I wrote the following for The Times in recognition of the sad death of a distinguished and long-term colleague:
Tessa Bonner: versatile soprano and soloist
Tessa Bonner was one of the seminal sopranos of the early music movement. With her distinctively bright tone, described by one critic as sounding like a waterfall, she helped to shape what the concert-going public came to expect from non-operatic solo sopranos, at a time when the style was still being formed.
When she began to sing professionally in the late 1970s it was still thought by many people that the soprano line in church music should be sung by boys. Bonner, alongside Emma Kirkby and a handful of others, showed that this need not be so, indeed that adult performers might be a distinct improvement in the modern concert world. In doing so, she helped to spark off a revolution in performance practice and in the public perception of it.
Bonner came to prominence with the 1984 Taverner Consort recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers, on which she sang the sonata sopra Santa Maria, as well as the duet Pulchra es, amica mea with Emma Kirkby. After this success she quickly became an integral part of Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Consort, which culminated in her singing the great soprano aria Zerfliesse in Bach’s St John Passion (recorded in 1990).
Equally impressive were her recordings of Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Il ballo delle ingrate with the New London Consort. But while Monteverdi will be the repertoire for which she is most remembered, she had the versatility to deliver performances of music as diverse as the Purcell Odes (with the King’s Consort), the Vivaldi Gloria and Bach Magnificat (with Richard Hickox, obituary, November 25, 2008), Purcell’s sacred music (with Philippe Herreweghe), to record First Boy in Mozart’s Magic Flute (for Roger Norrington) and to work extensively both on the concert platform and in the studio with Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort in music from Praetorius to Bach.
Teresa Margaret Pollard was born in 1951 in Hammersmith, West London, and attended Isleworth Green School for Girls. She started her working life as a production assistant at the BBC on such programmes as Blue Peter and Face the Music.
During this time she married Dyl Bonner. The marriage did not last long, and after it broke up she studied music at Leeds University. There she took singing lessons with Honor Sheppard. She moved to London to study singing at the Guildhall — where she was taught by Margaret Lensky and Ellis Keeler — and married Graeme Curry with whom she had a daughter.
Meanwhile, the singing lessons with Sheppard led to an invitation to tour the US with the Deller Consort. This was the beginning of her work as a consort singer, which in time would take in many early music vocal ensembles, particularly the Tallis Scholars, with whom she sang 1,110 concerts and appeared, often as a soloist, on 37 of their discs.
The list of groups she worked for reads like a roll call of the current London singing scene: in addition to those already listed she also worked with Musica Secreta, the Lute Group, the Consort of Musicke, the English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music and the Sixteen.
But it was in the Renaissance repertoires that her versatility came especially to be valued in the latter part of her career, with a wide overall range and the ability to blend with a partner. For years she specialised in the high treble parts that the Tudor composers favoured, recording the top part in Sheppard’s Media vita, alongside Deborah Roberts in the Tallis, Scholars, with breathtaking poise.
She could equally well sing lines with a much lower tessitura. After her return to the concert platform after major surgery, she took part in a late-night Prom in the summer of 2008 which included Mass settings by Josquin and Obrecht. She discovered after this concert that her haemoglobin level was half what it should have been, but such was her courage that no one had any idea of it on stage.
She was a lover of classical painting, especially the post-Impressionists: it always pleased her that the touring life of a professional singer meant that she could visit the great art galleries of the world. It is no accident that the church she chose for her funeral — St Bartholomew’s, Sydenham — was painted by Pissarro.
Bonner will be remembered for her warmth of personality, which came through so clearly in all her singing and which made her a most popular teacher of voice. She is survived by her long-term partner, Donald Greig, and her daughter.
Tessa Bonner, singer, was born on February 28, 1951. She died of cancer on December 31, 2008, aged 57