Richard Bonynge, 90 today

Richard Bonynge, 90 today


norman lebrecht

September 29, 2020

There are two views of the Australian conductor who enters his tenth decade today.

One sees him as the making of Joan Sutherland, the Svengali behind her flowering after they met and married in London in 1954.

The other regards his career as a by-product of her phenomenal talent.

Neither is fully justified.

Sutherland was languishing among the extras at Covent Garden, gawky and underrated when she met her fellow-expat Bonynge, who filled her mind with new directions. But a new music director, Rafael Kubelik, had just arrived in the house and he soon cast her in major roles, including the Lucia that assured her stardom in February 1959. Kubelik’s successor, Georg Solti, was no less supportive, keen to keep Joan at Covent Garden.

But Sutherland trusted Bonynge’s judgement above others and their unusual partnership, artistic and marital, lasted until her death, ten years ago next month.

Bonynge, for his part, conducted productions in major houses and recordings on Decca, becoming an authority on 19th century French opera and ballet, with or without his wife’s participation. He never let anyone down and was always  social asset.

Happy birthday, Richard.



  • James says:

    He was also a wonderful bel canto conductor – for Donizetti and Bellini there’s nobody I’d rather hear.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      I agree with you, James, as far as Bonynge goes.
      And his excellence was his own – he was in no way merely a “by-product” of Sutherland’s talent.
      However, there were other great bel canto conductors active during Bonynge’s career years – for example, Serafin, Gui, and Rescigno.
      Karajan and Bernstein were also both marvelous in this repertoire, as can be heard on their too few live performances with Callas. I just wish they had pursued that repertoire.
      But back onto the main topic – I’ve always enjoyed Bonynge’s conducting. (I just wish he would have informed his wife that yes, dear, consonants do in fact exist.)
      Happy Birthday, Maestro!

      • Bruce says:

        Agree. I have several of his/Sutherland’s recordings, which I bought because of her singing; but I end up noticing beautifully-conducted moments throughout the operas.

  • Alexander says:

    My good prayers on his ways. Granny Joan is adorable for ever.
    PS It would be precious if you could do a mini-interview with him for the readers of the blog, just a few words maybe

  • Robert Battey says:

    The least-competent conductor I’ve ever played under, and that’s saying something. Incapable of communicating anything of substance to a professional orchestra. All we did was cover for him.

  • Lady Weidenfeld says:

    To have an idea of his musicianship just listen to him accompanying his wife in “Le Papillon et la Fleur” of Fauré! I always heard that he was hugely instrumental in guiding Joan Sutherland into the repertoire that suited her best.
    When dealing with them in my management days in Madrid she was so warm and homely, knitting away backstage and he was very charming. The orchestra loved him. Happy Birthday Ricky!

  • Sean says:

    A well deserved tribute to a life spent honouring the music he loves. Happy birthday indeed!