Wild Hare Club Blog

Bettina Jonic 1938-2021

Bettina Jonic 1938-2021

The singer/writer/performer/director/campaigner remembered by her son-in-law Richard Page

Born in Oregon, on the 29th July 1938, Bettina Jonic sometimes jokingly referred to herself as a ‘bohunk’ with a degree of pride in her peasant roots. Her mother had arrived in America from the island of Dugi Otok, the largest of the Dalmation islands west of Zadar, young and illiterate but determined, a trait her daughter inherited.  Somehow Bettina’s mother arranged her own marriage to another Slav. Bettina’s father, a kind man, worked as a logger in Oregon and as ship’s cook on a Californian tuna fishing boat living the nomad life of the character in Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue. A heavy drinker, Bettina’s father became a gutter alcoholic who the young Bettina would step across the road to avoid out of embarrassment.

But Bettina’s mother was not to be dragged down, she moved to LA and fixed her immigrant eye on pursuing the American dream. Her hard graft combined with a shrewd business sense enabled her to progress from working as a cook in someone else’s restaurant to having her own diner. She built the business up to the point that she was able to acquire various properties and become a small-scale real estate dealer. She worked her daughters hard - Bettina and her sister, Gladys, having to wait tables and wash dishes from an early age. However, this was not enough, Bettina’s mother had ambitions for her younger daughter, imagining her a Hollywood star. With this goal set, Bettina was enrolled in ballet school and for ten years studied under Theodore Kosloff and Bronislava Nijenska, instilling a dancer’s discipline which, as her friend Nelson Fernandez notes, was the grounding for all her future work. At age 5, Bettina was a dancer in a production of The Rite of Spring with Stravinsky himself conducting. In many ways Bettina did not have much of a childhood, continually being propelled towards the illusionary end of the rainbow by her mother. Many years later, these experiences were later processed in the cutting text and jazzy meanderings of her one-woman show Glitter City.

Fiercely intelligent and precocious, Bettina spent 6 months studying voice in New York before making the decision, while still not yet twenty, to continue her studies in Europe. Taking voice lessons and music studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Vienna’s Academy of Music and the Conservatoire in Paris meant that she was well-prepared for her singing debut at the Festival Aix en Provence. A mezzo-soprano specializing mainly in Mozart and Richard Strauss, she appeared on the stages of many opera houses around the world in the following years including working with the English National Opera.

It was in Kiel where Bettina had her first contract at the Opera House that she met the much-feted publisher and opera lover, John Calder. Bettina was very much John Calder’s equal and the couple married in 1961 and their daughter, Anastasia was born in 1963. Taken by Calder’s intelligence, for a while Bettina enjoyed the company of writers and other intellectuals from the artistic elite, helping host Ledlanet Nights, the small arts festival held on Calder’s inherited estate in Kinross-shire. However, the honeymoon period couldn’t last, Calder’s compulsive womanizing an afront that could only be tolerated so long.

Her intellect and sense of self meant that Bettina was never going to be content with being directed and delivering performances that were simply about achieving some other person’s idea of artistic perfection and before long she was exploring new areas of work beyond classical opera to exercise her creativity. In one of her many stream-of consciousness manifestos, she writes of the importance of the arts in providing emotional nourishment, provoking politically and stimulating thought so that we might all understand the human condition better.

For some, Bettina is best known as a leading interpreter of Brecht, releasing an album Brecht with Music in 1967 and appearing in many productions which allowed her to be far less static than in traditional opera roles. These included a production of Happy End with Jim Haynes at the Traverse Theatre in 1964 and later at the Royal Court, playing Jenny in the Rise and Fall of Mahagonny at the Spoleto Festival and playing the title role in Mother Courage and Her Children in Bolton. Perceived as something of a maverick and not, she felt, really accepted by the theatre, Bettina put together a carefully structured show of Brecht songs using the three major composers Brecht worked with. This was so successful that she believed she could have toured it for the rest of her life

Not one to get stuck in a groove, Bettina began to stretch her wings, founding the Actors Work Group in 1971 wherein artists could pioneer new collaborative ways of working. A year later, The Wheel, ‘a chamber work for actors and musicians’ which she devised and took part in with music by David Bedford, was staged at the Roundhouse. The hybrid event which featured poetry, music and drama was held together by colour – during the performance a kaleidoscopic wheel, designed by David Curt Morris, was spun and the colour it settled on would determine which actors or musicians would come on next. This, apart from her habitual reading of the I-Ching and tarot cards, was the most hippy Bettina would ever be, but it was 1972.

Bettina was nothing if not a fighter and tenacious in the extreme, driven by a deep-seated anger which made it hard for her ever to let go or forgive. Sadly, over her lifetime this resulted in a too long list of lost friendships. The inevitable divorce proceedings were all-consuming and protracted over many years, enough to cause Anastasia to demand that she be sent away to boarding school. Bettina felt validated when eventually the judge ruled that as part of the divorce settlement, money from a trust fund benefitting Calder should go directly to Bettina. This ruling meant that the risk of the money disappearing down the bottomless well of Calder’s extravagant spending was avoided. This set an important legal precedent and Bettina and Anastasia were granted a degree of financial security.

With a strong sense of what she thought was right and what was wrong, Bettina took a deep interest in politics. In her latter years, the first half of her day was taken up with reading the Guardian from cover to cover. The germ for this may have come from her father who had been active with the ‘Wobblies’ - The Industrial Workers of the World. She loved Warren Beatty’s Reds as the film gave historical context to her father’s activities. There’s a photo of Bettina marching with Bertrand Russell and The Committee of 100 and one of her most celebrated moments was singing an unaccompanied and adapted version of The International at the 1976 Socialist International in front of the heads of 48 socialist party heads including 14 heads of state.  Among these were Helmut Schmidt, Harold Wilson, Mario Soares and François Mitterrand who was ‘hardly a world player’ at that point. However, Bettina was never the grassroots activist that her Greenham woman daughter is.

In 1974, Bettina and Anastasia found themselves holed up in a hotel in the middle of Lisbon for three days as the military led coup, the Revolução dos Cravos – The Carnation Revolution, unfolded in the streets below. Situated between secret police headquarters and the civil guard, Anastasia remembers seeing the tanks and the lines of troops below. The time was right and with almost no shots fired, the authoritarian Estado Novo regime was overthrown and soon after the democracy was brought to Portugal and Portugal’s disastrous colonial war ended. Ten days later, Bettina delivered an evening of all Brecht material. It was the first uncensored performance of these texts in Portugal for 48 years.

The Lisbon experiences provided the inspiration for 1975’s The Bitter Mirror, a double album which juxtaposed songs by Brecht and Dylan, revealing the common themes in the social commentary of their lyrics. For me the Dylan songs don’t always fair so well with their Brechtian delivery but who can deny the razor sharp delivery of It’s Alright Ma. The album was well received by Dylan biographer Robert Shelton who, in a glowing review in The Times, described the record as displaying an ‘uncommon sort of high intelligence in contemporary song-programming’. Bettina, who was never backward in reaching out, wrote to Dylan. In a short undated, handwritten note with a NYC Post Box Address, Dylan informed her in hurried capitals that he had ‘no interest in performing in the Edinburgh Festival this year but I like your idea and wish you luck’, finishing with ‘If I can be of service in any other way, let me know, yours truly, Bob Dylan.’ Bettina remained proud of The Bitter Mirror and we were both pleased when I was later able to facilitate its CD re-release on the Motema label.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Bettina was continually writing, developing and delivering a huge variety of projects ranging from one-woman shows such as Denim Blues to collaborating with Peter Brook on his production of La Tragédie de Carmen. With 1986’s The Ladies, Bettina imagined a dialogue between Lotte Lenya and Helena Wiegel, the widows of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and in 1988’s  Ghost Games with Lulu married Wedekind’s Lulu plays with haunting musical motifs from Alben Berg’s opera using an international cast.  

In 1981 Bettina was appointed Director of Actor/Singer Development at the Royal Opera House and her work there together with the projects she ran through The Little Garden, the charity she set up in 1985, focused on helping actors and singers develop their art. Her aim was to cross-fertilise the disciplines, enabling the singer to develop the skills and creativity of the actor and the actor to attain the skills and musicality of the singer. The list of artists who she worked with is a veritable who’s who of British theatre at that time: Francesca Annis, Stephen Berkoff, Bob Hoskins, Annie Irving, Jane Lapotaire, Ann Mitchell, Hazel O’Connor, Elaine Page, Michael Pennington, Steven Rea, Penny Ryder, Martin Shaw, Juliette Stevenson, Harriet Walter, Zoe Wannamaker and many, many others.

Bettina’s divorce was not the only time that she resorted to the law to see justice done. In 1991 Bettina, a house guest and one of her beloved cats were severely poisoned by organochlorine pesticides used to treat her Kensington flat for dry rot. Her health compromised, Bettina campaigned doggedly through the following months and years, drafting an endless stream of letters on yellow paper and amassing multiple copies of her extensive correspondence in bulging lever arch files. The campaign culminated in a series of parliamentary questions and a Local Government Ombudsman’s report that slammed the local environmental health teams and ordered the Council to pay compensation and fund the clean-up of the flat from toxic residues. This amounted to tens of thousands of pounds but there was nothing that could be done to decontaminate her books and so many valuable signed and first editions were subsequently destroyed. Kensington and Chelsea Council, unsurprisingly given their recent record, complained, saying the ruling would open the floodgates: it was a small but significant victory.

Her last creative project the writing of two slim volumes about her close and enduring friendship with Samuel Beckett built around their ongoing correspondence that began in 1958 in Paris lasted until his death. These volumes are illuminating in their insights into the creative process and in particular the musicality of Beckett’s writing but it is perhaps a shame that she chose to look at her life through the prism of this relationship as it is often the slivers of wider context that hold the most fascination, For, as Bettina often noted, hers was an ‘interesting life’, an observation not without echoes of the Chinese curse. The first of these, With and Without Sam – Volume 1 A Ditty Full of Old Muck, was self-published in 2013 but the second has yet to see the light of day and it is hoped that one day the two volumes will be combined and published, overseen by a sympathetic editor.

Tragically, Bettina’s last years saw her increasingly confused. As her health deteriorated and she began to notice her memory going she would inform me, (as if I didn’t know), “Getting old‘s a bitch, Richard. Getting old is a bitch.” Her final days were spent at Dulas Court which she believed to be a hotel rather than an old peoples’ home, the majestic cedars and pines in the grounds reminding her of Oregon.

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