Life and career
Bonelli was born George Richard Bunn to Martin and Ida Bunn of Port Byron, New York. His family later moved to Syracuse and soon George preferred to be called Richard. Prior to deciding on a career in music, Bonelli was a friend of race car driver and later mayor of Salt Lake City, Ab Jenkins. Bonelli studied at Syracuse University and his voice teachers included Arthur Alexander in Los Angeles, Jean de Reszke and William Valonat in Paris.
Bonelli's operatic debut came on April 21, 1915 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as Valentin in Gounod's Faust. He toured with the San Carlo Opera Company between 1922 and 1924. In 1923 he made his European debut as Dardano in Catalani's Dejanice during the Carnevale season in Modena, Italy. He returned to Europe in 1924 to sing at the Monte Carlo Opera and was eventually engaged by the Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris. Between 1925 and 1931 Bonelli performed with the Chicago Opera Company and between 1926 and 1942 frequently performed at the San Francisco Opera. His Chicago debut in 1925 was in the role of Germont in Verdi's La traviata with Claudia Muzio (Violetta) and Antonio Cortis (Alfredo). His debut role in San Francisco was Figaro in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, after appearing in Flotow's Martha at the Los Angeles Grand Opera earlier in September 1926.
Seizing the opportunity of a one-year collapse of Chicago Civic Opera, the Met impresario Giulio Gatti-Casazza quickly engaged Bonelli for leading baritone roles in New York. His first performance with the Metropolitan Opera was on 29 November 1932, again as Rossini's Figaro, at the company's tour to Philadelphia. (It was also the role for his last Met stage performance on 14 March 1945.) The cast included Lily Pons (Rosina), Tito Schipa (Count Almaviva), and Ezio Pinza (Don Basilio). Bonelli's New York Metropolitan Opera debut came on December 1, 1932 as Giorgio Germont in Verdi's La traviata opposite Rosa Ponselle as Violetta and Tito Schipa as Alfredo. He remained on the Met's active roster until 1945, making his final performance as Rossini's Figaro on March 14 that year. He was the Tonio in the first ever live telecast of opera, from the Met on March 10, 1940 alongside Hilda Burke and Armand Tokatyan. He returned to the Met in 1966 as an honored guest at the 'Gala Farewell' marking the last performance by the Metropolitan Opera in the old opera house at Broadway and 39th Street, before moving to the Lincoln Center.
Of his many roles, Bonelli was known best for his Verdi repertory as Giorgio Germont, Di Luna, Renato, Rigoletto and Amonasro, and also for his portrayals of Valentin in Gounod's Faust, Wolfram in Wanger's Tannhäuser, Tonio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Rossini's Figaro, Enrico Ashton in Donizetti's Lucia and Sharpless in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In Italy, he performed under the name Riccardo Bonelli. He also appeared in two movies; a supporting role in 1935's Enter Madame and a cameo appearance in 1941's The Hard-Boiled Canary.
After retiring from singing, Bonelli became a successful voice teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, and in New York. Among his students were Frank Guarrera, Enrico Di Giuseppe, Lucine Amara, and Norman Mittelmann. In 1949 when Edward Johnson retired from his position of general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Bonelli was a contender for the job though it ultimately went to Rudolf Bing. Bonelli's favorite baritone was Titta Ruffo. American baritone Robert Merrill had stated that Bonelli was his inspiration to study singing, after hearing him perform the Count di Luna at the Met alongside Giovanni Martinelli and Elisabeth Rethberg in 1936. Even after retiring from teaching, he periodically performed on stage into his 80s. His later appearances were more on the West Coast of the United States. He was actor Robert Stack's uncle. Bonelli died in Los Angeles on June 7, 1980 at the age of 91.
- Richard Bonelli (Baritone) – Short Biography – biography on Bonelli (retrieved April 26, 2011)
- Charles A. Hooey – MusicWeb-International – biography on Bonelli (retrieved April 26, 2011)
- Richard Bonelli at the Internet Movie Database
- Richard Bonelli Collection (ARS.0005), Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound