09 Oct 2017 | The New York Times
A magic childhood moment let the tenor Benjamin Bernheim know he wanted to be part of the opera world. He was well prepared for it by his family. “I was born in Paris,” he says, “and lived in Geneva for part of my childhood. My parents always played music, and I was very close to my grandparents, who loved the opera. They went to all the houses, to Bayreuth and Salzburg every summer, so I followed opera thanks to them.”
The key moment came when he was an 11-year-old member of the children’s choir performing in an opera at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, waiting backstage for the show to begin.
“That’s when I learned to love the extraordinary moment when the orchestra tunes up,” he says. “For two or three minutes before the musicians take their places, there is a great silence, then someone — the first violin or the oboe — sounds a note and all the orchestra begins to tune together. That moment is thrilling — that’s where it all starts, and there’s no turning back.
“It was my first stage experience as part of the choir, in ‛Cavalleria rusticana’ and ‛Pagliacci’ by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo. It was a very beautiful production, magical, in the old style. It opened my eyes to the other side of the curtain — what it takes to put together a production and to tell a story. It showed me how much I wanted to be part of it.”
Some two decades later, he is making his debut on the Bastille stage of the Paris Opera (he sang Flamand in “Capriccio” at Palais Garnier in 2016) and at the Royal Opera House in London, singing Rodolfo in “La Bohème” at both houses. “They are among the greatest houses in the world, so it’s an extraordinary dream to have the opportunity of singing Rodolfo, which is the role for a young tenor — romantic, lyric. It’s the role in which I’ve been able to express my vocal color most fully and show the most facets of my musical personality. For now, it’s the role that I prefer to develop.”
In addition to these engagements of the season, he will also debut at the Vienna State Opera as Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’amore,” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as Alfredo in “La Traviata” and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Faust. “I made my role debut as Faust at the Latvian National Opera this summer, in preparation for Chicago,” he says, “and I’ll sing it again the following year, in the 2018-19 season, in the United States.”
His artistic objective for the near future is to consolidate, deepen and expand his repertoire, particularly in French. “I’m beginning to feel my responsibility as a tenor of my generation,” he says. “And above all — because it’s here where I express myself best — to sing as much as possible and as many roles as possible from the French repertoire. More and more, I feel ready to bring these great houses my vision of the French repertoire, which is very much influenced by George Thill and Roberto Alagna, by their way of singing and pronouncing the French in a legible way, which for me is very important.
“So I want to continue in the romantic lyric repertoire — Rodolfo, Alfredo, Nemorino — and in the French: Faust, Romeo, Des Grieux in Massenet’s ‛Manon’ and many others. Eventually, in a few years, I’ll sing my first Hoffmann, which I’m preparing for.”