BWW Interview: Tenor Ben Bliss - from TV to Opera
Young American tenor Ben Bliss is making a splash on the opera scene. This month, Seattle Opera audiences will have the opportunity to find out why. Ben debuts in the role of Ferrando for the company's upcoming production of Così Fan Tutte (https://seattleopera.org/on-stage/cosi-fan-tutte/). He shares his uniquely youthful, humorous perspective on his background and his view of opera.
Erica Miner: Congratulations on making your debut in Mozart's Così Fan Tutte with Seattle Opera, Ben! What was it like growing up in Kansas?
Ben Bliss: Never having grown up anywhere else, I don't have much to compare it to! Kansas City (my suburb is called Prairie Village, a very typical Midwest suburb) is a friendly place where the old trope "it takes a village" comes into play. You grow up knowing most everybody, especially at church. Kansas City itself has a retinue of culture to be proud of. One of the great American art museums, the world's best BBQ & jazz, great football & baseball, a solid symphony and opera company. It's a great place to be from. And equally a pleasure to return to.
EM: A number of famous opera singers came from your home state; Sam Ramey and David Holloway, Joyce DiDonato to name a few. Is there something about the water there?
BB: Joyce grew up a few blocks from me, literally a stone's throw. I don't know about the water, but I think that, until the last few years, Kansas has benefited from one of the strongest public-school arts programs around. Choir was a huge part of my experience and taught me far more life lessons that musical ones. I think the arts in the Midwest also benefit from the fact that it's frigid in winter and there aren't quite as many draws on young people's time and attention as there might be in a bustling metropolis.
EM: When did you first become aware of opera as an art form?
BB: My mom sang in the chorus at the Lyric Opera of KC (and still does) throughout most of my childhood. I can't remember precisely when I became aware of opera, but becoming aware that I actually enjoyed it didn't happen until college. I went to a lot of my mom's operas as a kid, and was mostly bored stiff. In college, when I was reacquainted with opera as a performer, I started enjoying it. The challenge of synthesizing difficult music, a foreign language, stagecraft, coordinating the music with the orchestra, and acting was invigorating.
EM: What was your journey to the opera stage?
BB: I wanted to play football in high school. I've always had a good arm and idolized Joe Montana and really wanted to be a quarterback. It turns out being 6'1", 120lbs, not quick on my feet and not naturally aggressive and competitive didn't make for a bright future in football. I had enjoyed choir in middle school so I joined. I also dove headlong into the theater program. By the end of high school, I had decided to study filmmaking in college, but I knew I'd likely not be able to afford any of the schools in southern California. I thought music might be my best shot, so I looked for schools that offered choir scholarships to non-music majors. Chapman University was a perfect fit! I sent a recording of myself singing a solo with the high school choir to the music school. The Dean, Bill Hall started calling my house every week. I still give him a lot of credit for shaping my future. He is an incredible choral director, fund raiser and recruiter. The world of music would benefit greatly from more people like him. At Chapman, Bill convinced me to take voice lessons with Patrick Goeser, a superbly gifted and committed instructor of young voices, who ended up being a great influence on my early musical life. Patrick told me from day one that I should be a voice major, and my sophomore year twisted my arm to audition for the opera. He told me he'd lower my grade if I didn't! I was cast as Tamino in The Magic Flute, Albert Herring the following year, and ended up adding a music minor to my curriculum.
EM: What did you do then?
BB: After Chapman, I moved to L.A. to promote my short film at festivals and to look for work. My film won several awards at the 30 festivals where it screened, and I ended up working full time at Paramount Studios on the Dr. Phil Show, where it took 3 seasons to "cure" my interest in working in television. Before I left the studio lot on my last day in 2011, I called Patrick and told him, "You win, I'm going to give singing a try!" I spent that spring and summer helping Patrick drywall his garage in exchange for the voice lessons. I also auditioned for everybody that would listen. Josh Winograde, who ran the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program at L.A. Opera, invited me to sing for Placido Domingo, who asked me to join the program that Fall. I spent 2 formative years at L.A. that I liken to being a very dry sponge in a very wet environment. Then did my "final polishing" over 2 more years in the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann young Artist Development Program. I finished there in early 2015 and have been freelancing since.
EM: Your repertoire list is tremendously varied, well balanced between opera and oratorio. Do you lean more toward one or the other, or are you equally passionate about both?
BB: At this point I'm enjoying the opportunity to explore and expand repertoire with every opportunity that comes. I do hope to expand my recital, oratorio and concert works in the future in an effort to be away from home for shorter periods of time.
EM: What have been some of your favorite opera roles so far?
BB: My 3 favorites at this point are Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte, Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Male Chorus in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, all for similar dramatic & musical reasons. Ferrando gets to sing sublime music, while also experiencing a very real dramatic arc, and having a few laughs in the process. Tom Rakewell has a similarly beautiful character arc while singing music that is amazingly expressive and puzzlingly, bizarrely gorgeous. Lucretia, I find to be one of the most marvelous pieces of operatic theater in existence. Male Chorus has dazzling, dramatic music but also happens to be the tenor role in a phenomenal opera. I met my wife Dana during a production of Lucretia, so it holds a special spot in my heart!
EM: You recently sang Tamino at the Met Opera. Did that experience prepare you for Ferrando in Così? How would you compare and contrast these two iconic Mozart roles?
BB: Mozart is great preparation for Mozart! Tamino feels a bit squarer to me than Ferrando; for that reason, I do enjoy Ferrando a bit more. Ferrando feels 3-dimensional, and he gets to have a few laughs! He also has the closest thing a Mozart tenor gets to a "mad scene" in Tradito, schernito.
EM: Così Fan Tutte tells certain truths about the fragility of human relationships. What is your take on that?
BB: My "elevator pitch" for the story of Così could be for an episode of I Love Lucy. It's easy to play this show as bubble gum & popcorn, surface-y jokes and pranks. But there is much fertile ground in the interpersonal interactions of Così. It's still relevant and fun to perform time after time, with so many angles to approach it from, dramatically. Rather than offering a universal truth or revelation about all human relationships, to me it is a case study of a certain subset of emotions relating to romantic relationships. Happily, it benefits from telling its story through the lens of comedy.
EM: Das geheime Konigreich and Der Kaiser von Atlantis are rarely performed. What was it like to sing in those operas?
BB: They were a blast to perform. It was great to do something so rare and unique.
EM: Tell me about MESS (Mise-en-Scène Studios).
BB: During my time in Lindemann, I met my pianist collaborator Lachlan Glen. We spent a lot of time talking about the challenges facing classical music and opera in the 21st Century: an aging audience and increased competition for the attention of newer, younger audiences; a business model and financial structure that haven't adapted much in the last century; and a working environment for artists that is inconsistent and, in many respects, seems to force a choice between having a career or a family. A lot of creative people are experimenting with ways to address these problems and ensure the future of our craft. Lachlan and I wanted to be a part of the solution. We spent several years researching artistic and financial models of arts & private sector companies all over the world, and cobbled together the ideas that worked into a new business and artistic model that addressed the challenges we outlined. The first dollars we raised were spent on financial planning services to fine-tune our model so it could be as functionally efficient, reactive and sustainable as possible. Since then we've continued to build the foundations of our company for scalability, produced a full season of events, and begun to implement the core aspects of our business model.
EM: What is the basic premise of this model?
BB: You buy a membership for $99, which gives you access to 6 events per year, which feature truly world class artists in intimate venues of under 200 guests, free food and drinks and an exciting social atmosphere. Membership also offer you advanced access to purchase tickets for our main events, fully produced operas, which will kick off in 2019. What we're doing for our audiences is putting them up-close to the best musicians in the world for an insanely affordable price. From an artist's perspective, we program our offerings around a core ensemble of world class singers. These 6-8 artists perform the lead roles in 3 operas per year. This creative familiarity has proved tremendously beneficial in Europe where this model is standard. We offer compensation that is competitive with major opera houses, but also generous cost sharing on year-round health insurance and a 10% matching 401k contribution, which is unparalleled in North America. This compensation structure will help attract and retain top talent for MESS. It will also be only the 2nd opera company to offer singers a living wage in NYC, which is experiencing an exodus of classical singers. Our singers will also have a home venue in the biggest market in the western hemisphere. Since we're marketing our operas to a public who will likely be unfamiliar with opera, it will make our marketing job easier; we won't be marketing an opera they've never heard of, we'll be marketing singers they know and love.
EM: How do you foresee the studio's future?
BB: Our financial model is built to be completely sustainable within 10 years. Our operating budget will be fully funded by membership & tickets sales along with a conservative 5% return on an endowment we've begun to build. The bonuses of sustainability are obviously many, but one of the biggest is the overhead MESS will save from not employing a full-time development department to solicit annual donations to keep the company running. I'm very excited about MESS, the music it will continue to produce and the precedent it sets for the value and necessity of structural innovation and experimentation in the non-profit arts sector. Learn more and RSVP to our upcoming events at MESSNYC.com.
EM: Thank you, Ben, and toi, toi for your opening!
Photo Credits: Dario Acosta, Philip Newton