27 Dec 2017 | Forbes
Shellie Karabell , CONTRIBUTOR
I cover leadership – people, politics & policy – from a European view.
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(Paris December 18, 2017) Young French Tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Rodolfo in a space suit in the new production of La Bohème at the Paris Opera.
The opera La Bohème is a romantic tragedy that commences in a sort of cynical merriment around Christmas Eve and goes downhill from there. For French tenor Benjamin Bernheim, who made his Paris debut in the male lead at the Opera Bastille on December 18, the action is likely to follow a different trajectory.
At 32, Bernheim is the right age to sing the role of the impoverished Rodolfo, a struggling poet so overcome by youthful jealousy he destroys his romance with his upstairs neighbor, the sickly Mimi, whose death ultimately brings the two lovers together – albeit fleetingly – in the last scene.
And because he’s young and, as it’s his first time in this newly devised character for this production, there’s no “Rodolfo role baggage,” Bernheim is also the right person to take on this role in Director Claus Guth’s new production. It’s a sort of “Star Trek meets Lost in Space,” complete with a “star log” in two languages flashing across the top of the stage at the beginning of each act to telegraph to the audience the existential angst propelling the starship crew through the galaxy and its romantic potholes. (“ Situation desperate: we are running out of water, we have lost electricity… “)
But this is not a musical critique of a young tenor’s debut in a new staging of a Puccini classic (suffice it to say, Bernheim/Rodolfo bemoans Mimi’s death wearing a space suit…and takes his curtain call that way, too). There will be plenty of knowledgeable reviews to follow. This is rather about what it takes to become a leader on the opera stage …and why it’s still an attractive career choice.
Surrounded By Music
Bernheim was born in Paris and grew up in Geneva, the son of operatic aspirants, who decided they had neither the talent nor the stamina to pursue a demanding career on the stage and instead turned to banking . But they took their young son to performances and encouraged him to sing in the local theater choir, and when Bernheim was 11, he was irrevocably bitten by the opera bug. “I was on stage – we were singing Pagliacci and Cavaliera Rusticana and it was the smell of the decor and the sounds of the orchestra: you hear them tuning up and you hear the conductor enter and take the podium and tap his baton. And then we start…all together. It is still this moment that moves me the most,” he tells me in an interview in his dressing room for this blog.
By age 15 his tenor voice emerged, as did a passion for the voices and styles of Plàcido Domingo and the late Luciano Pavarotti and then Franco-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna (B. 1963). “I didn’t know French could be sung like that,” Bernheim says of Alagna’s rendition of the mail lead in “Romeo and Juliette” after hearing the performance 14 years ago. Following in those footsteps is a goal of his, as is singing “Don Carlos” in French and Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” “This is my dream role,” he says, “in maybe 8-10 years, when my voice will have changed. But right now it’s Rodolfo. It’s the perfect role for me now,” he adds, coming back to Bohème in space.
Singing In A Spaceship
“This Bohème is a very conceptual,” he continues. “There is a space ship and we land on the Moon. We sing it as it is written, but there’s no smoke going up the chimney,” he says, referring to Rodolfo’s garret where much of Puccini’s classic took place before the space ship got involved.
Since his conservatory days began at age 18 (he studied with Gary Magby at the Lausanne Conservatoire, participated in master classes with Giacomo Aragall, and attended Carlo Bergonzi’s Accademia Verdiana in Busseto), Bernheim has sung a number of diverse roles – from Lensky to Alfredo – at opera houses all over the world: Covent Garden, Dresden, Zurich, and La Scala.
In the next year he will sing Rodolfo for the fifth time at London’s Royal Opera House, Alfredo La Traviata in Berlin, Faust (title role) at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Neomorino L’Elisir d’Amore at the Vienna State Opera. “It all happened very fast,” he admits.
In preparing for these roles, Bernheim is more likely to read what other tenors have to say about their experiences in the roles and watch YouTube videos, rather than attend live performances. “My job is to be on stage leading the performance, to be inspiring people, to broaden their palette of experience, ” he says, “not to be sitting in the audience.” He has a passion for motivating people – if he hadn’t chosen the operatic path, he says, he’d be working as a diploma or for the UN or the Red Cross.
He’s also recently been chosen by Rolex as one of their brand ambassadors, and he has an active social media presence. “Fifty years ago, it was all about the voice, Bernheim says. “Today you need to be more complete, more present at every level.”
So what does it take to get to this point in an operatic career? “Patience,” says Bernheim. “And experience. This is not like sports: you cannot measure an opera singer with statistics; it’s a matter of taste. Success also has a lot to do with chance and timing and instinct. But the most important thing is to always have your eye on your direction. An artist is always pursuing something. If you’re just showing up, you’re not an artist.”
And the most difficult part? “It’s the break,” he says, “following the performance. When you sing, there’s a lot of adrenaline; you’re alone defending your role on the stage together with the orchestra at the center of something, a few hours of high intensity. And then…you’re on the Metro going home.”
You can follow Benjamin Bernheim on instagram @benbernheim
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