by Charles A Hooey
Return to the Hooey Collection homepage
It was a cool afternoon on the Canadian prairies when my mother called down to me in the basement, “Bring a few carrots when you come up, dear.” In late autumn we always packed away our garden crop of carrots and taters in a vain attempt to maintain edibility through the winter. Times were tough and we needed this produce to survive. It was on just such a day, 28 November 1938, when a famous American baritone came to Winnipeg to sing his favored arias and songs in our Civic Auditorium. As I went about my mundane task, I knew nothing about Richard Bonelli downtown in his hotel room warming up for the entertainment to come.
“ As Tonio, Bonelli’s masterful voicing of the Prologue makes one wonder who is the premier Italian baritone of the era…he combines all the fat, rolling tone of Thomas and the point and dramatic flavor of Tibbett… Memories of the golden age of Italian baritones surface – Amato, even a touch of Ruffo potency.” So wrote Paul Jackson in Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met about a Pagliacci aired on 28 February 1936.
America, it seems, has always been blessed with great baritone voices and, certainly during his time, Richard Bonelli ranked with the best alongside Lawrence Tibbett, John Charles Thomas and Leonard Warren. In fact, since so much of his career was spent rambling about his own country, he must rate as a true All-American artist.
The formative time
He was born George Richard Bunn on 6 February 1889, a first and only son to Ida and Martin Hesler Bunn in Port Byron, Cayuga County, New York. [A degree of confusion has existed regarding Bonelli’s birth year. It should now end. According to a printout of the original birth registry sheet, provided by Penny Helzer, Port Byron historian, the year of his birth was 1889.] Martin was a New York barrister who had won the heart of Ida, a lass from tiny Port Byron. They moved there in 1885, possibly so her family could help manage their three lively daughters: Mary Louise (born 1881), Bertha (1882) and Bessie (1884). The Bunns purchased a house on Green Street around the corner from historic Main Street – it is still there – and settled in to enjoy a relaxing life. Port Byron was a pioneer town and pivotal on the Erie Canal. [After the American Revolution, a tract of land in New York State was set aside for settlement, In 1797 Port Byron was on the map in this wilderness abounding with wild animals and inhabited by Iroquois Indians. Once a waterway was needed to aid commerce, the Eire Canal was constructed between 1820 and 1825.] Martin was both an early photographer of great skill and, with Ida on Sunday, a soloist with the Port Byron Methodist Church. Music aplenty coursed through their home and into little Georgie’s being.
By 1893, with six hungry mouths to feed, Martin decided he needed more income than the tiny community could generate, so he packed his family off to Syracuse, 25 miles to the east.
The 1900 Census tells us there were nine inhabitants: six Bunns and three relatives of Ida. The children were students while Martin was Loans Manager for a local business. The next Census, ten years later, reveals just three residents with Ida officially “Family head” along with George and Elsie the maid. No sign of Martin.
If George did lose his father soon after the turn of the century, this would be the likely reason he became such an avid early breadwinner. When not in school, he was a newsboy with the Syracuse Journal, then edging up the corporate ladder, he assumed the duties of newspaper bundler, and, ultimately, circulation clerk. Also, in no special order, he solicited magazine subscriptions, was a farm labourer, carried messages for a bank, worked as a bookkeeper, telephone accountant, gardener in a cemetery, auto mechanic, accident insurance investigator and zinc miner. Now, there’s an entrepreneur! At some point, he asked his friends to call him “Richard.”
Though music remained uppermost in his thoughts, a scholarship, no doubt prompted by his business zeal, sent him to Syracuse University in 1908, in pursuit of a degree in mechanical engineering. But one day, when he happened to sing for a gathering of friends and instructors, they immediately clamoured to have him take up singing as a career. “Whoa!” he pleaded, “Think about this! How can I when I am so close to hanging up my engineer’s shingle?” But change he did and, with Dean Harold L. Butler, he buckled down to major in languages and music. And to learn about opera he went to New York whenever he could to sample the heady wares of the Metropolitan Opera. His diary reveals his reaction. [Bill Moran had access to Bonelli’s diaries and the singer’s reactions to his first operas. De Reszke’s teaching methods are from Moran’s liner notes with the Stanford CD set.]
Dec. 3, 1910 (Tannhäuser) – “the impression of this, my first real `Grand Opera,’ was one of the deepest I ever experienced. It opens up a regular vista of progress from where I am now. It seems as if I can look down a mile-long corridor and at the very end just a glimpse of what? All in all it makes a fellow feel pretty small himself.”
Dec. 30 (Rigoletto) “Here again was a great treat for me in the singing and acting of Amato. He is the best baritone the Met company has, and a fine actor. His portrayal was especially fine at the end of the second act. His voice is of tremendous size and of fine ability. He easily carried off the honors of the evening. Smirnoff… made his American debut and Lipkowska … sang Gilda. Her voice is pure and beautiful, and her appearance a delight. Baring the occasion of her going a whole tone flat in the concluding cadenza of `Caro nome,’ she certainly gave a most satisfactory impression.”
He stayed with Butler until June 1911 but the torrid pace finally took its toll. His health suffering, he headed west in search of lots of fresh air and heat in Arizona. Gradually he regained his strength, sufficient to take a job in a zinc mine, then as room clerk at “The Old Faithful Inn” in Yellowstone Park. Eventually he headed to Los Angeles to look up Arthur Alexander, a renowned man of music, who would in time benefit him mightily. In the autumn of 1912 he went back to Seattle to work for the telephone company until a letter arrived from Alexander, “You must come to Paris. Living is cheap, and lessons will cost you nothing.” It was an offer too good to resist so off he went. During a second visit in November, 1913, Alexander took him to sing for Jean de Reszke who accepted him for a study programme that began in January 1914. He still kept notes, now to recall the master’s suggestions for handling vocal problems.
Lesson V, Feb. 12, 1914 – He immediately started me singing way down in the body with very deep support, for I have a habit of singing too much in the glottis. This makes for a much richer tone…` the diaphragm is where you want it when you want it.’ Then I started out on Le Roi de Lahore: Promesse de mon avenir. `Start out very deep downand dignified at `aux troupes du Sultan’… `Comme si les chassairmeme invisible main” enunciate very lightly in the pp passages…’ Next we went to L’Africaine: Adamastor, roi des vogues. All darker – more head resonance. Then he said I sang it well. After to Hamlet: `refrain should not be too fast. Keep smiling and deep support most important. Watch out on high tones to keep larynx from going up to shut off tone.’ We had about $1.96 worth of conversation afterward. I told him I wanted to get his opinion as to the length of time necessary to study before beginning to sing for a living. He said there was no reason for my not being ready by June of this year, at the present rate of progress, if I want to debut by then. Is my voice big enough for opera? `Yes, it is that kind of voice.’ Then he handed out a few bouquets: said I am certainly making great progress in getting the voice rounder and out of the nose; that I sang with a great deal of energy and intelligence and with beautiful quality.”
After twenty-five elite lessons, young Dick ran out of funds and with war threatening, he boarded ship for home while Jean returned to Poland. In New York, he sought out Alexander who was ready and willing to resume his studies.
A beginning with Aborn
His initial break and early experience was supplied by the Aborn organization. This enterprise, formed by two brothers, Milton (1864-1933) and Sargent, for production of opera in English, was active in New York ((primarily in Brooklyn) and on tour intermittently from at least 1902 until Milton’s death. It reached its zenith from 1910-13 when as many as six separate troupes crisscrossed in various north-eastern cities and Canada.
Likely he first sang in the provinces but his ‘official’ debut came on 21 April 1915 as Valentin in Faust at the ornate Brooklyn Academy of Music. Marguerite was Lydia Locke, third wife (or soon-to-be) of Orville Harrold. As he later related: “I sang it twice in one day, matinee and night. The second role I took up was the baritone role in Il Trovatore, the Conte di Luna. Then, I went out for a few weeks in Gilbert and Sullivan…in the Spring.”
Afterwards with Aborn at the Brooklyn Academy, “I added several other roles, Rigoletto was one… pretty heavy for a young lad but I did it. And the part of Silvio in Pagliacci...I didn’t add Tonio in Pagliacci until some years later.” His Gildas included Mary Carson, Edith Helena and Genia Zielinska, while the role of the Duke was shared by Salvatore Giordano and Giuseppe Agostini.
Late in November 1916, Aborn began seven weeks at the Park Theatre, New York. Then from 26 March to 7 April, 1917, Bunn performed in Toronto in Rigoletto, Faust and Pagliacci. Afterwards in Brooklyn, he essayed Enrico in Lucia and Rigoletto, with Gilda shared by Francesca Milena (Ruth Miller) and Nadina Legat (who happened to be a daughter of a Czarist general.) Milton wisely shepherded his prize along by spelling him off with more seasoned baritones, men like Millo Picco, Morton Adkins and the Catalan Vicente Ballester.
Things were going nicely. He was studying with William Vilonat in New York and singing with Aborn, George De Feo and others. This took him to Houston, Havana, Cuba as a guest artist and Chatauqua to tour in De Koven’s ever popular Robin Hood. Then he was drafted. As the usually peaceful U.S. rushed to mobilize, no one thought of organizing units to entertain so Bunn was groomed to fight in the trenches. Lucky fellow, he was fortunate to survive.
After leaving the army, he set about to re-establish himself in operatic circles. Thus he ambled through the 1920-1922 years with one tiny change. “I decided to Italianize my name because impresarios couldn’t – or wouldn’t – believe that a `Richard Bunn’ or anyone with an Anglo-American name could possibly interpret the great operatic roles in a convincing manner.” Thus he became ‘Richard Bonelli,’ fashioning a new surname from his mother’s family name of “Homel.”
Alas, young Richard it seems jumped at the first recording contract offered. In 1918, he made his first records with the Vocalion Company via the ‘hill and dale’ process. When Vocalion was absorbed by Brunswick in 1920, he remained a featured artist with new titles showing up in their catalog regularly until 1929. But he disliked the idea of having his repertory chosen by recording executives, who wanted popular ballads, cared little for operatic arias and even less for classical songs. He would surely have taken a happier and richer path to glory with RCA Victor. Ten years later, he made a few sides for Columbia and M-G-M and an LP for the Radio Corporation of America.
The San Carlo experience
Late in 1922, he made his most significant move. He joined the San Carlo Grand Opera Company under its legendary campaigner, Fortune Gallo for just one season but what splendid experience it provided. Did he join in Montreal in the autumn of 1922 as Moran, who knew the singer personally, contends, or in Boston on 7 November as Cardell Bishop writes? … “Bonelli gave a vivid portrayal of the colorful role of Rigoletto” and a Sharpless, where “his deep baritone voice of rich quality passed not unnoticed.” He sang Tonio in Pagliacci with Manuel Salazar and Sofia Charlebois, then in Otello “as the crafty Iago, (he) outdid himself in subtlety of characterization and richness of voice. His baritone voice is one of the finest the Company has brought to Boston.” In Philadelphia, he had a full slate, including Plunkett in Martha with Josephine Lucchese as well as Tonio, Rigoletto, Valentin, Sharpless and Escamillo.
Gallo continued to push through the mid-west to San Antonio, where Bonelli offered Rigoletto and Plunkett on 5 & 6 February, 1923. Then, in Los Angeles at the Philharmonic Auditorium on 20 February, as Sharpless, he had an authentic Cio-Cio-San in Japanese diva, Tamaki Miura. As for Tonio, the Los Angeles Record screamed, “BONELLI IS THE SENSATION OF THE OPERA … “the figure of a dwarfed misshapen clown, passionately loving, malignantly hating… as a dribbling fool, yet subtly pulling the emotional strings that lead to destruction. His first appearance before the curtain for the prologue, which stopped the show and compelled a partial repetition, was indicative of the artistry which lived through his lines. There was no cheap bombast roaring on in sonorous phrases, but the message of a comprehending, sensitive soul, itself wrought up to laughter and tears by the spectacle of life.” San Franciscans reacted well but less flamboyantly. One paper wrote: “His voice is one of firm and vibrant timbre, warm power and round tone. He employs dramatic urgency, and his intonation is always accurate.”
After visiting Portland and Seattle, Gallo pulled out all stops in Havana on 23 April, offering Lucrezia Bori as Violetta with Bonelli as Germont. Maria Kousnezov was Marguerite in Faust to his Valentin, and, in Il Trovatore his Di Luna was in hot pursuit of Marie Rappold. No reviews appeared but The Musical Courier reported that “Richard Bonelli sang three times winning a genuine ovation on each occasion, and created such a following that he received an invitation to remain after the opera season for a special recital with Lucrezia Bori,” beloved soprano of many lanquid Havana nights. So ended his time with the San Carlo.
Modena, Monte Carlo, Paris etc
Back in the USA, he spent the summer with De Feo, while planning a major move. He decided it was now or never for Europe and so he débuted on 26 December 1923 during the Carnevale season at the Teatro Comunale in Modena, before one of the toughest audiences in Italy. As ‘Riccardo Bonelli,’ he portrayed a nasty Dardano in Catalani’s Dejanice with Maria Llacer and Merli, followed by a pair of Aidas with Isora Rinolfi, with Ismaele Voltolini and Aroldo Lindi, sharing the role of Radames. His efforts earned him an invitation to sing at La Scala but illness denied him this opportunity. However, a chance meeting with the famous painter Leon Bakst did lead him to Raoul Gunsbourg at the Monte Carlo Opera.
Upon arrival, he was cast as Tonio in Pagliacci on 19 February 1924 with Jane Laval, Lucien Muratore and Robert Couzinou. A pair of Madama Butterflys showed off his Sharpless with Gilda Dalla Rizza while Dmitri Smirnov shared the role of Pinkerton with Vesselovsky. Valentin in Gounod’s Faust and that role in Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust came next. He offered Germont in La Traviata with Dalla Rizza and Smirnov, and then sang Gilellius in Anton by Galeotti, unusual fare that Léon Jahin conducted. Though hired for four performances, ultimately he sang ten.
In both Fausts, his soprano was Pauline Cornelys, a young artiste active in Boston. They may have met previously perhaps while both studied with Alexander, and in the full bloom of youth, they proclaimed, “Let’s get married!” [Pauline was born in Newport, Rhode Island to John W. Curley and Pauline Cornelis. She was educated at the New England Conservatory, studying with Oscar Seagle (a de Reszke pupil), also with Arthur Alexander and William Vilonat. As “Pauline Cornelys” she made her operatic debut in Baltimore in 1922 as Mimi in La Bohème. In addition to her work in Monte Carlo, she sang in Los Angeles and in principal German cities with Sauter’s Mailander Stagione in such roles as Mimi, Micaëla, Desdemona, Cio-Cio-San and Marguerite in Faust. Pauline was 63 on 4 May 1952 when she perished under tragic circumstances. She loved stray dogs and had about eighteen in her home in the artist colony of Woodstock, N.Y. when it caught fire. She re-entered in a vain attempt to save her pets.]
Next he appeared between 29 April and 6 May 1925 at the Mosque Theatre for the Newark Music Festival. Then he travelled to Paris where he found a polyglot troupe known as ‘The American, Italian, French Grand Opera Company’ holding forth at Le Théâtre de la Gaîté Lyrique. Several artists had Chicago ties including the formidable Mary Garden, who in May had sung Fiora in L’Amore dei Tre Re and Tosca. Just as Bonelli arrived, de Luca took ill so the eager American got his chance to sing in Il Barbiere and La Traviata and then as Rigoletto and Tonio. Mary liked him so much she engaged him for Chicago that autumn. The Metropolitan Opera in New York wanted him too but Chicago’s offer was sweeter. Before he could take this momentous stride step, he took part, with his bride, in a tour of Germany in July and August with Max Sauter’s ‘Mailander Stagione.’ He sang thirty-nine times in Aida, Barbiere, Otello, Traviata and Trovatore.
The big time at last
With the demise of the Chicago Grand Opera Association in 1922, a golden era ended. Mary Garden in her lone year as self-styled ‘La Directa’ had her share of artistic glories, but had run up a whopping deficit. Self-made utilities mogul Samuel Insull stepped in to set the Chicago Civic Opera on a stable course, though his cutbacks particularly damaged the staging process. Mary stayed on as star performer but oddly, she never sang in Chicago with her baritone discovery.
When Bonelli arrived, he had no easy time as it seemed management was testing his mettle. He débuted on 8 November 1925 as Germont in La Traviata with Claudia Muzio and a newcomer from the previous year, artful Antonio Cortis. Two nights later, all three joined Louise Homer in Il Trovatore. Then he was asked to sing Valentin in Faust and Iago in Otello on 26 November, with Charles Marshall, whose raging Moor was a huge success when he arrived in Chicago for the 1920-1 season. Researchers differ, though, about Desdemona. One claims it was Anna Fitziu (perhaps she was scheduled but took ill?), letting Eleanor Sawyer step in on short notice?
After a Lucia, Bonelli shared in a revival of Massenet’s Hérodiade with Edith Mason and Cyrena van Gordon. Though the ladies took top singing honors, at least Bonelli as Herod could feast his eyes upon the most lavish and ostentatious array of female legs and knees the opera company had yet mustered. There was a new opera too. Aldo Franchetti’s had written Namiko-San for Tamaki Miura, winning the Bispham Gold Medal in the process. At its world première on 11 December, Bonelli sang Yiro Danyemon. A bloody tale, it was toned down, in passable English, for this opera. For the Madama Butterfly on 2 January 1926 opinions again differ as to who sang Sharpless. Was it Bonelli or Rimini? If the former, it was his only Sharpless in Chicago.
Post-season, the full company stopped as usual in Boston, where, in quite a feat of organization, they presented sixteen operas in two weeks, Bonelli singing in La Traviata, Faust, Hérodiade and Il Trovatore. For the rest of the tour, the number of operas was trimmed as were personnel as they set out aboard two special trains. Bonelli sang in Un Ballo in Maschera in Baltimore, Rigoletto in Washington, Lucia in Cleveland, Aida and La Traviata in Chattanooga and La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Rigoletto in Miami, the finale coming on 14 March. After his initial season, he could look back with pride on 19 times he had sung in Chicago and a further 12 on the road. He had learned the ropes elsewhere so in Chicago he could sing principal roles.
Afterwards he was invited to appear in nearby Michigan at the Ann Arbor Festival. In the Hill Auditorium on 22 May 1926, he sang Telramund in a concert rendering of Wagner’s Lohengrin, with Florence Austral, Richard Crooks, Augusta Lenska and James Wolfe, Earle V. Moore conducting. It must have pleased for he would return to Ann Arbor and attend other festivals, such as at Evanston, Illinois, through the years, though, oddly, he did not perform at Ravinia as Raisa, Florence Macbeth and others did. Perhaps he did not care for the “potted” opera or the carnival setting.
Making a splash on the West Coast
After these successes, he decided to test the waters on the West Coast. He had visited in 1923 with Gallo; now he would do so again under local auspices. As the Los Angeles and San Francisco seasons coincided, he began in the City of Angels on 7 September as Plunkett in Martha with Florence Macbeth and in Rigoletto. Then, speeding north to San Francisco, he sang Rossini’s Figaro, with Macbeth, Schipa and Journet on 25 September, then Rigoletto, Amonasro and Marcello in each case with Muzio and Cortis. To wind up, he sang Enrico in Lucia with Luella Melius and Di Luna in Il Trovatore with Muzio and Lindi. Then the call rang out, “Come on all you songbirds. Southern Pacific waits for no one.” Off they ‘flew’ to return to LA. On stage Bonelli was the distraught Papa of Alfredo (Lindi) confronting the youth’s ill-fated lover Violetta (Muzio). An oh-so-proper consul Sharpless came next, with Raisa and Althouse, then Valentin in Faust with his lady, Pauline Cornelys, Althouse and Baklanoff. Finally he supplied a second Figaro in Rossini’s masterwork. Although he now sported a solid footing on the West Coast, he had loyalties to fans back east. The West would have to wait.
In Chicago for a second time, he had juicy going on 12 November as Kurvenal in Tristan und Isolde with Elsa Alsen, Kipnis and van Gordon with Polacco conducting. This role he would tackle in San Francisco but never in New York. He continued as Edgardo, with Dal Monte and Cortis, as Di Luna, with Muzio and Cortis/Lindi, and in Rigolettos, with Eidé Norena and Cortis/Hackett. Then he introduced his Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia on 2 December with Toti Dal Monte, Charles Hackett and Virgilio Lazzari, Roberto Moranzoni conducting. When he essayed the role a second time on 25 January 1927, his Rosina was Siberia-born Maria Kurenko whose slight, rather wiry sound did not entirely please but she sang Lucia, with Bonelli as Enrico on 5 February and Gilda to his Rigoletto in Akron, Ohio on 22 March, to wind up that season’s tour.
In late summer, NBC went “on air” nationally and when opera by the Chicago Civic Opera was offered five months later, Bonelli was front and centre. On 28 January 1927, from a Grand Gala on stage, Act IV of Il Trovatore was beamed out over NBC with Bonelli as Comte di Luna, Claudia Muzio as Leonora and Forrest Lamont (or Aroldo Lindi) as Manrico. Though in meager sound, this broadcast along with a segment from Faust a week earlier convinced authorities that opera in hour long segments was a fine idea.
By this tome he was becoming an accomplished concert artist. After the Chicago season, his agent, the Wolfsohn Musical Bureau of New York, sent him on tour. On 8 April, perhaps by his own design, he sang in the Pompeian Room of the Osborne Hotel in Auburn, New York, near his home city of Syracuse. No doubt, he sang that evening with gusto before a sea of frenzied, adoring fans.
Again in Chicago, for his third season, he led off on 3 November as Germont with Muzio and Schipa to inaugurate the radio series. In an outreach initiative, the production was packed up and sent together with Muzio, Hackett and Bonelli to Milwaukee on 18 November. In Chicago, he sang Figaro, Di Luna, Renato and Wolfram on 26 November and three nights later, Mizgir in a revival of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegourotchka, in English as The Snow Maiden. Edith Mason, who shared the title part remembered the work as one of the loveliest things the Chicago Opera ever did. Bonelli undertook his role in preparation for introducing the opera in Los Angeles, Fresno, Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis. On tour, he appeared in Tannhäuser and four Verdi roles and sang his first Tonio for the company in Chattanooga on 24 February, 1928 with Edith Mason and Charles Marshall.
He continued to build a radio following by promoting the products of General Motors, Standard Oil and Atwater Kent. Typically he sold radios for A K on April 22, 1928, pouring out Figaro’s lusty aria and songs. That summer he starred in two eight-minute sound films in a series entitled Movietone Numbers, which were Fox’s answer to the famous Vitaphone shorts. In black and white, he sings Tonio’s Prologue from Pagliacci and Figaro’s “Largo al Factotum” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. In the early 1930s aluminum discs made instantaneous recording possible so he availed himself of the custom recording services that sprang up. He found the discs ideal for study.
To this point when he sang in Lucia in Chicago, his usual soprano was Toti Dal Monte but that autumn Toti was absent having joined the ranks of the newly wed. This brought to the fore Oakland-born Alice Mock [Alice Mock was born in California on 22 January 1896. She made five films, in which she provided the singing voice or played a prima donna. She died on 24 October 1972.], a soprano with a slender but flexible and attractive voice. She debuted on 31 October 1928 as Micaëla then sang Gilda to Bonelli’s Rigoletto and Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera to his Renato. However, Alice had to make way for a dazzling “Nightingale of Madrid” Margarita Salvi, when she arrived on 6 December to sing Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Bonelli and Schipa.
The lone new outing that year was Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, a favourite, though rarely staged at the time. When it was given by Chicago forces on 3 January, 1929, Bonelli was cast as the Count with Edith Mason, Eva Turner, Marion Claire, José Mojica and Virgilio Lazzari. Six nights later a portion of this Mozartiana beamed out over the airwaves.
In Boston he sang Rigoletto, Figaro and Lucia, the latter with Alice Mock. Then it was on to Buffalo to set in motion a sort of Faust cavalcade. He had sung as Valentin in his early days in Chicago; now, after a warm-up in Buffalo with Mason, Hackett and Lazzari, they, with minor changes, gave Faust in Detroit, Columbus, Birmingham, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Oakland, Lincoln and Minneapolis. That season he sang twenty-one times at home and thirteen away.
Taking a deep breath, he headed to Ann Arbor in May, but he kept his bags packed for afterwards he had to dash off to join old friend Max Sauter whose latest opera extravaganza was underway in Germany and Switzerland. Max needed a baritone of class to spell off Carlo Morelli. This merry band comprising Claudia Muzio, Mafalda de Voltri, Roberto d’Alessio, Aroldo Lindi, Vittorio Lois, Giuseppe Manni, Ferdinando Ciniselli, Cristy Solari and Emilio Venturini contributed their art to Traviata, Aida, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
For his fifth season in Chicago, thrills were abundant as Insull opened his $20 million skyscraper opera house on 4 November 1929. That evening the millionaire sat in his box, soaking up the strains of Aida, while in the real world outside, the stock market was plummeting. Two nights later, Bonelli joined the party as Germont in La Traviata with Muzio and Hackett, but his main thrust came in Wagner with Kurvenal and Wolfram though he inserted a Rigoletto on 10 December, with Mason and Hackett.
After a brief Christmas break, he returned as Valentin on 29 December. In the interval, Margarita Salvi had registered in her specialty, earning praise as “a sweet and tender Lucia with a voice of exquisite sound.” Bonelli teamed with her and Schipa in this opera on 26 January 1930 to begin a notable run. On tour, the company concentrated on central and eastern states, starting in Boston with Bonelli and Salvi in Rigoletto. He added Wolfram in four cities, but the big news in Columbus, Memphis and Minneapolis, however, concerned their Lucias.
Invisible that summer, he showed up in Chicago a month late, to begin his final season. He led off as Renato on 27 November 1930 and stayed in Italian opera to offer his Marcello. His last appearance came on 24 January, fittingly, with Muzio and Schipa in La Traviata. On tour the Salvi/Schipa/Bonelli Lucia lit up stages in Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. Thereafter, Madame Salvi fondly referred to this happy time as “my Lucia tour.” Heading east, the company made its way to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Bonelli stepped out on stage as Tonio in Pagliacci to raise the curtain but also to lower it, symbolically, for the Civic Opera troupers.
Early in 1932, Insull went into bankruptcy followed soon after by the Civic Opera itself. After no season in 1932-33 local music maven Paul Longone volunteered to offer a much curtailed one in 1933-34 as the Grand (later City) Opera. It was basically a satellite of the Metropolitan Opera, and, as almost all singers were Met regulars, Chicago seasons began earlier and finished before the Met began. In 1936 Bonelli returned under the new regime to be heard again in Chicago for six seasons, until the company folded in 1946.
A second time to San Francisco and Los Angeles
With the uncertain outlook in Chicago, Bonelli decided it was an appropriate time to re-visit the West Coast. On the way, he paused on 22 July 1932 at the Hollywood Bowl in California to sing “Largo al factotum” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Hamilton Harty’s cantata The Mystic Trumpeter. Harty, who conducted, first heard his music at the Leeds International Festival in October 1913.
His second visit to Los Angeles would prove his last, as the Grand Opera would have no season in 1933 and would close in 1934 owing to the Depression. He opened on 3 October, 1932 in La Traviata, with Muzio and Chamlee and “undoubtedly he achieved the real conquest of the evening with his `Di Provenza’…the bravos and the cheers were tremendous as a demonstration of spontaneous approval “(Los Angeles Times). On the 6th he provided “magnificent singing and convincing acting as Rigoletto,” with Lily Pons and Dino Borgioli. Two nights later, he sang Di Luna in Il Trovatore with Muzio, Merli and Meisle.
In San Francisco, the scene was far jollier, as they had a splendid new War Memorial Opera House to unveil. Bonelli joined the festivities on 20 October as Rigoletto, with Pons and Borgioli, and followed with Tonio, Valentin, Di Luna and Germont. Then he headed eastwards.
New York! New York!
When he arrived, he found the Metropolitan Opera also mired in Depression woes. A 20% salary cut made Danise depart and De Luca take extended leave, thus throwing open the door to a home-growns. The Company often presented its wares in nearby cities such as Albany, Rochester and Philadelphia. In the latter city, Richard Bonelli made his debut on 29 November 1932 as Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Lily Pons and Schipa. Two nights later he made it official in New York singing Germont in La Traviata with Ponselle and Schipa…impressing Hubbard Hutchinson of the New York Times:
” After his initial exit…he was recalled by long applause. But this did not satisfy the audience. Miss Ponselle had to go offstage and bring him back before the opera could continue. This time there were cheers and an even greater ovation than before. The same evidence that Mr. Bonelli had gone straight to the hearts of his hearers manifested itself at the close of the act, for he was called back again and again for a packed house unrestrainedly filling the air with `Bravo!’
Mr. Bonelli’s engaging and dignified presence as Germont, his big range and the full, easy utterance with which he commanded the role were not alone responsible for his unqualified popular success. The artist supplements the vocalist, and though the scrupulous care with which he outlined Verdi’s splendid phrases may have been more apparent to critical than popular ears, this very faithfulness to the composer explains his success even more than a rich timbre and the dramatic effectiveness of his upper registers. Many baritones can send a high F ringing through the house but few project mezzo-voce and piano passages with the purity of line he gave, for example to `Di Provenza il mar’.”
After such an enthusiastic welcome, Met regulars must have been rubbing their hands in high glee, expecting many a great Verdi evening. Would it happen? For the present, he concerned on variety. Three nights after the Traviata, he appeared at a Grand Operatic Concert delivering the Prologue and duet from Pagliacci with Helen Gleason, “Eri tu” from Un Ballo in Maschera and excerpts from La Bohème. Festive concerts, usually on a Sunday, were popular in New York and Bonelli would partake in twenty-two, mostly during his first six seasons. Opera lovers could hear him in tantalizing tidbits:…the Brindisi from Hamlet, duet from Pearlfishers with Jagel, “M`ardon le tempia” from Simon Boccanegra, “Baigne d’eau mes mains” from Thaïs with Jepson etc., all works not on the Metropolitan schedule. In contrast, in Chicago where concerts were not as prized Bonelli participated in just three.
But, back in those initial weeks of 1932, his next test came as Marcello in La Bohème, first on 8 December and then for a broadcast on the 24th. On 10 December, he sang Tonio, with Nina Morgana and Lauri-Volpi and on the 16th, Valentin. On 23 January 1933, he offered his first Rigoletto with Pons, Tokatyan, Swarthout and Pasero. Surprisingly his hunch-back preceded Tibbett’s by almost three years. Four nights later, he appeared as Amonasro in Aida with Rethberg, Martinelli and Pinza. Near the season end, he added Manfredo in L’Amore dei Tre Re by Italo Montemezzi and Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor. He ended his season in Baltimore as Rigoletto with Gladys Swarthout as Maddalena. The mezzo would soon join him in Colorado.
In Chicago, post-season tours had run like clockwork, with Bonelli a regular participant. It would be different in New York with its policy of side-trips. . Back and forth they shifted theor sets and stars while the main show continued or lay silent. Later they went farther afield, lengthening the seasons in the process. In his initial season, Bonelli sang twenty-four times in New York plus three in Philadelphia and once in both White Plains and Baltimore. He was heard nation-wide, too, in the first of an eventual thirteen broadcasts. Many survive.
That summer his marriage had crumbled, Pauline having departed. Thrusting this turmoil aside, he traveled to Central City, Colorado early in August. His was one of a parade of cars threading their way up a craggy Virginia canyon, 50 miles west of Denver to roll suddenly into the narrow street of an old-time mining town. Houses clung from the walls of the gulch, dance halls and faro games were going full blast, beaver-hatted men and bustled ladies strolled along while lantern-jawed miners leered from their doorways. Colorado’s Second Annual Central City Play Festival was set to begin with the first of a dozen performances of Lehar’s The Merry Widow. In this version of the classic tale of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl,” Bonelli as Prince Danilo is in love with Sonia Sadoya, the Merry Widow, in the person of Natalie Hill, a singer/actress from New York, while another Natalie, the story’s catalyst, was an elegant Miss Swarthout. Denver socialites stomped, whistled and shouted their approval.
Following his divorce, Richard approached the altar again on 18 October, 1933 to marry Mona Chapman Wood, daughter of Charles Modini and Mamie Wood, both former singers and prominent in Los Angeles music. Mona was divorced too, having recently parted from her first husband, George Webster Pearson of Kansas City. Both were on the rebound, so to speak, but this union would endure. [Mona’s maternal grandfather, lumber magnate William H. Perry built the Los Angeles Theatre at 227 S. Spring Street. To this hall, her father Charles Modini Wood and L. G. Behymer lured the Del Conte Opera Company from Milan to stage the US Premiere of La Bohème on 14 October 1897. First heard the previous year on 1 February in Turin, it was America’s turn to experience this ground-breaking work with Giuseppe Agostini (Rodolfo), Lina Montanari (Mimi), Caesar Cioni (Marcello), Cleopatra Vicini (Musetta), Luigi Francesconi (Schaunard), Vittorio Girard (Colline); Pietro Valini, conductor. In later years, the Los Angeles Theatre served as a movie house but eventually it was demolished so the land could serve as a parking lot. Mona outlived Richard by eighteen years and died on 12 March 1998, aged 95 years.]
After a hasty wedding breakfast, the couple left for San Francisco where Richard was needed. On 8 November he sang Amonasro with Muzio and Martinelli, then Kurvenal in Tristan und Isolde with Kappel and Althouse and La Bohème with Bori, Borgioli and Pinza. Finally he sang Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino with Muzio, Martinelli and Pinza. The sad aspect of all this was awareness that Muzio had serious heart trouble. She would die in Rome on 24 March, 1936.
Muzio did rejoin Schipa and Bonelli in New York on New Year’s Day for La Traviata, repeating it in Philadelphia on 16 January, 1934, the last time they would sing together for the Met. The previous evening he had sung his first Sharpless and on the 27th, he added another “first,” Wolfram in Tannhäuser, as his lone foray into Wagner at the Met.
Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount was an authentic bit of Americana that premièred on 10 February 1934 with Tibbett as Wrestling Bradford. [Actually Merry Mount had a tryout the previous summer on 20 May at the Ann Arbor Festival with John Charles Thomas as Bradford, Frederick Jagel as Sir Gower Lackland and Leonora Corona as Lady Marigold Sandys.] To the pious shores of 17th century Massachusetts Bay a band of roistering Cavaliers marches to set up a big, bad Maypole which they proceed to dance around like degenerate heathen. The revered pastor Bradford of the Puritans, to his dismay, is soon lusting after the gorgeous Lady Marigold and spends the opera “wrestling” with his conscience. The role of Bradford had a killing tessitura that was not for every baritone and the heavily-textured music tended to bury the soloists. Edward Johnson, who sang Sir Gower Lackland, detested the work and when he became General Manager, declared he would never present it again despite Hanson’s revisions and fervent entreaties.
Later Bonelli recalled having sung in Rochester on two occasions, each time before construction of the Eastman Theatre and the Eastman School of Music was completed. “I knew George Eastman very well.” Informed that Dr. Howard Hanson, former Director of the Eastman School School, was still going strong in his 82nd year, Bonelli said, “I alternated with Larry Tibbett in the principal role of Howard’s opera, Merry Mount at the Metropolitan.” Actually he sang at the last two performances. [Texas-born Leonora Corona, “Cohron” at birth, was Lady Marigold at Bonelli’s first performance of the opera on 23 March 1934. Her voluptuous figure was matched by her voice, rarely as disciplined as she might have been, her promise largely unfulfilled. Edward Johnson sang Sir Gower. For the second performance eleven days later, another buxom American soprano, Margaret Halstead, stepped up as Lady M. with Jagel, the original Sir Gower, back in harness.] In between at a concert, he tantalized with Bradford’s lament `Oh ’tis an earth defiled’ and for nostalgia’s sake, he added `Brown October Ale’ from Robin Hood, recalling his tour of 1917.
That summer he participated in a brief season at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, where, with Amato present, Bonelli’s contributions are not known though Rigoletto is a possibility as is Lescaut in Manon. Then at Cornell University’s Music Festival, he took a rare step into oratorio, singing in Mendelssohn’s Elijah with Doris Doe, Emily Roosevelt and Dan Gridley with a New York Orchestra led by Nikolai Sokoloff.
He also joined the Metropolitan Quartet, which Columbia Concerts Bureau viewed as a reincarnation of famous such foursomes of the past. Edward Johnson sang tenor, Rose Bampton contralto and Grace Moore was the prima donna. The high jinks can be imagined. Grace had last been in the limelight in 1930 as star of New Moon. Now her agent saw touring with the quartet as a vehicle to give her sagging career a much-needed lift. It worked, for in 1934 Grace achieved lasting fame in her film, One Night of Love.
Early in their month-long tour, they appeared at the Eaton Auditorium in Toronto on 25 October, 1934. Augustus Bridle rated Bonelli as “one of the most thrilling young baritones ever heard here. His Prologue to Pagliacci was superb; and he is the first singer here who dared to omit the last phrase because the audience was too thrilled by his top `A’ to let him finish. He encored with quite as good a performance of the Toreador Song,”… but “the duet (with Rose Bampton) from Barber of Seville was one of the real gems of one of the most thrilling back-to-the-old-thriller recitals ever given in this part of the world.” As for Grace, she “sang her great aria from Butterfly while seven blocks south her shadow was doing it at the Tivoli. This is one marvelous age.”
Late in November, he visited San Francisco for high profile roles, Wolfram in Tannhäuser, sung in German, Valentin in French, Germont and Iago in Italian with the fine Wagnerian tenor, Lauritz Melchior in a characterization of Otello forever denied to New Yorkers In mid-December,1934 he flaunted his Iago in Cleveland, prior to joining the Met for a broadcast Lucia, with Pons and Martini, followed by a concert on the 30th and a Marcello in La Bohème the next evening, with a débuting Dino Borgioli. Then back in Cleveland he sang Scarpia. A week later on 13 January, he treated a Met audience to his Wolfram during a broadcast Tannhäuser that also featured Lauritz Melchior and Maria Müller. Of this, Jackson wrote at length, giving the baritone high praise. Otherwise, there were the usual pot-boilers peppered with concerts, five overall.
In mid-June, he was saddened by the death of his mother, Ida, an invalid for years, was 79 at the time of her death and in the care of her daughter Mrs. Harry C. Jones in her Syracuse home. Survivors included Richard and all three “girls,” Mrs. Bertha Wells of Hudson, Mrs. Warren Blakeslee of Perryville and Mrs. Jones. Ida was buried in Port Byron.
There was barely time to mourn for Paramount wanted him for “Enter Madame.” Opera singer Elissa Landi is married to Cary Grant but when her career takes off, he is last year’s news. Bonelli sings Scarpia in the Act II finale of Tosca with Nina Kosheta singing for Madame Landi. Bonelli is seen and heard.
Almost a year after his visit to Toronto with the Quartet, he returned on 5 November, 1935 for a Celebrity Concert in Massey Hall. Bridle reported that “he sang more interesting novelties than any opera singer has ever done here…nobody has sung this patter song from Barber of Seville with quite such consummate comedy acting, tonal flexibility and reckless, devil-may-care tempo…nor has anyone sang Saint-Saëns’s ‘Danse Macabre’ here un the original lyric form. He made a skeleton dance of this vocal nightmare.”
Towards the end of the month he visited San Francisco again to deliver his standbys, Amonasro, Figaro, Marcello and Rigoletto. Then, at the Met, he became caught up in a scheme of Johnson’s to parade American hopefuls. This began on 19 December, when Charles Kullman, after having had great success in Germany, arrived to sing Faust with Ezio Pinza and Edith Mason, Bonelli supplying Valentin. On Boxing Day his Sharpless counseled the Cio-Cio-San of Susanne Fisher, whom critic W. J. Henderson found “interesting… though light of voice and without power for climaxes.” Next was Joseph Benton, now Bentonelli, as Des Grieux in Manon, Bonelli as Lescaut.
Continuing his reaction to Bonelli’s Tonio, Paul Jackson wrote: Bonelli owns a voice of ravishing, darkly sensuous color, full and even throughout the entire range, with menacing bite at the bottom and absolute freedom at the top (the interpolated A-flat is perfectly poised, no tenor tone but harboring the same rich claret hue as the rest of the voice.) His cantabile (E voi, piu tosto) is woven with a girdling legato and subtle use of portamento…Bonelli never pushes beyond the zones of musical taste…he completely tears off his primo baritone stance and plays the character.”
A feature that season were three performances of Il Trovatore with Rethberg and Martinelli while in the audience on 19 March, an 18 year-old Brooklynite, Merrill Miller sat, entranced, drinking in his first operatic experience. “The bigness of everything overwhelmed me, the volume of the voices, the facial movements, the glow and richness of the costumes. Bonelli, the Count of Luna, sang effortlessly, enjoying it, reaching out to me with all the fervor that had thrilled me in Caruso’s records. He seemed to sing directly to me, and I was hypnotized.” And yes, the young man was an opera singer in training, who eight years hence would sing Germont at the Met as ‘Robert Merrill.’ Of course, Germont had been Bonelli’s first role in Chicago and in New York.
At the close of the 1935-36 Met season, the Quartet resumed its travels. Grace Moore, after her renewed fame was suddenly “taken ill,” so Helen Jepson came on board. Now they could bear down on serious music. Charles Hackett replaced Johnson, now the Met manager, and with Ernst Wolff at the piano instead of Giuseppe Bamboschek, the Quartet continued to flourish.
Noting that Longone’s Chicago City opera was a going concern, Bonelli re-appeared for a Rossini Figaro, Iago and Wolfram. Otherwise he busied himself with a hot issue, the welfare of ‘the American musician’, a cause close to his heart. When Tibbett began talking union, Bonelli listened. When the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) was formed, Bonelli became an officer.
He returned to the Met on 16 January as Lescaut in Manon, with Vina Bovy and Richard Crooks. Wolfram and Germont followed. But on 7 February 1937, he showed up the Ford Sunday Evening Hour, the prestigious coast-to-coast classical music programme of the Columbia Broadcasting System to present a pair of blazing arias, “Il balen” from Il Trovatore and the Toreador song from Carmen. After the interval, he brought delight with songs by Golde, Margetson and Damrosch. At the Met, he again sang in Manon, now with Bidù Sayão making her debut. Jackson thought he was “stalwart in tone and manner as cousin Lescaut though the role offers little opportunity for his best qualities.”
In 1937, concerts of the outdoor variety were all the rage in Grant Park in summertime Chicago, so Bonelli sang on 1 September. Eugene Stinson, critic for the Chicago Daily News, was on his way to cover the event but became stalled in traffic. He listened by radio and wrote, “while his voice seemed to have lightened considerably…it had not lost the black opulence which is its great beauty and chief characteristic. And neither could his singing lose its staunchness of integrity, its undeviating sincerity or that highly nervous inflection which is typical of those born to the stage.” [‘Singing under the Stars’- outdoor opera in Chicago by Andrew Cottonaro, p. 193, The Record Collector, Vol. 34, No. 8, 9, 10, Sept. 1989.]
In San Francisco he portrayed four Verdi characters plus Marcello and Lescaut in Massenet’s Manon. Then, he was one of approximately 200 who entrained for Los Angeles to launch the first southland season under auspices of the San Francisco Opera Association. Bonelli’s task was to sing Amonasro in Aida and Scarpia in Tosca with Maria Jeritza and Frank Forest, on holiday from his movie career.
He found his way back to the Met in Hartford on 7 December for Il Trovatore, then repeated in New York for a broadcast on 8 January, with Milanov and Martinelli. Next he offered Tonio, Enrico in Lucia, Valentin and Amonasro.
At Ann Arbor, he sang Escamillo in a concert Carmen on 14 June 1938 with the exciting Martinelli and a plump and jolly Bruna Castagna. Then in Pasadena under auspices of the La Scala Opera organization, successor to San Carlo, Aida was given spectacular treatment. Bonelli sang Amonasro with Eva Turner from England, Jesus de Gaviria, fresh from Buenos Aires, and his recent gypsy lover, Bruna Castagna as Amneris while elephants, camels and horses ‘tore up’ the stage in the Triumphal Scene. The spectacle was repeated in San Diego. As the company was funded out of Seattle, the show likely was presented there and in Portland and possibly the Bay area. On 26 July at Hollywood Bowl, Bonelli could relish the role of Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana, an unusual drama for him with Maria Jeritza and Mario Chamlee, Carlo Peroni conducting.
In San Francisco, he found three unusual assignments. In the Andrea Chénier opening with Rethberg and Gigli, his Gérard “won many honors of the evening by virtue of his finely sung and finely acted characterization.” Then in Don Pasquale on 17 October “with Salvatore Baccaloni giving one of his impeccable comedy characterizations, Mafalda Favero as the sparkling-voiced, laughing-eyed Norina, and Bonelli as an especially suave Doctor Malatesta, the performance had an enchanting gayety.” Finally he sang in La Forza Del Destino with Rethberg, Gigli and Pinza. Such opulence!
Now it was time to shine in fair Winnipeg where snow flurries may have floated down as he and Russian pianist Mischa Levitski made their way to the Auditorium. With his regular accompanist absent, concert organizer Fred M. Gee stepped into the breach, but the change caused the occasional coordination problem, especially in the operatic arias, `Evening Star’ from Tannhäuser and `Di Provenza’ from La Traviata. In the Free Press, L. S. wrote:
” Mr Bonelli has a beautiful voice, holding a tenor quality besides his rich baritone range. He can go high – up to A flat – he knows how to keep his tone even throughout its length; and avoid over-vibrancy; he came just to the safe edge of it. His Handel number `Thanks Be to God,’ which he sang in German, told about his voice, but his next two groups revealed much more. Character, rhythm and humour went into `The Hen and the Carp’ by Emil Mattiesen, `Les Änes du Caire’ (Nerini) and there was appeal in a song by Alec Templeton, an English blind pianist now living in the United States. The piano parts here, sympathetically played, gave particular pleasure, and there was a very successful unity of effort in Griffes’ `An Old Song Resung’ and a song from Porgy and Bess,” L.S. concluded by wishing the pair would return, saying they would be warmly welcomed.
After the peaceful prairies, Bonelli headed back to the Big Apple, where, as always, his destinies were intertwined with those of the larger-than-life Tibbett. As Musical America reported, Larry had sung Scarpia on 22 December 1938 and four nights later had triumphed as Falstaff. That had left him too weak to sing in Tosca in Philadelphia, so Bonelli got the call to sing his first Company Scarpia with Marjorie Lawrence and Galliano Masini…”his delineation was satisfactory both in the vocal and dramatic phases.” Back at the Met as Iago at a New Year’s Eve performance of Otello with Martinelli and Helen Jepson, “he sang and acted with a keen realization of the dramatic possibilities of the part and was highly successful with each of his airs.” But for the next Scarpia, Tibbett got the call. Bonelli stayed active as Tonio, Lescaut and Di Luna.
In May 1939, in Ann Arbor, he sang Iago in Otello with Helen Jepson and Martinelli that was a feature of the World’s Fair, then in progress. His recital programme that year and the next lay in the hands of the Metropolitan Musical Bureau. Others so involved were Lily Pons, James Melton, Mafalda Favero and Helen Olheim. Also from 1940-6, he expanded his radio presence by appearing on the “Vicks Opera House” show with California-born Nadine Conner.
After the Ann Arbor Otello, he scampered off to San Francisco to sing Lescaut in Manon with Bidu Sayao and Schipa, Pagliacci, Barbiere and Trovatore with Rethberg. Then, back across the continent, he appeared as Amonasro with Milanov and Arthur Carron, in Manon with Grace Moore and Crooks and in Lucia.
Hearing the broadcast on 3 February 1940, Jackson dissected it thus: “Only Bonelli has intact the resources and craft of the major artist, and he makes of the cypher, Enrico Ashton, an impressive figure. By refusing to smudge the dotted rhythms, he imparts architectural scope to the workaday aria of the first act and his cadenza is superb. Papi takes the cabaletta at such a pace that even Bonelli can do little but dash along with him to a splendid top G. He refuses to huff his way through “Se tradirmi” and allows the villainous Ashton a moment of expressive sympathy as he leads his distraught sister to the wedding ceremony.”
For Bonelli, the season ended on 9 February with a Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. However, with television in its infancy, the Metropolitan decided to spread its message via NBC’s new TV network. So on 10 March 1940, Bonelli, as he did for radio, now helped promote television by singing Tonio with Hilda Burke and Toktayan in an abbreviated Act I of Pagliacci as part of a varied operatic programme.
Jussi Björling had no peers for Bonelli. “Jussi and I sang together many times. He was my favorite tenor. We got along very well. Once, after he had sung, I went backstage to see him. He was depressed because he thought he had not sung well. You know something! I don’t think he ever sang better. It hurt me to see him drinking like he did, and I was very depressed when he passed away.”
That said, their paths crossed at the Met but never on stage. San Franciscans were luckier on 23 October 1940 when he and Jussi sang in Un Ballo in Maschera with Elisabeth Rethberg. It was the tenor’s first Riccardo and Bonelli’s sole appearance that season in the City by the Bay.
To begin 1941, he appeared as Lescaut on 10 January in Massenet’s Manon. Then, nestled amongst his usual Met creations, was one he had first tackled in 1933. Montemezzi had come from Italy to conduct his L’Amore dei Tre Re, with Grace Moore, Charles Kullman, Ezio Pinza and Bonelli. Jackson reacted to the broadcast on 15 February: “Bonelli as Manfredo may not evoke maximum sympathy (he is less convincing in his grief than when he fervently pleads for his wife’s love), but his vocalism is wonderfully secure. As always, his voice rings out in vibrant, manly tone.” The opera is available on CD. On tour he unveiled his first Toreador in Carmen in Hartford for the Met on 11 March, 1941; then in seven cities he paraded four hit roles.
That summer things were happening in filmdom and academia. Paramount called to say, “We’ve got another cameo for you, Dick, in “There’s Magic in Music” It’s a musical romp based on goings-on at the Interlochen Music Camp. Ex-burlesque singer named Toodles (Susanna Foster) becomes an opera singer with Allan Jones as her singing beau. Bonelli contributes what he does best, joining Irra Petina in the operatic finale. In theatres it assumed new life as “The Hard-Boiled Canary.”
Meanwhile, at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Steuart Wilson had left his post as vocal teacher and Bonelli was targeted as his successor. That autumn he accepted. Students, who benefited included John R. Anderson, Enid Craig, David Jenkins (a.k.a. David Lloyd), Beatrice Miller, Norman Mittelmann (from Winnipeg) and Frank Guarrera. Some became household names. In the Spring of 1943, he departed, ostensibly as there were too few male students due to the war. His teaching required a co-ed approach. He also returned to Chicago to spend a month. His fans must have been thrilled to see his Escamillo interacting with a seductive Carmen in Swarthout and in five other roles.
He re-appeared at the Met on 22 January 1942 to sing Amonasro, followed by Valentin, Marcello and Renato. Un Ballo in Maschera had been in his repertory since he helped close his second season in Chicago on 29 January 1927 with Raisa as Amelia. In 1928 Eva Turner partnered and in 1930 it was Frida Leider. San Franciscans cheered him in 1937 and in 1940 but New Yorkers had only experienced “Eri tu” in concert. Finally on 28 February 1942, he provided a complete Ballo at the Met, an event was broadcast. Jackson thought it “a dismal afternoon,” brightened only by Bonelli’s “satisfying moments…he alone seems capable of lining Verdi’s melodic curves with a suitable legato.”
For Chicago in November 1942, Bonelli led off as Enrico in Lucia with Josephine Tuminia and James Melton; then offered Di Luna in Il Trovatore and Valentin in Faust with Grace Moore and Kipnis. With no season in 1943, Bonelli stayed in contact through a Met visit, singing in Faust and Aida.
He returned to Chicago in 1944, 1945 and 1946 with such luminaries as Zinka Milanov, Bidù Sayão, Ferruccio Tagliavini and Martinelli. On 27 October 1945 he was Valentin in Faust when movie diva Jeanette MacDonald took a rare turn in opera as Marguerite. A year later he bid au revoir to the Windy City as Sharpless with Dorothy Kirsten.
In New York, he offered Escamillo on 3 February 1943 as a rather late ‘first’ with Lily Djanel as Carmen, Raoul Jobin as Don José, Licia Albanese as Micaëla and Sir Thomas Beecham conducting. The Aida broadcast of 6 March proved to be his last on air but he could still deliver, as Jackson notes “…what ringing, manly tone he pours into the night along the Nile…and in the midst of his raging, he does observe Verdi’s mezza voce marking at `Flutti di sangue.’ Bonelli imbues the scene with some immediacy…”
That summer he appeared at Cincinnati’s famed “Opera at the Zoo,” singing eight times in Faust, Il Trovatore with Zinka Milanov and in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. He came only once. Perhaps the squawks and squeals from nearby cages proved too overpowering an accompaniment. On tour he was Franz Schubert in The Waltz King. This and other assignments kept him busy and absent from the Met during most of 1943-4.
In October 1944, he went to Chicago for Marcello and Di Luna before going to New York where a British airman-cum-opera-lover looked in on Il Barbiere di Siviglia on the evening of 28 December. “The second (delight) was an American baritone of whom I had never heard before, and few English people had, or have…Richard Bonelli…(his) voice was enormous, filling the theatre without effort, the ringing, lively tone of an apparently young man, and yet he left the Met in 1945 soon after I heard him, at age 51!” (Actually he was 56.) [‘New York Opera in the 1940s’ by Ronald Hastings, p. 145 The Record Collector Vol. 31, No. 6 & 7, July 1986.]
Now it was time for his final Met season. He sang Amonasro with Milanov and Baum before undertaking a last new role, that of Barnaba in La Gioconda. Although he sang in three performances, the broadcast on 3 March went to Warren. Though still in fine voice, he knew Warren and young Merrill were charging hard, so on 14 March, 1945 he exited as Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, as in 1932.
Still in demand, he was soon singing Franz Schubert in The Waltz King during a ‘triumphant production’ with Irra Petina and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In early October, the show moved to Kansas City, where he repeated with Margit Bokor, Anthony Marlowe and Jack Gardner. When it arrived in Chicago in November with Irra Petina, chances are Bonelli was glad to reach out to his fans in the windy town.
Less opera, more teaching
In 1947, Grace Denton asked him to help create a faculty for the newly founded Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. As head of the Voice department, he served with Richard Lert, the orchestra chief, and Ernest Bloch in the composition department. The Academy had as instructors Martial Singher, Darius Milhaud, Arnold Schoenberg and attracted visiting professors such as George Antheil, Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson. At one concert, Lert conducted Die Meistersinger with Bonelli as Hans Sachs.
When he wasn’t teaching, he sang with the Philadelphia La Scala organization, his usual role being Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. When he sang the consul in Massey Hall, Toronto on 6 October 1947, an enthusiastic vocal student, Tom Logan, was present. “I was struck by the dark, rich quality of the voice and his brilliant high notes. Bonelli was the voice I remember.” A favorite always at Hollywood Bowl, he sang Sharpless there in 1948 with Eleanor Steber and Jan Peerce. It can be enjoyed on CD.
When Johnson left his manager’s post at the Metropolitan in 1949, Bonelli was one of several who aspired to his job. In the end, total outsider Rudolf Bing was chosen. Now at loose ends, Richard was receptive when the Curtis Institute invited him to resume his post. Originally, the legendary Giuseppe De Luca had been appointed but the ‘Grim Reaper’ had other plans. Bonelli spent five more years nurturing fine talent in Dorothy Krebill, Wayne Conner and Enrico Di Giuseppe. After he left, he found it hard to stay away so a year later he returned to spend a day regaling former students with tales of his travels with Mona. He especially raved about seeing Respighi’s La Fiamma with Inge Borkh, saying she reminded him of the beloved Muzio.
The career was ending but he had one burst left. To help the young and bustling New York City Opera, he provided both prestige and experience. After beginning on 17 October 1948 as Germont in La Traviata, he made this role his most frequent. Claudia Cassidy came on 19 November 1949 and reported to the Chicago Daily Tribune, basing her story on his Silver Jubilee in the role. He had sung it in Chicago on November 8, 1925. “Much of Verdi is written in the grand style and the best singers meet it on that level. Mr. Bonelli has always had a beautiful baritone and a fine lyric style, and he has squandered neither… He was La Traviata’s most distinguished singer, and an authoritative figure on an amateurish stage.” He sang Germont eight times, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly five and lead baritone in Carmen, Tosca, La Bohème, Faust and Pagliacci. He bowed out as Tonio on 12 October 1952 after nineteen appearances.
Totalling performances precisely is chancy, and as regards Bonelli’s six prime seasons in Chicago, research has given differing results in certain instances. Numbers thus are approximate but the totals are likely lower than actual.
During his heyday in Chicago, Bonelli competed with two powerhouses, each much loved especially by the Italian community. From 1925 to 1931, Giacomo Rimini sang 134 times while Formichi made 175 appearances. A third Italian, Luigi Montesanto, had 47. In contrast, Bonelli racked up 102 performances at home (give or take a few “mysteries”) and a further 87 on tour for a grand total of 189. Clearly he had the lion’s share, though economics must have been a factor, homegrowns presumably costing less than imports.
When he joined the Metropolitan in 1932, several worthy baritones rode the roster but Lawrence Tibbett was clearly king of the roost. During twelve seasons, Bonelli clocked a combined 166 appearances in New York and on tour while Tibbett managed 191. In contrast to his action in Chicago, Bonelli it would seem was under-utilized at the Met. This theory is supported by the fact he sang eighteen roles in six seasons at Chicago and nineteen in twelve at the Met.
As for the expected Verdian windfall at the Met, it did not happen, at least not in Chicago numbers. He sang Germont just nine times, Di Luna seven, Rigoletto twice and Amonasro, which gained most attention with an even dozen. In contrast, in Chicago at home and on tour, he sang Verdi’s music a total of 92 times!
At the Met, others competing for stage time included Carlo Morelli who joined as Enrico in Lucia on 31 December 1935 and stayed until 1940, John Charles Thomas who appeared in the 1933-4 season and returned for 1935-1943 and Australian John Brownlee, an esteemed artist who sang from 1936-1947.
He also made a considerable impact in San Francisco appearing in 1926, 1932-5, 1937-40 and finally in 1942. During these ten seasons, he sang on 43 occasions.
In the twilight years, he gave private vocal instruction during the summers at a studio overlooking Lake Tahoe and in the winter at home in Brentwood, California. On at least one occasion for the Music and Arts institute of San Francisco, he presented an eight week summer seminar for professional singers, advanced students, teachers, accompanists and auditors. Successful completion meant seven semester hours of college credit. Finally, at age 75, he decided it was time to seek easier days so he only accepted those who darkened his doorway. He fed his early passion though for things mechanical by curing the ills of automobiles belonging to special friends.
On 19 February 1964, Robert Salmon interviewed Bonelli for radio station KOGO in San Diego. Some of his remarks were quoted earlier. A former student, he drew Bonelli out in discussing his career, revealing in the process a most engaging raconteur. Bonelli spoke of how he had come to idolize the great baritone Titta Ruffo while at Syracuse University, collecting many of his records, and how years later in Chicago, he was called upon to replace the older singer as Di Luna, then as Tonio too. He spoke fondly of his mentors, each in turn, Butler, Alexander, de Reszke and Vilonat. Salmon played mostly excerpts of live performances, the Prologue from Pagliacci, “Luna d’estate” in rather spotty sound, which prompted Bonelli to chuckle and say he hoped the next would sound better. He described a private recording he made of the tenor aria from Die Walküre, the Winterstürme, and quite astonishing it is. Finally they discussed Zazà by Leoncavallo. “… and you know years ago they had this opera at the Metropolitan before I went there and who sang the title role but Geraldine Farrar. Well, Geraldine was celebrating her 80th birthday about this time… No, her 70th…I’m making her older than she was, and I thought it’d be sort of a little stunt to send her this just in memory of the fact she had done this and I added a little speech which we won’t go into now, but it was just to surprise her” – then his “Zazà piccola zingara” was played.
When he noticed that Robert Merrill was in Los Angeles appearing in Fiddler on the Roof, Bonelli went to pay his respects. Merrill thought his voice still boomed out at 78.
A year later, both were in New York at the Metropolitan Opera’s Farewell Gala. Just as Bonelli had admired Ruffo, Merrill now sang “Eri tu” from Ballo not just for the audience but for Bonelli, hero of his youth, seated amongst the honored guests in a semi-circle behind him.
While at work on his book, Cardell Bishop interviewed the baritone in 1977. He found him at eighty-eight mentally alert with a speaking voice of a man of forty. He said he was paid $300.00 a week, which was high but the company needed a good baritone. Performances were well routined as most members had played together so long. “They wore the rough edges off in performance.” As for conductors, one stood out. “Peroni really bore down on them, and they were scared to death of him.” He thought very highly of Tamaki Miura and, of course, Titta Ruffo was “the epitamy [sic] of what a baritone should be.” As for Josephine Lucchese, he couldn’t understand why she was not signed by the Metropolitan. “She could sing better than several sopranos who were singing leads there at the time.”
When writer George Murphy tracked him down two years later, the telephone banter went so: “Hello, Mrs Bonelli speaking.” “Is Mr. Bonelli there?” “Yes, he’s sitting right here beside me.” He proved bright and responsive, despite his advanced age. “I feel pretty good,” he said, “There’s nothing wrong with me except age. Things are pretty good. I can look out my window and see the ocean.”
Not long afterwards, he died on 7 June 1980. Mona entrusted his records to the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, who issued a double CD set in 1997. His Town Hall recital of 5 February 1947 is here; it includes a song with words by Mona, entitled simply, “Gifts.” Although reservations have been expressed about excessive re-mastering, the baritone can be experienced in a semblance of his glory.
Following cremation, the remains of Richard Bonelli were placed in Niche 32072, Columbarium of Victory, Freedom Mausoleum in Forest Lawn, Glendale, Caifornia.
In the 1930s, Mona became a pioneer home movie buff who was permitted to film her husband and fellow performers from the wings at the San Francisco Memorial Opera House plus dress rehearsals from the auditorium as well as playful antics backstage. In addition, she filmed at the Metropolitan Opera and the Hollywood Bowl. These unique, silent mementos reside at the Stanford Archive undergoing restoration.
Robert Stack of Untouchables renown met his match when he tried to discuss his famous Uncle Richard on Jay Leno’s television show. Not at all interested, Leno kept changing the subject until the actor finally gave up. I was annoyed then and by the time this project materialized, Stack had passed on, leaving his memories of Richard Bonelli untold. He would have revealed that Mona was his aunt. When Mona died she too was cremated with her ashes being placed beside those of her husband on 20 March, 1998.
The very fact Bonelli was such a fully American artist is one reason he is largely forgotten today. Had he been able to score at La Scala in his early years, things might have been different. I’m told he doesn’t rate a mention in John Steane’s The Grand Tradition. Ahime!
Through countless miles travelled and by electronic means, he had helped many to understand and appreciate the beauty of grand opera at its finest, especially in the trying times in which they lived.
Had I been a dozen years older in 1938, I might have boarded a streetcar to hear Bonelli at the Auditorium in Winnipeg. Would I have been lulled by his dulcet tones or brought to my feet by his lusty outpourings? Very likely both.
Edward Pearson in Chicago and William R. Moran of California each intended to write this story but fate intervened. The Editor called to see if I was interested and sent Fred Kolo’s invaluable partial chronology with a note, “I hope you fancy taking him on.” I was intrigued and with more from Larry and regular packets of information from Michael Bott in Bermuda and others, the project began to take shape.
In addition to those already mentioned, I am indebted to Christian Springer in Vienna (Sauter data), Alfred de Cock in Belgium (Paris 1925 detail), Wayne Turner in the UK, Michael Mongeon in Rolla, N.D., David Wiener and Prof. David Nelson in Grand Forks, N.D., Alex Soto in San Francisco, Lawrence F. Holdridge, Victor Sine, Linda Greenberg and Shirley Manley, all of New York, Elizabeth Walker and Wayne Conner of the Curtis Institute, Lisa Hirsch in Oakland, Father Matthias Montgomery in Wisconsin, Penny Helzer in Port Byron, Father Calvin M. Goodwin in Denton, Nebraska, Bill Fyfe in Toronto (for accessing Aborn data from McPherson’s files) and Alden Small (more Aborn). Also thanks to Tom Logan in Toronto, Canada and to Norman Willey, for his computer help here in the Peg.
I am especially grateful to Dr. Paul Jackson and his publisher, Amadeus Press, for allowing quotations from “Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met” to appear, also to the author for his additional insights.
The Met Annals: book, CD-ROM and Web site.
The Metropolitan Opera by Irving Kolodin, Knopf, NY 1966
The San Carlo Opera Company 1913-1955 by Cardell Bishop.
The San Francisco Opera by Arthur Bloomfield, San Francisco Book Company, 1972.
The New York City Opera by Martin L. Sokol, MacMillan Publishing Co. 1981.
Opera in Chicago by Ronald L. Davis, Appleton-Century, 1966.
Opera Caravan by Quaintance Eaton, Metropolitan Guild, 1957.
Between Acts by Robert Merrill, McGraw-Hill, 1976
Lawrence Tibbett, Singing Actor, edited by Andrew Farkas, Amadeus Press, 1989
Richard Bonelli 2 CD set Delos DE 5502 from the Stanford Archive, liner notes by William R. Moran.
American Singers, Vol. 2 – International Record Collectors Club CD-911, notes by Fr. Goodwin
” Port Byron’s claim to fame” article by George Murphy, D&C Music Critic, 1979.
” Singer Born in Port Byron Gained International Acclaim” by Victor L. Sine, In Port magazine, 1998
Central City Opera booklet – Time Magazine review of The Merry Widow August 14, 1933
Opera News, Vol. VIII, No. 18, Feb. 28, 1944
The Record Collector: issues re Margarita Salvi, Nino Martini, Claudia Muzio, Giovanni Martinelli, Aroldo Lindi.
Musical America Oct. 25/38, Jan. 10/39 and Apr. 25/39,
supplied by Winifred Hamilton of Roaring Spring, Pa.
My apologies to anyone I may have failed to mention or list, Believe me I am most grateful to everyone who helped.