The Making of a Diva
A rising star shines
in the competitive world
of performing arts
"I don't want to be part of the chorus any longer; I want to be the soloist."
Soprano Mara Bonde '91 is on a crescendo that hasn't peaked. In October at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall she charmed New York area alumnae with her talent. Currently she's completing a seven-month engagement in North Carolina with the National Opera Company. Performances in the past year alone have included singing with the Boston Musical Theater in Brussels for the fiftieth anniversary celebration of NATO, making her solo debut with the Boston Pops (Brush Up Your Shakespeare, later televised around the nation) and playing Berta in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Lake George Opera Festival.
But don't just take the Quarterly's word for it. The Boston Globe described Bonde's Boston Baroque performance of a pair of motets by Lully as "ravishing." The Boston Herald proclaimed her Pops presentation as "sweet purity of tone." And of Lake George it was written, "Mara Bonde makes one wish Berta were a leading role, as she tosses off her delicious aria ... with rapture...."
Bonde seems to be taking this momentum in stride, but she knows that fame involves a lot more than having a show-stopping voice. "This business is so crazy," she confesses. "Out of fifty auditions maybe one will come through. That's the carrot that keeps you going—the frustration and the reward.
For now, Bonde says, her voice is best suited for comedic, lighter soubrette roles known in opera repertoire as the "inas" and "ettas" - not too heavy vocally but requiring solid character acting. With the National Opera she is singing Despina-the peasant who outsmarts everyone--in Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte. She's also played Adina in Donizetti's Elixir of Love (Lowell and Longwood Operas), Pamina in The Magic Flute (Prism Opera) and lots of others. She sees roles like Nanetta in Verdi's Falstaff and Lauretta in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi as becoming part of her standard repertoire. But in the future? "Who knows--my voice could change…"
Bonde is determined not to be pigeon-holed solely as an opera singer. "I've done a lot of oratorio with the Boston Baroque and the Handel & Haydn Society," she explains, "and I love roles like Tuptim in The King and I [Reagle Players] or Marina in The Music Man [Fiddlehead Theatre]. Many opera companies are embracing American musical theater traditions, and there's so much you can learn by crossing over. Acting challenges are amazing, the music is terrific--and it's all in English too. You learn about stamina as well--often musical theatre shows run a lot longer than opera productions. Eight shows a week is typical. I love opera, but mostly I love performing. It's nice to do Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin and Cole Porter too."
SHE GREW UP PERFORMING, but a career in music wasn't something Bonde thought about much. Her parents--Maria and Allen Bonde, professor of music at Mount Holyoke --never pushed her. When she graduated--a French major and music minor--she took a year off. That winter Bonde auditioned for four graduate music programs, then headed to Europe, backpacking with a friend. "In Munich," she remembers, "we saw Dvorak's Dmitri. It was breathtaking and combined my passions of music, dance, theatre--I was hooked."
When she entered the master of music program at Boston University School for the Arts, Bonde admits, "I had no clue what I was getting into, even though my parents tried to enlighten me. Luckily I'd done a full voice recital senior year..." After the master's degree, she was accepted in BU's Opera Institute Program. The training, she says, was "wonderful, plus I had opportunities to audition, perform and build contacts."
Several milestones along the way have helped open doors. In 1993 Bonde was accepted into Phyllis Curtin's Vocal Seminar at the Tanglewood Music Center. "Curtin is a great American soprano, a much-sought- after teacher," Bonde explains. "It was an enormous honor to work with her in an intense master class situation real sink--or--swim work."
The next summer Bonde went to France with the late conductor Robert Shaw. They did concerts in cathedrals throughout south-central France and recorded two CDs, with Bonde appearing as soloist in Ravel's Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis (Shaw's Telarc recording Appear and Inspire). In 1996 the Aspen Music Festival selected her as a music fellow. She worked with a quartet of singers in a master class led by soprano Adele Addison and baritone William Sharp, well-known for their recital work. A huge opportunity came Bonde's way two years ago in the form of studying with Dame Joan Sutherland and her husband Maestro Richard Bonynge at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in Aldeburgh, England.
"Twelve of us from all over the world," Bonde relates, "worked on bel canto repertoire, including many roles Dame Joan is so famous for. In some ways it was terrifying---I remember singing "V'adoro Pupille," a Handel aria from Guilio Cesare, when suddenly Dame Joan hopped out of her chair and exclaimed, "My dear, are you even breathing? This was day seven and until then she hadn't once moved out of her seat. She marched over (as I'm gasping to myself), clutched me around the cheek and declared in that beautiful voice, "I don't feel a thing. What in the world are you doing?" And so she worked with me. Taking a breath, she said, should be like feeling a 'happy surprise.' Once the breath is lined up properly, the sound will pour out. We worked on interpretation, on singing a glorious line, on making the audience excited, on making it seem effortless…"
Such opportunities are the result of auditions and connections. "I never would have gotten the audition with the Pops if I hadn't sung for Handel & Haydn all these years" says Bonde. "And who would have thought H&H, doing early music, would have any interaction with the Boston Pops? But people talk to each other. It's all about networking. The important thing is to sing all over the place and keep those lines of communication open. I'm staying in touch with people at the Pops and everywhere else."
Working with the Pops, Bonde says, was "magical--Keith Lockhart is so personable--a great smile and sense of fun. You know when you like to perform, you'll do it anywhere: church, basements, people's living rooms. But then to do Symphony Hall was mind-boggling, a totally different experience on a new level. No lengthy rehearsals. Everything, including the shows, was done in a weekend.
What's next for Mara Bonde? "I have no idea," she admits. "This stint in North Carolina is the longest I've ever had. I'll get two weeks off in December so I can go to New York for auditions. Once I have an agent--and I'm determined to have one within two years--things will be different, though there are no guarantees of regular work right away.
But having gotten a taste of the next level, Bonde is poised to go as far as she possibly can. "I feel I'm standing on a major threshold," she declares. "I don’t want to be part of the chorus any longer; I want to be the soloist…"
So, in Bonde's opinion, what is the top? "That's hard to know," she admits. "People always say if you're an opera singer, it's the Met. But I'm not sure if it is the Met for me…I'm happy performing, making others happy. There's always more to learn, more to sing, more people to reach out to. I don't think it ever stops."
Wherever the top is, getting there involves some tradeoffs. "I'm always on the go," Bonde says, "and let me say, I have some very dear friends in Boston and New York who open their doors when I arrive with my orange sleeping bag--but I always bring along my springform pan and make cheesecake in exchange for a room. Yes, I have great opportunities to travel, to meet wonderful people--and it's fun being with others who hold the same passion. But this isn't a nine-to-five job…
"I see friends getting married and having kids. I can't do that, at least for now. Being a performer is a gypsy life, and in many ways it's lonely. When the show is over, the audience is gone--but then there's always the next show. I wouldn't trade it for anything. Well, maybe a regular pay check, but no, nothing else."
by Sabine Haberland Cray '72
Article courtesy of: Mount Holyoke Alumane Quarterly; fall 1999