Do you find it interesting when you encounter professional acquaintances out of context, in ways you have never pictured them? An example for me, and in this case, a happy surprise, was witnessing Indianapolis Symphonic Choir executive director Liam Bonner performing at the organization’s Feb. 22 fundraiser “Gala Belle Canteaux: Mardi Gras.” A winning bidder in the evening’s silent auction was awarded Bonner singing “Friends on the Other Side” from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.” Another donor asked him to sing “Votre toast,” or the toreador’s aria, from “Carmen” by Bizet and so for an encore and additional give of $500, that donor was serenaded. I was thoroughly impressed with Bonner’s vocal performance and stage presence. Having not see him perform previously, I was struck by his talent and charisma.
I first met Bonner in the WISH-TV Indy Style studio following an ISC appearance on the show in December. Later, we met for lunch, where I learned more about Bonner, who joined the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir as executive director in January of 2019. He had three years of fundraising experience with a major U.S. symphony and a successful ten-year career in performance, having earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Vocal Performance from Carnegie Mellon University and his Master of Music in Voice from the Manhattan School of Music. Highlights of his performing career include his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2010, and the creation of the role of Lieutenant Audebert in the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, “Silent Night.” A Baritone, Bonner’s established level of artistic excellence as a solo artist, deep network of colleagues in the symphonic and vocal music arena, and his unique perspective on the industry’s landscape definitely support the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir’s vision to expand the impact of its tradition of excellence.
In my continuing effort to spotlight Indy’s performing arts figures, I spoke by phone a few weeks ago with Bonner from his Woodruff Place home, where he has been sequestered with his wife Meredith and their dog Bennie and cat Nora. Below is an edited transcript of our chat.
Why did you give up performing?
That’s an easy question. Have you met my wife? I met her and I was done. The type of family I wanted was not conducive and I was fortunate in my career that I had accomplished a lot in a short period of time, so I felt very contented with the career that I had. I knew that if I left it that I wouldn’t regret it or resent anything, but by switching careers…no profession is perfect and I had my own issues as a solo artist that I encountered in my career, but also led me to decide not to let others decide my fates or worth that I think a lot of solo artists have to deal with when you are dealing with companies, whether they hire you or not, or directors or conductors or whatever type of management that you report to as a hired employee for a particular production. So those issues, on top of the desire to have the family life I wanted, made it an easy decision. I had a number of relationships during the course of my career that didn’t work out for one reason or another and when I met Meredith, it was just easy and perfect and was just the right fit and still is.
How did the two of you meet?
We met in Houston. I lived in Houston for a total of ten years. I am from Pittsburgh originally. I went to school there all the way through undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University. I went to grad school in New York, the Manhattan School of Music, and got into this young artist training program with the Houston Grand Opera. I did that program for three years, moved back to New York, started working at the Met, as well as other companies throughout the country. Most of my career was in the states, though there were a few performances in Europe…London, Rome, Wexford, Ireland…but after about four years in New York, I decided the career was established enough, that opera companies knew who I was, that I was starting to work for some a second or third time. The need to be in New York no longer existed. I could fly in to do an audition if it was mandatory or necessary for a particular role, but I decided I needed to move back to Pittsburgh to be near my family between gigs or I’d be back in Houston, which I loved. I loved that city and I had a special connection to Houston Grand Opera because they had put such faith in me and bringing me in as a young artist. So, that was like my home opera company in so many ways.
I met my wife through mutual friends down there…the old-fashioned way and really, the rest is history. We were dating for the last year of my career and within six or seven months of dating, I talked with her about my desire to retire from performing and moving more into being able to have a positive impact on a community by leaving. So, we discussed all that and she was fine with it either way. It worked well for us. The distance was just fine. There was a lot of communication. We met New Year’s Eve. There is a whole backstory to that. Our first date was January 1, 2015 and we got married September 24, 2016, so we dated nine months and were engaged nine months.
Tell me about Meredith’s profession.
Meredith is the executive administrator to the vice president of global and digital strategy at Rice University and she gets to work remotely, so all of this change with COVID has not affected her. She’s been working from home the year and a half we have been here. Actually, just a little over a year for her. She moved up here after I did just to make sure she could coordinate everything with Rice. She’s got a ton of work. When you work for the VP of digital and global strategy and COVID happens and everything moves online…she was working 15-hour days sometimes. Meredith is a brilliant woman and insanely patient. She would have to be to be married to me. And incredibly compassionate and as they say my “ride or die.” I hope I give a little of what she gives me.
How have the two of you coped with the pandemic?
Mostly at home. I go out once a week to pick up the mail because our office is on Butler’s campus. We are pro-mask. We are not socializing, save for socially distancing outside.
Do you have a pandemic bubble or pod?
We do have a couple of friends who have been staying home in lockdown, only going out when necessary and taking precautions. We don’t gather in the house and we have all the cleaning supplies. We actually started doing outdoor movies in our backyard. So, people bring their own chairs, food and drinks. We have our own movie screen and put it up in our backyard and space it out. It’s a great way to be social outside. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, we are basically streaming from Netflix or Vudu. We bought a projector as well, so we plug the Roku stick into the projector and that connects to the internet. On July 3, we had people in the backyard, so we screened “Hamilton” on Disney+.
Switching to more serious topics, what are your thoughts about the confluence of events that have brought us to this moment?
It’s such a longer conversation in many ways. Generally speaking, in a broad scope, if we are trying to find positive things, which I like to do, the benefit of COVID-19 has actually drawn attention to the social and racial injustice we are experiencing. If people were going about their lives as they were before, going on spring breaks and summer vacations, traveling and not really paying attention to anything but their own lives, I think this would have been just what it was before when you talk about Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and all the people before George Floyd. There was outrage and then people moved on with their lives and nothing really changed, which is why we are still having these issues. But now, there is a bigger focus and more energy going toward these efforts and I think because of COVID-19, a lot of people are able to focus on these issues and actually commit to learning, like I am doing, reading and educating myself in areas of my unconscious bias. I’m looking at our organization in areas we can improve. And not just talk. Not just put out statements, but to take actions because you can see people put out statements, but those are just words and not actions.
Some of the things we are looking at are when we need to purchase supplies for the choir that we are purchasing from Black businesses if they carry what we are looking for. So, supporting businesses here, specifically locally, first and foremost, but even in the broader sense whenever we can. We are also making a commitment to make space on stage for Black, Indigenous and People of color. We do not have a diverse board. We do not have a diverse chorus. So, where we see the biggest opportunity to do that work is hiring soloists when we have them and that’s a start. That’s not a total answer, but again, when the audience sees themselves reflected on stage, then they are more interested to learn that art form and participate in auditioning for the chorus itself or serving on the board.
So, your organization is now more intentional?
Yes. Oh, yes. And the entire staff is incredibly supportive of this. The board is doing work. It is not just a one-off conversation. The symphonic choir does not have a diversity and inclusion statement and that is now in process. The words are being shaped now and the statement will exist in this next season, which is very exciting.
It appears that performing arts organizations, as a rule, are examining systemic racism within their ranks because artists are speaking up.
You are seeing these solo artists stepping up and no longer being afraid for their careers and doing what’s right. I know some people don’t agree with the term “cancel culture.” The way I see it, it’s giving the microphone to the people who don’t have that platform. It’s not eliminating other people, but it is making them aware that what they are doing or saying is not acceptable behavior. However, when you refer to The Richard Tucker Music Foundation and the board member (who lost his seat for making racist comments on social media) I applaud the decision to remove him.
I spoke with a prominent African American opera singer recently who said she never encountered a Black stage manager in any opera house throughout her long career.
As a white guy, I even had trouble speaking up to management if there was an issue. It can be very retaliatory for anyone, so I can only imagine a Black, Indigenous or a Person of color feeling a certain way or feeling more suffocated. I took some chances and risks and spoke up. It cost me some things.
Are you seeing a spike in fundraising due to Black Lives Matter?
I’m seeing statements from granting institutions. The Mellon Foundation came out with an article that said not one penny will be donated to organizations that are not actually creating toward a more just society. It was flat out. We saw it with CICF (Central Indiana Community Foundation) last year, focusing its mission on combatting systemic racism. The Symphonic Choir is trying to adjust and come up as well and just be aware of our own issues. Historically, the choir has been mostly white and the music Eurocentric.
What about philanthropists?
I don’t know about philanthropists, the individuals, how quickly they are going to shift. The bigger grant institutions, the foundations, are shifting, but individuals, depending on who holds the purse strings, it is going to be up to the individual to evaluate what they support. And I think that is one of the reasons arts organizations have been hesitant to change because they are getting that money and getting that support. If they change the way the organization is run or how they approach things, maybe that person who has been giving them funds would no longer support them.
On the other hand, you may get some new support, right?
That’s my belief. If you are doing what’s right, if you are doing what’s just…to me, it’s like NASCAR removing the Confederate flag. If you follow the media, the number of people who went to the next race after they removed the Confederate flag, were like, “This is my first NASCAR race. I have never been to one. I have so much to learn.” It was because NASCAR took that action that people said, “Hey, I could probably support this because I feel the same way.”
We must be aware of the society we are in and the number of people we are keeping out, maybe not intentionally, but nevertheless. We say we are open and welcoming, but you have to see it from the perspective of other people who may not feel welcome or comfortable because there is nobody there that looks like them. So, these are things I am learning and trying to understand better because as a white guy, I have the advantage of being somewhere and people not staring at me or looking at me suspiciously.
When did you first hear the term “white privilege” and how does it apply to you?
It’s been a while since I first heard it and probably from having been in the arts and talking with my fellow artists. I have only recently been examining myself and educating myself better. I am definitely a newcomer to the work, but I am absolutely committed to it in every sense. My wife and I are doing work together. We are signed up to participate in the Indy SURJ (Signing Up for Racial Justice) project. They are doing these house meetings virtually because we can’t meet in person. It is a seven-month commitment. It is once a month for two hours, which is really not a lot of time, but it is gathering and learning and discussing racism and social justice and how we…and it’s white people…because we are the ones who need to do the work. We are the ones who need to make the change.
Are Black people leading it?
No, because it is a place for learning and understanding. We are going to say the wrong thing or screw up and we don’t want to put that on our Black community. Questions posed in the curriculum were developed by Indy 10, the local chapter of Black Lives Matter. So far, it has been very beneficial.
What else are you learning during the pandemic?
Other benefits I have seen of COVID…we don’t have kids, we are not dealing with the school situation…but early on, in March, April, people were cooking at home, cooking family meals. They were around each other, playing games, doing puzzles, watching movies together, taking time to just slow down. We live such a high-paced lifestyle here in the states, at least in all the places I’ve lived. I know I exhaust my wife under normal circumstances. I am at work all day and then I have XYZ the rest of the evening and you’re coming to this and you’re going to that and this is on the calendar. I know I run her ragged, but I love to be on the go and I love to be around people and I love to explore arts and all the different things Indianapolis has to offer, but it’s been nice. It’s been weird for me too because I am such an extrovert. I was concerned in March how much it would take for me to lose my mind. It’s actually fine for me. Yes, there have been stressful moments, but I’ve got such incredible staff and a fabulous board and we have wonderful support, even through this process of things being sort of turned upside down. There is that support network and this feeling that we are truly in this together and we’re going to get out of it together, but we got to stay in it together.
And you have Eric Stark too (Indianapolis Symphonic Choir Artistic Director)?
I feel incredibly blessed to be his partner in crime this past year. He and I have a fabulous relationship.
What do you miss the most?
Without question, it’s being at live performances. I am going to be partial to choral performances, obviously, but all of it. Right before the pandemic, I was taking Meredith to see “Murder on the Orient Express” at Indiana Repertory Theatre which didn’t happen. That was a birthday present for her. I was also going to the symphony. I haven’t seen a Fonseca Theatre Company production yet. I still haven’t been to Phoenix Theatre for an official performance. I’m trying to check everything off my list. I have been here a year and a half. It’s a massive arts community that I still haven’t fully devoured yet, but that’s really what I’m looking forward to and what I’m missing is being around live performances.
What do you hope the “new normal” will be post-pandemic?
I definitely hope it’s a better world. I think this is an opportunity. I think a lot of arts organizations have the opportunity now because of the circumstances to really enact the change they have been talking about for so long. When I was a performer, I heard it from a lot of opera companies. “We are doing this and we are doing that,” but nothing would really change. They would talk about it. They would hire consultants, but there were no actions.
I have been hearing about the need for diversity and inclusiveness for years. That is another reason I wanted to be in this type of position because I personally got tired of just hearing about it and not understanding why it couldn’t be realized. Yes, it takes time, but it doesn’t mean you just don’t sort of stall or put it off because it takes time. You’ve got to do the things you can immediately and you build on that, but you’ve got to start at some point.
The biggest thing when you talk about the “new normal,” it makes me think of the Black activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor‘s Instagram quote, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. we should not long to return my friends. we are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” I think she nails it perfectly.
For more information about the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, got to indychoir.org.