Dallas — It was quite a surprise when, in a recent interview, the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko, who is here to sing the leading role in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at The Dallas Opera, said that his favorite role is Pelléas in Debussy’s only opera Pelléas and Mélisande.
This is a role in a rarely produced masterpiece that requires a singer/actor with great subtlety as the impressionistic text implies more than it states. He also has to be believable as a romantic lead, and has a vocal range for a role that frequently takes the baritone into tenor range.
This unexpected answer came easily, without any obvious pondering. Immediately, it set Bondarenko apart as a singer with exceptional intelligence, excellent acting ability and a voice with a wide range, flexibility and technical mastery. His reviews, in an amazingly wide variety of roles, confirm the assertion and he will be a remarkable Onegin.
Bondarenko has the uncanny ability to assume the physicality, such as age and posture, of the character he is playing. If you only have seen Bondarenko on stage in a role, such as Onegin, you wouldn’t recognize him off stage. Out of character, he looks like an undergraduate college athlete: young and unaware of his good looks. Advancing age will probably not diminish his boyish handsomeness.
When we met for the interview, there was (thankfully) nothing of the “opera star” about him. He was soft-spoken, welcoming, warm and friendly. He wears his brown hair long, but not reaching his shoulders. His beard is close-cropped, and its slight sparseness only adds to his overall youthful impression.
Also, he was completely at ease giving an interview in a language other than his native Russian. His English is fine, by the way, and is highlighted by the trace of an accent.
My first question was about his impression of the Winspear Opera house and his answer was sincere and immediate. “It is beautiful…amazing,” he says without hesitation.
As an audience member, I have to agree with him, but I was curious how it felt from the stage.
“I feel like it is absolutely comfortable to sing [in],” he said, adding to the chorus of similar praise from singers.
Bondarenko wasn’t always a singer—he started on the saxophone and wanted to play jazz. “But at 16, I discovered I had a voice and studied opera. I still have a sax, but I don’t play it all that often,” he says.
Bondarenko was born in Kiev and did his early musical training there. The prominent (and controversial) Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev, also came from Kiev and, as it turned out, the conductor’s sister heard Bondarenko in an audition and was impressed. On her recommendation, he was invited by Gergiev to join the Academy for Young Singers at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.
“I did five years of young artist study at the Mariinsky, and the best part is that they can put you on stage in small roles and sometimes even bigger ones.”
Such stage experience is vital to the training of young singers and most American opera companies, including The Dallas Opera, have similar apprentice programs.
I was curious about the comprehensive training offered in the Russian conservatory system. Bondarenko described his experience.
“We have acting study, plus two years of stage movement and dance,” he says. “Also, three years of solfeggio [sight singing], piano proficiency, other music literature and, of course, singing.”
Singer training in American universities is much the same, but without the same concentration on stagecraft. In most universities, as far as I know, students can select these courses as electives but they are not required. What was required, at least back when I was such a student, was a fluency in French, Italian and German. Now, opera singers are asked to sing in Russian and even in Czech for operas by composers such as Janáček and Dvořák.
After Dallas, Bondarenko will sing Belcore in Donizetti’s L'elisir d'amore at Munich Opera, then the aforementioned Pelléas at the Scottish Opera, which has a lot of tenor-ish high passages in the role.
“Sometimes it is easier to sing than Onegin,” he said. “When you really start in a high position, and the opera stays there, for me, it is very confortable. A baritone singing the high notes can be more exciting than a tenor singing it.”
When I asked him if he sang any operas in English, he surprised again.
“I sang Billy Budd [in the opera by Benjamin Britten]. I did the first-ever Russian production in St. Petersburg. I was pleased about it because, usually, they hire native English speakers.”
Once again, Bondarenko’s vocal flexibility served him well. The role of Billy is notoriously difficult to sing, mostly because like Pelléas, it frequently takes the baritone into tenor territory.
This ability to sing the high baritone roles has proven to be valuable to Bondarenko, as well as the careers of other baritones in the past. The original baritone cast as Billy, Geraint Evans, said the role was too high for him to sustain and, generously accepting a smaller role, was replaced by Theodor Uppman, another baritone who also sang Pelléas. Uppman first sang Pelléas in a 1947 concert performance with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux and with the second Mélisande chosen by Debussy, Maggie Teyte. In 1948, Uppman sang Pelléas again with the New York City Opera and it was his Metropolitan Opera debut role in 1953. And a personal connection: My first voice teacher, Barre Hill, sang Pelléas with Mary Garden in Chicago, when she reprised the role later in her career.
When asked about his dream role, he answer was, as you might expect, a surprise.
“I would love to sing Don Giovanni [in Mozart’s opera by the same name],” he says.
You would think that he would be such a natural, physically and vocally, for this role that he would have already sung it.
“I am not ready yet,” he says. “I sing other Mozart roles, such as the Count [in The Marriage of Figaro] and Papageno [in The Magic Flute], but Don Giovanni is on another level.”
This is a comment from a young singer who knows how to pace his career. You would think that singing the Count in Figaro would be a natural preparation for the role of Don Giovanni. But, he obviously knows his voice and has a plan for his career. When he does feel confortable to accept the assignment to sing the Don, it will certainly be worth a trip to experience it in his hands—no matter where the opera house happens to be.