years to baritone Hakan Hagegard, lived in Sweden and speaks the language fluently.

"Simply by being there and picking up the language and culture, I became a kind of Swedish ambassador," she says. "I've become more Swedish than any Swedish person I know. I just love the music and think people should hear it."

Performing art song cycles by composers like Edvard Grieg or Jean Sibelius, she makes a convincing case for her viewpoint. Earlier this winter, she had a New York audience eating out of her hand, particularly with Grieg's German-language cycle Six Songs (which is on all three of her Southern California programs). And, she says, "I've just begun to scratch the surface" of the Scandinavian literature: "I need to get out the books."

It's 'Enlightenment,' Not Entertainment

Bonney, who will give 40 recitals this year, emphatically rejects what she calls "the theme park thing" in constructing her programs.

"I don't want to do songs about roses or moons," she says, speaking from a hotel room in New York. "I want to take people on a journey of various emotions, different colors. It's like a meal. When I give a dinner party, I sit down and think about the different components, what goes with what, what wine is good with that. You want people to go away from the table sated but feeling that their life has been enhanced. To make them think a little.

"Today," she adds, "everything boils down to entertainment. This is not entertainment; this is enlightenment, healing. Sing Gershwin by all means, but not only to let the audience jump up and down and applaud. Keep them immersed. The music is what counts. It has to be in the forefront of people's minds. The Lied [art song] focuses on the beauty of poetry, the genius of the composers."

Not every singer is as energetically devoted to the song recital as Bonney. Perhaps that's because the art song was her entree to the world of singing. After studying cello at the University of New Hampshire, she went to Salzburg to learn German and ended up at the prestigious local music academy, the Mozarteum, studying German Lied.

In the classical world, art song specialists are not always opera singers; in fact, Bonney became an opera singer almost by accident. While she was in Salzburg, "some [opera] house needed someone," she says, "an agent sent me, and I got the job. Suddenly, I was an opera singer. I was plunged into a completely new world, and I got to learn it as I went."

This serendipitous start took some of the pressure off, since standing on an opera stage was more of an exciting new challenge than the fulfillment of a long-held dream. "Until I woke up one day and realized I was an opera singer."

And a very famous one. For some two decades, Bonney has been feted on the stages of London, Munich and New York in a range of opera roles. And opera is still a part of her musical menu. Plans for next year include the role of Zdenka in a new Metropolitan Opera production of Strauss' "Arabella." But, she notes, being an established artist--although she's only 44, this is her 21st professional season, and she describes herself as "one of the dinosaurs of soubrettes"--gives her the freedom to explore different avenues.

"This year, I put opera on the side to reflect and discover new areas," she says. "I've gone very much into Lied this year. It's not that opera stops, but I'm not 25 anymore, and I can't do the same roles forever. Every single soubrette, or light soprano, goes through this process. Either you make a leap of Fach"--that is, change your voice type and go into a new, heavier repertoire--"or you explore concerts."

A 'Great Revelation' Over Joys of Teaching

Bonney is also exploring teaching, which she finds deeply rewarding. In some ways, she says, she feels like she became a singer in order to teach. "It's a great revelation. I've gone through this whole process in order to do what I do now."

That includes giving 15 to 20 master classes a year. Two of them, one on the Lied and one on opera, were recently televised for the BBC in London, the city Bonney now calls home.

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