Protecting the Voice – Benjamin Bernheim’s Strategy For Finding Stability In An Increasingly Chaotic Opera World [Exclusive]By Francisco Salazar
The voice is any singer’s most precious treasure. Without it their career is over no matter how good you look or how wonderful of an actor you are. In modern opera, it is also something that is overlooked as careers increasingly get shorter with fewer rest periods and singers consistently being asked to walk on stage without rehearsals.
This is particularly true of young singers. Lacking the star power to pick their assignments and make demands that suit their health, they constantly submit to the pressures of taking any chance they can get, taking on new roles before they are ready for them and traveling more than is healthy for their lifestyle. The result is that their careers quickly flame out before it has barely gotten started.
Benjamin Bernheim, a young rising star tenor, has created a lifestyle that allows him the necessary strategies to stay healthy and protect his instrument from all the major challenges that the opera world throws his way.
The first step toward finding that success comes from finding sources of relaxation. His best source? A stable home life.
During an exclusive interview with OperaWire, the tenor noted that he currently lives in Zurich and aims to make every day as “normal as possible. It’s really balancing because you go from a place where you are a soloist and people put you in a place where you are not a person anymore,” Bernheim expressed. “And being home just handling normal things is really balancing.”
Part of that balancing act is not bringing his job home. Since he lives in Zurich and often performs there, he spends his time rehearsing and practicing at the opera house instead of singing through the walls of his house.
Instead, he and his family indulge in Netflix binging. “I am a big Netflix addict and I follow a lot of sports.”
Opera singers have to travel quite a bit, something that throws a stable home life out of whack. But even here Bernheim has created a plan for dealing with the inevitable solitude. “I walk a lot. I am not a big fan of museums, but I like to walk a lot and discover places.”
Working out and playing sports is another way to keep his body and mind healthy. “When we are at rehearsals we gather a lot of stress. People can be very moody or angry and you yourself are not in the best conditions to work. There can be negative or positive energies. So to go on a bike or run for an hour, it is very good for mind.”
Ironically, working out allows him a means to connect with his opera roles in a relaxed environment. “I go to the gym and when I am on my bike, I learn my roles. I learned Lensky at the gym.”
Planning for Chaos
Creating that stability at home allows him to remain calm when the inevitable chaos of the opera world takes over.
While making auspicious debuts at some of the major opera houses in quick succession, the tenor noted that one of the biggest challenges he consistently faces is short to no rest between rehearsal periods.
One very important experience came in Dresden when he did his first Tamino in “Die Zauberflote.” Bernheim noted that he had a total of three back-to-back rehearsals on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before a Saturday performance. “I was at the limits vocally for the performance,” he admitted. “It’s difficult to rehearse without giving a bit of intensity. So you have to save yourself and not sing to much but it’s hard. I learned that you have to save yourself.”
He faced a different kind of challenge with regards when he took on his first Russian Opera at the Deutsche Berlin Opera this past December with soprano Sonya Yoncheva.
Not only was this Bernheim’s first Russian opera, but he only got three stage rehearsals before a brief run of three performances. Surprisingly Bernheim noted that he usually does not get this many staged rehearsals, but in this case, it was nowhere near enough for a role he was inhabiting for the first time in his career. In fact, it was a reflection of how unpredictable the opera can be where each house will give different schedules and sometimes he will get up to a month of rehearsal or just two days. The results can be very frustrating because it does not give enough to create with other singers and it can also be very damaging to the voice. But at the end of the day, he acknowledges that every singer simply needs to find what works best for him.
Short rehearsal periods are the most difficult when a new role is the task at hand and nowhere was this more challenging than in the “Onegin” in Berlin.
While Bernheim had performed in Russian when he was in the ensemble in Zurich, this was his first major role in the language. Bernheim’s repertoire has mostly been made up of Italian, French and German and making the switch to Russian proved more difficult than he could have imagined.
“For me, it was a bit stressful to learn it because I wanted to learn the language very well. So for two months, I had fifteen coaching sessions with a Russian in Zurich. It turned out to be the right move,” he said.
In addition to the coaching sessions, he employed another strategy for getting into the character of language in the opera – listening to multiple recordings from performers around the world.
“The difficulty in Russian is that if you meet someone from Moscow or St. Petersburg, there are three different accents and three people will give you three different versions of how to say ‘ya lyublyu tebya’ (I Love You),” he explained. “So I listened to a lot of different versions of the opera. Neil Shicoff of course, recordings at the Bolshoi and St. Petersburg. I even listened to an English version of ‘Onegin’ sung by Nicolai Gedda. It’s always very personal the way you sing Lensky. It can be very shy, almost heroic as there is a lot of panels of colors you can propose.”
But learning the language was just one step. Then came arguably the hardest part, balancing and pacing the character.
“The problem with Lensky is that it’s low,” he acknowledged. “It’s written in a register that we have to be comfortable with the low notes, which I am a bit. But it’s not the golden part of my voice. The point in this role is to not oversing and to have a great strategy where to give and where to sing in a simple way.”
Bernheim was told by many colleagues that it would be easy prior to committing to the role. As a matter of fact, when most people look at the role, the only thing they consider is his big aria at the end of Act three. But Bernheim asserts that the romantic hero has a number of tricky parts.
“It’s actually bigger than people think. The first thing you have to sing is the quartet which in the end is not very difficult, it just needs to be done really well with the other singers. It’s really an ensemble, it’s chamber music because there is nothing in the orchestra and it has to be really precise and beautiful which I love with Tchaikovsky and Russian music in general because the whole point of this language is to follow the legato and the schmolz. It has to be schmalzy and beautiful.
“The first aria when Lensky tells Olga that he’s in love with her is also quite difficult because there is no break,” the tenor added. “There is no moment of music where it changes. It’s just an explosion of love and it’s a declaration, which is very intense. That is quite a difficult aria. Lensky is a bit like Werther. Everything that he is feeling and anything can make him fall in love. He is discovering that he is in love. He is a romantic.”
But the scene he found particularly challenging was Tatiana’s birthday scene. In many ways this is Lensky’s big moment as he leads the concentrato that ends the act and he is the person that carries the whole ensemble. “The orchestra is very thick and very present and you have to be careful never to over sing there. And it is written in a very heroic way especially the end. It’s almost Wagnerian the way it’s written.”
It’s not until after two acts that Lensky gets to sing his big aria. “If you survive all of that, then you have to sing the aria,” he joked. “The way I sing it is not the way I sing the rest of the role. I sing it in a very broken way with a lot of mezza di voce and a lot of lightness because he knows he’s going to die and he knows it’s the end. He knows he made a huge mistake.”
Bernheim, however, noted that his approach to taking on the role was far from a mistake as the results could be heard from the warm and endearing audience members.
Learning to Back Off
The French tenor is set to return to his “dream” role of Rodolfo in “La Bohème” in Dresden for one more performance and in the spring in Zurich and he fully plans on adopting the strategies that got him through the role a year and a half ago when he debuted it in Zurich. He admitted that taking on Rodolfo for the first time was a “stress-free experience” overall, but he was so pumped to sing the work that his excitement got the best of him at the outset.
“The first time I sang ‘Bohème’ I was thrilled to do it. I was singing like 150 percent because I had no strategy,” he admitted. “Now I know there are some moments where I can show other colors of my voice instead overdoing it the whole night,” he explained. There are these high C’s that the tenor must sing which are always printed in the mind like ‘Oh my god it has to be good.’ The music is so intense that you want to give every fiber of your body which is dangerous.”
Bernheim also had some advice by Nello Santi, a conductor who has worked with some of the greatest singers of all time.
“He told me ‘You have to be careful because Puccini’s orchestra is very negative.’ I asked him what he meant by that and he responded that ‘It pushes people to go to far in terms of intensity and you have to keep your voice. You have to think of how much voice you need to sing Nemorino and sing that way because then you will not hurt yourself,'” Bernheim elaborated.
The advice allowed him to enjoy his subsequent performances, particularly the fourth act which he professes tremendous adoration for.
“I love everything about ‘Bohème’ but in the fourth act when Mimì is singing ‘Che Gelida Manina’ and they remember everything they did together. In the opera it’s not far away, it happened an hour ago but it has to seem like years ago and you have to feel like you have a long story with that woman. And it’s very deep moment of humanity.”
After these two runs, there are more Bohèmes coming for audiences to experience and Bernheim revealed that he will be doing it in Vienna, Opera de Paris and other venues.
“I want to sing it for the next 20 years. This was really the first big step for me in the big repertoire,” he added.
But he knows that he won’t only be singing the same roles for the next 20 years, especially as his profile grows and more opera houses make greater demands of his voice. He thinks about the future a lot and pinpoints roles that he would like to take on, getting his mind ready for those shifts. Dream roles include”Don Carlo” in Verdi’s original French version and Hoffman in Offenbach’s masterpiece “Les Contes d’Hoffman.”
But everything comes at its given moment when the voice calls for it and when he has a strategy for making it work. For right now, “I want to enjoy singing this light repertoire as long as the voice is young and fresh.”