Somewhere in Holland, right now, the movers and shakers of the country's operatic life are wondering whether mezzo-soprano Elaine Bonazzi can be funny. This question occurs to nobody who has seen the Washington Opera's production of "Christopher Columbus," currently running in the Terrace Theater.
Bonazzi establishes her comic credentials within seconds of her spectacular first entrance as Queen Isabella -- from under a couch. The queen is gross and subtle in the same instant, spectacularly hung over and shaky in every gesture, but superbly organized and highly energetic as soon as she spies a potential victim for her somewhat shopworn charms. Hers are the funniest moments in the show, and besides acting well she sings beautifully.
So what's the problem? The problem is that Bonazzi is not one specialist but at least four or five, and she tends to get typecast in each of the places she works. In Holland, she has been singing quite a lot in recent years, but in what she calls "very unfunny roles."
"What I've done there is Geschwitz and 'Pique Dame,' " she explains in the polyglot shorthand of the international opera singer. "Geschwitz" is the decadent villainess-victim of Berg's "Lulu," who is hopelessly, manipulatively in love with the heroine and finally dies trying (vainly) to save her from Jack the Ripper. In "Pique Dame" (Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades"), Bonazzi sings the role of the old woman (the heroine's grandmother) who dies of fright when the blundering tenor breaks into her bedroom, eager to learn her secret of winning at cards.
Both are countesses, talk about typecasting. Operatic countesses (except in Mozart) are often mezzo-sopranos -- as are mothers, grandmothers, villainesses and weirdos.
In America, Bonazzi's roles include the rapacious Frau von Luber in Kurt Weill's "Silverlake"; Mrs. Lovett, the woman in "Sweeney Todd" who turns people into meat pies; Baba the Turk, a bearded woman in "The Rake's Progress"; and Katisha, the butt of W.S. Gilbert's heavy-handed jokes about middle-aged women in "The Mikado."
A grim lineup for a singer, unless she has a sense of humor and extraordinary acting ability -- as Bonazzi fortunately does. But at least there's more variety there than in her Dutch specialty: countesses who die colorfully.
To get a full idea of Bonazzi's range, you have to visit several countries. "In Italy," she says, "I'm known as a baroque singer: Handel, Monteverdi, Steffani, Galuppi, Vivaldi . . . all those guys. That's fine, because I love all that music. Actually, I think, vocally it suits me better than anything else. But in this country . . . people don't generally think of me in that milieu (and) there is very little you can do to change it. I suppose you can go and audition for them and say, 'Let me sing this for you.' Sometimes it works, but more often their ears are pretty closed."
Perhaps the specialty for which Bonazzi is best known is world premieres of American operas. This specialty requires not just talent, but a special kind of courage: New American operas probably have the highest mortality rate in contemporary performing arts. In Europe, where opera houses have government subsidies, new operas are commissioned regularly. "They get written," she says, "they get performed, and if you have enough, certainly you will find a few somewhere along the way that are going to be terrific. But here, it's do or die every time; there's rarely a second run, so the imperfections can't be cleared up the second time around. It's really very sad."
Her latest premiere, "Casanova's Homecoming" by Dominick Argento, has a strong possibility of survival, she believes. "It's a beautiful opera," she says. "It has it all: very tender moments, very poignant moments and very funny situations. And the part of Casanova is one of the great vocal vehicles of the 20th century."
Bonazzi has lost count of how many opera premieres she has done, but the number is somewhere around 30. "Very few have been major successes . . . Well, 'The Trial of Mary Lincoln,' on television, did win an Emmy."
In spite of disappointments, there is at least one more premiere she would like to sing, if she could persuade a composer to agree. "I once got a big crush on 'The Rainmaker,' " she says. "I thought it was potentially a really terrific opera libretto. I mentioned it to a couple of composer friends of mine, pretty well-known guys, and . . . they said it's too plain; you need a little more color in an opera. Well, it wouldn't be the normal opera; it would be a plain opera, but the part of the old maid in that is so wonderful, and there are a couple of really good male parts."
To get a fair idea of Bonazzi's musical quality and range, you have to hear her at a place like the Library of Congress, where she does song recitals. For concert work, she says, "You can program any number of styles within that hour-and-a-half period, and it's fun, because it's up to you." But even in this area, she has run into typecasting. Her next Library of Congress concert, in May, will include a 70th-birthday tribute to David Diamond: a performance of his song cycle, "The Midnight Meditation." She had trouble getting the composer's permission to sing it.
"It was written for (bass-baritone) Bill Warfield and so he had never heard a woman sing it," she says. "I looked at it, and I loved the poems -- they're wonderful -- and I told him I'd like to do that. He said, 'Oh, no, you can't; it's all men's poetry.' I said, 'No, it's not.' So he looked through it and called me back and said, 'I guess you're right . . . Do you have a low G?' and I said, 'Sure.' "