The Bard SummerScape Festival presents its first comic opera on Friday, July 27 (with four additional performances July 29, Aug 1, 3 and 5), giving the original 1887 version of Emmanuel Chabrier's The King in Spite of Himself (Le roi malgré lui) its first staged production in the U.S. The opera receives a contemporary treatment from director Thaddeus Strassberger, recently named by Opera News as one of opera's "Next Wave" of leading talents; his previous SummerScape opera productions rank among Bard's undisputed success stories. Having given a "vibrant and assured" (New York Times) concert performance of the opera in New York City in 2005, Leon Botstein once again conducts the American Symphony Orchestra in this new production. Leading the young cast at Bard is the "lyrical, expressive baritone" (New York Times) Liam Bonner as Henri de Valois, a 16th-century noble named King of Poland despite pining for his native France.
In the Q & A that follows, Liam Bonner discusses his first foray into Chabrier's operas and why it will be great to be King up at the 2012 Bard SummerScape Festival.
Q: Is this your first time performing Chabrier's music?
Liam Bonner: Yes, this is my first time performing any of Chabrier's music. In researching more about him, I believe that one of the reasons is the fact that he didn't have a very large output of music. However, what he did produce was always considered the highest quality. If you see this opera, I'm certain you'll agree!
Q: What is it like to play an unwilling king?
LB: You know, we're still discovering a lot about this piece, but it's quite comical. Chabrier has given me an historical figure, Henry III, who was known to be quite eccentric and not interested in ruling at all, but rather in being a playboy: having fun and giving orders, but not really governing or leading. I'm going to have a lot of fun with it.
Q: Last year, you sang the title role in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as Zurga in Bizet's Les pêcheurs des perles. What do you enjoy most about French opera?
LB: French opera has become for me a style very well suited for my voice, especially with regards to the tessitura, the lyrical lines, and the need for a large enough voice to cut through those very romantic orchestrations. I feel quite at home in French Repertory. I feel like my voice just goes there, that I don't have to over-think the vocal aspect of those pieces, and I can give equal focus to the dramatic aspect that I believe is so important to opera, as a visual art form.
Q: What is the working atmosphere like at Bard, in the center of the Hudson Valley?
LB: We're basically up here on a giant piece of land, like a farm or the countryside, where it's quiet and serene. It's a beautiful place to spend the summer, to focus on your craft and not to be distracted by the lights of the city. I feel very peaceful and almost zen-like here. It's a wonderful working environment with extremely supportive colleagues and staff, who are all focused on telling the story and presenting a relatively unknown piece that's accessible to both the opera aficionado and the novice. I also haven't seen a bad sunset since I've been here!
Q: If you were told tomorrow that you could perform any role you wanted in any opera house in the world, what would it be and where?
LB: My dream role, even after talking about how well French repertoire suits me, is actually Germont in Traviata. That's definitely a role I'll play someday down the line when I've got the advantage of age on my side, but it's a role that has always spoken to me and one that I believe is so deep with dramatic context. To me, the duet between Violetta and Germont is the meat and potatoes of that opera. I feel like I'd have a lot to say as an artist in that role. Now, where? Well, there are a few opera houses I still have yet to check off my list, so to name a few: Royal Opera House, Paris Opéra, and/or Teatro alla Scala.
Q: Looking forward, where will we be able to see you in the coming months?
LB: Le Roi is a co-production with the Wexford Festival Opera in Wexford, Ireland, so I'll be traveling there this fall. I've never been to Ireland, and am very much looking forward to exploring that beautiful country and hopefully making a trip to the area where my ancestors came from, County Donegal. Then, this winter, I revisit a role I created last fall with Minnesota Opera: Lieutenant Audebert in Silent Night by Kevin Puts, at Opera Company of Philadelphia. That piece won the composer the Pulitzer Prize for Music this year, and I'm proud to have been a part of the world premiere, as well as continuing with the production.