Raised in Geneva, French tenor Benjamin Bernheim is rapidly asserting his place as one of the most remarkable young singers before the public today. Following initial training at the Lausanne Conservatoire, he joined the young artists’ program at the Opernhaus Zürich before graduating into its ensemble. Since then, he has made a string of major appearances including Lensky and Alfredo at the Deutsche Oper, Rodolfo in Dresden and Faust in Riga. Current and future appearances include Rodolfo in London and Paris, Faust in Chicago, Nemorino in Vienna and a return to Zürich as Alfredo. I caught up with Mr Bernheim following his Royal Opera debut as Rodolfo.
Monsieur Bernheim, many congratulations on your London debut as Rodolfo. How does it feel to have made your debut on this stage?
The Royal Opera House in London is one of those theatres that you dream to be able to sing at when you’re studying. Two years ago, I was on the verge of signing the contract for my first Lohengrin because I was seen as a German repertoire singer. I have a young voice – one that shimmers, it’s quite bright – and some conductors found it ideal for the German repertoire. Although it is certainly wonderful repertoire, there aren’t really any roles that lie between say Tamino and Flamand and Lohengrin and Max. It can therefore be challenging to grow gradually with this repertoire. There isn’t the equivalent of Rodolfo, Alfredo, Lensky, Roméo, or Faust. Since changing my management to a London-based agency two years ago, I’ve been re-auditioning, taking risks, and working in this new direction towards singing more French and Italian repertoire. Fortunately this strategy has been working, and I’ve come from a relative unknown in the lyric romantic repertoire – the Rodolfos, the Alfredos – to becoming part of the young generation that is singing in the major theatres.
Friday night was your first time on that stage?
Yes, I’d never actually set foot on the Royal Opera House stage before! Making an important house debut combined with singing for the very first time on a new stage certainly requires a degree of skill – and definitely needs a lot of courage. I am happy to be making several role and house debuts this season, but several of my debuts I’ve made with very little rehearsal time. When I did my first Tamino in Dresden, it was after only three days of rehearsals; my first Alfredo in Berlin was also after only three days of rehearsals, and a single stage and orchestra rehearsal. Making a debut such as Friday’s wasn’t just difficult, it was a hell of a challenge. It took a lot of determination and there was no way that I could crack under the pressure. When you do this job and you want to sing in these big houses, you have to have the ambition. I’m ready to do this and I have the motivation to go as far as I possibly can. I really wasn’t expecting, at the end of when I made my debut in Bohème here on Friday, to receive such a warm ovation from an audience who had never heard me before. It was magical
Your Rodolfo is so lyrical with a remarkable evenness and beauty of tone. How do you maintain that?
I try to sing as elegantly and as old-fashioned as possible. I would like to think that my trademark when I sing is not that I have a thick voice, but I have one that has a lot of colours – I can risk singing pianissimo, I can use a messa di voce that carries through the house. I’m lucky with the youthfulness of my voice, currently, to have this palette of colours and to be able to develop and use them on stage. I try as much as possible to keep the simplicity of the sound – you can work hard to develop your instrument but the voice can also be a simple instrument to use. In ten years my instrument will certainly have evolved and taken another direction but this simplicity and colouring is something that I’m able to exploit right now. I don’t think a singer keeps a single technique. As the body changes, as it grows older, the voice also sounds different. Certainly, in my case, two years ago my voice sounded very different.
Rodolfo is a celebrated role, one that many in the audience will have memories of hearing a number of artists sing over the years. How do you, as a young singer, approach performing such an iconic role?
I’ve heard and seen so many Bohèmes over the years. I’ve heard Marcelo Álvarez, Fabio Sartori, Piotr Beczała, Vittorio Grigòlo live. Then I’ve also watched videos or listened to recordings of Corelli, di Stefano, Villazón, Domingo and of course Pavarotti in his recording with Freni. Pavarotti really left his mark on the role for my generation of singers – he sounds so youthful, with so much ardour. That recording was made when his voice was at its most natural, most free. For me, the tenor who is perhaps most forgotten but who also had undoubtedly one of the most beautiful voices of his generation is Jaume Aragall. When I prepare a role such as this I listen to all of these recordings. I go to rehearsals with an open mind and with the willingness to demonstrate to the conductor what I can do. I’ll prepare with different coaches, different conductors, different casts. I’ve been very lucky to work with very good casts everywhere I’ve been. I also read widely when preparing for a role. Ultimately, when I work on a role I go with as much of an open mind as possible and try to avoid closing myself off from new ideas because one always has to be open to new ideas in this business.
Who would you say the character of Rodolfo is for you?
I think there are as many Rodolfos as there are singers of the role and productions of the piece. For me, he is many different personalities. You have what’s in the text – what it means to be poor, to not have the means to live on, but to live through love because you’re young. At the same time, he’s also a jealous idiot and at the same time a dreamer – he knows how to talk, he knows how to tell stories, he’s even Marcello’s wingman, to bring a contemporary perspective to it. It’s almost as if they live without having to think about anything, that they’ve told the same jokes many times over, they know what the other is going to do in any given situation. Who Rodolfo is also depends on the staging. I don’t think he’s a poor little boy with a broken heart; instead I think he’s someone quite audacious, quite cunning. He claims that he’s not afraid but at the end we see how much he is actually afraid. What we don’t actually know is whether he is actually a decent poet. We don’t even know if Marcello is a good painter or what exactly it is that Mimì sews. In a way what Puccini does in Bohème is to bring together in a way some quite dysfunctional characters – Musetta who goes from one man to another, Mimì the little grey mouse who lives in a building but nobody knows she’s there, Schaunard and Colline, Marcello the painter whose work might not be worth looking at, Rodolfo a writer who has lost his way somewhat. These are extraordinary people who do ordinary things, people of great simplicity and humanity. At the end of the duet between Rodolfo and Marcello, they look at each other and you realize that these are just two guys who hide behind their poems and their paintings because ultimately these are just two people. It’s quite wonderful to be witness to that simplicity.
Moving on from Bohème, as a Francophone singer, how important is it to you to sing in French?
I really don’t want to make enemies for myself but I find I have a problem with the way that sung operatic French has been developed. There has been a tendency to sing it like Italian, with the rolled ‘r’s and to not make an effort with the nasal sounds. For me, the French repertoire should be sung like it is spoken today whether one has an accent from the south of France, from the Valais or from Quebec. I think one should sing French as one speaks it. What is important to me is making the text intelligible. It’s such a beautiful language when spoken clearly that one can really exploit these sounds to create such a richness of colour in the line. I would like to promote the French repertoire in my career and make text as intelligible as possible, reflecting the way that the language is spoken today. In that respect, the two people who influenced me in the generation just before mine are Roberto Alagna and Natalie Dessay. When I heard Alagna sing Werther in Toulouse, back in 2002 I believe, it was a revelation. I thought that nobody had the right to sing in French like that and I found sounds in the language that I had never been aware of before.
I think it’s true to say that the quality of sung French diction generally has improved immeasurably over the last few years.
I think that there has been an entire generation of Francophone singers, as well as conductors, who have promoted the repertoire to ensure that the language has become more respected. I think that we have reached a point where we can hear the French repertoire sung much more intelligibly than before. I want to be able to continue this and I’m so excited to be able to discover these extraordinary sounds that one finds in the language and in the music. I sang my first Faust a few months ago in Riga, where I also sang excerpts from Roméo et Juliette with Marina Rebeka. I have a recording project on the horizon which will consist of French arias with a period instrument orchestra – I’d like to be able to sing Faust, Roméo, Hoffmann, Des Grieux with an orchestra of the period. I’m looking forward to being able to present this to the public to rediscover this sound world. Of course, I’m being asked when I’ll be doing my first Roméo or first des Grieux and they will come for sure.
You are very present on social media with active profiles on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. What is the importance for you of being present in this way?
I’ll admit that if I could have had my career thirty years ago with no need for a website or social media presence, I’d sign up immediately. I realized, however, that I had to make a choice. I was encouraged by friends in the industry who pointed out to me that it isn’t possible for singers of my generation to build a career in the same way that singers did in the past. I hired a specialist to help me to create my branding. One area we’re focusing on is Instagram as this is a social medium I think has a huge importance. Honestly, it’s not something that I feel completely at ease with – showing photos of me drinking a coffee, eating, or walking along certain streets but I do realize the importance of this. As singers, we have to accept that we have all become marketing products. With my social media advisor, we’re building up these small details, photos, that make up my social media marketing. Even if I’m still learning about this, I’ve come to realize how important it is.
I think it’s something that at times audiences might not always appreciate – you have your stage persona and likewise greeting people at the stage door also becomes an extension of work. Beyond that, it becomes the end of a work day with all that that involves.
My private life is very important to me so while I don’t want to handcuff my advisor by restricting her work, I also don’t want to expose too much on social media. We are constantly discussing about how to find the right balance. When you’re no longer on stage or at the stage door, you need to have someone who can take over. I think in the past that opera fans would go to the bar and discuss for hours about how a singer sang a role, how they approached a note or a phrase and I also think the imagination of the public back then was much greater. Today, I think social media have changed that imagination in a way and as artists we can take a role in developing it. It’s important for the public to be able to see images from behind the scenes, such as the process involved in becoming a character – like the wig that I had to wear in this staging. By feeding the imagination of the public we can encourage them to think when they come to see an opera. It’s essential to have that kind of visibility today. People today are also incredibly connected. So many own smartphones and you can see what happens when people watch a soccer or a hockey match, how many people comment on the match and discuss statistics. This is the way that I think opera is going.
This is something many houses with strong social media departments really manage to exploit. You only need to look at the activity on Twitter after every premiere, with fans discussing the show.
It also helps the public to discover opera singers. It may be that the generation of the great divas and divos no longer exists, but they have also had to change the way they appear in front of the public because now everything is instantaneous. People want to see a photo of the staging, the costumes. I have seen, by simply taking a photo of my costume with my name labelled on it, how people react to it. It can bring people behind the scenes into my life as a singer and help them understand how it can be part of theirs.
Let’s look ahead to the future. You have notable debuts coming up in Paris, Chicago, Vienna as well as a return to Zürich. What else can we expect from you?
I’m making my debuts in Chicago and at the Vienna and Berlin Staatsoper. In Paris, I had previously sung at Garnier so I’m now making my debut at Bastille. For the moment, I would like to keep working on these roles that I would like to develop further – I’m excited to have several Alfredos coming up. I’d like to keep working on Rodolfo because I can see how much I’ve grown into the role in the last two years. I’m also returning to Tamino after a gap of three years. I’d very much like to keep singing this young romantic repertoire and try and keep this youthfulness in the voice.
Coming up, I also have a Hoffmann in concert with a period instrument orchestra next summer as well as a stage production in a few years’ time. Hoffmann can be an extraordinary role but it can also be suicide for a tenor because of the length. I accepted it with some cuts and with these cuts it becomes a much younger role, much fresher than one might think. The next big role after that I would like to take on is Werther, hopefully sometime in the next four or five years or so. There’s a whole part of the voice that I would like to develop. As I said, two years ago I never thought I would be where I am now. Nobody had taken a chance on me apart from some friends who encouraged me to go for it. I did and now I’m here. It’s been an ongoing process that isn’t common but I’ve proven that it is possible. I’d like to think it also encourages others who may feel blocked in a particular fach, that actually fachs don’t always exist. A few years ago, people were encouraging me to take on Lohengrin and Tristan. I might sing them one day but I have no interest in singing them now and I would certainly have taken them on far too early and probably ruined my voice. I want to stay in this young, fresh repertoire to preserve the beauty of the voice. I will certainly make mistakes along the way but what I would like to do is to have the longest possible career and have the fewest regrets possible. When you’re young, you’re always on the hunt for contracts and appearances. Two years ago, I was nowhere compared to today and I’m now at the point where I know that things are coming my way and that I have major contracts for the next few years. Nothing is impossible in the repertoire I would like to sing but you also need patience. I have patience and I know I can do it, I just have to be careful.