Monday, January 21, 2013

Meet the Judges: A Talk with Ken Benson

Ken Benson, one of our judges at the District Auditions, has been a major player in the opera world for many years.  His love of opera started at the age of twelve, when he watched the Ed Sullivan Show and the Voice of Firestone, and listened to the Met Radio Broadcasts.  As he explains during our interview last week, "It did not come from my family; it just happened.  I was very fortunate in living in New York.  Once I got the opera bug, I could really indulge in a big way.  You could go to the opera all the time, from the old Metropolitan Opera House and the New York City Opera to recitals and concerts all over the city."

Over the years Mr. Benson has acquired a vast knowledge of opera; a knowledge he has applied to many projects, from giving classes at Yale, Juilliard and Mannes College, to writing articles for Opera News and being the Executive Director of the Marcello Giordani Foundation.

This knowledge also comes in handy when judging opera competitions...and he has judged them all, from The Richard Tucker Competition to the George London Competition.  Of course we can't forget our very own National Council Auditions.  After judging in LA, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Bloomington over the years, Mr. Benson judged at the Eastern Region last November.  "I do find that I enjoy it.  I do not know if everyone does, but I actually find that I look forward to it."

So how does the Eastern Region compare to the rest of the US?  "It is hard to say because in some regions there is a major conservatory, so obviously the students from that school will dominate.  However, the regions are not as strictly defined as they used to be because many singers travel in and out of their region.  The geographical options create an interesting mix, however I can't say I find a strict pattern or quality.  It can vary from year to year and from region to region."

No matter where a singer auditions or comes from, in the end the goal is to make it on to the stage of the Met. When Mr. Benson judges singers for the Met stage, one of his main considerations is the size of the voice.  "What I normally would judge first in any competition is the quality of the voice and the artistry, but usually you are judging in a much smaller room.  Sometimes you just don't know until you actually hear them on that big stage.  When I think of someone who is ready to sing on the Met stage, I not only think of the size of the voice, but also if they are mature and artistically ready.  Do they have the poise and presentation to look good and represent themselves well?"

A question that is always on everyone's mind, singers and audience alike, is what a judge is looking for in a singer.  "We are looking for someone who has something to say; who has some kind of an individual sound or color and is expressive."  Of course judging a voice is subjective, and therefore it is not always easy for judges to come to a consensus.  A singer can perform for five different judges and they will all react in a different way.  "If the problem is the basic quality of the voice, there is nothing one can do.  However, the area where the judges come to a consensus is whether people are expressive and communicative.  If a singer is reaching out across the table where we judges are sitting and connects by communicating something, then we come to an agreement.  Whether you are in daytime attire at an audition, or in costume on the stage of the Met, it is important to give a sense of the character you are portraying."

Even though the District winners will be singing for different judges, Mr. Benson advices them to sing the same repertoire.  The repertoire is what got the winners to move on in the first place, so it is best to stick with that choice.  As for next year's new applicants, I asked Mr. Benson if age played an important role.  "Age is very relative with singers.  It often depends on the voice type.  Generally, lighter voices like lyric sopranos are ready early in their twenties, while fuller, dramatic voices need more time to mature."

Once again this is a very subjective topic, and each singer should use his or her own yardstick when deciding whether to audition or not.  Most importantly, "singers should know their vocal strengths and choose arias that represent them well.  They should not just spread themselves all over the map but really try to focus."

Another area where Mr. Benson's vast knowledge has been applied is by being a part of the Met's popular Opera Quiz, an institution which has been around for long.  He was a panelist for many years and has now moved on to being a host.  Being a host "is referred to as hosting a good party.  You need to try to make people feel comfortable.   As a panelist you only hear the questions for the first time once you get on the air, but as a host you need to review and revise the script and make sure all the logistics are in order."

One last question I had for Mr. Benson was whether he had any tips for listening to opera.  Many people, myself included, love listening to opera but know nothing technical about it.  However, anyone can make astute comments based on how they react to the voice and music as long as they keep an open mind.
                                                                                                                                                   
"Most newcomers to opera tend to listen with their eyes instead of their ears.  The most important thing is to leave yourself open to the expressions and emotions of the music and the color of the voice.  We always talk about singing versus acting when in fact opera has this whole other component which is expression.  It is acting with the voice.  The composer wrote the music to create a certain emotional response, and it is the singer's job to make the music come alive each time.  That is what is so wonderful about opera...there is no one way to perform it.  That is why people keep going back over and over again, so they can hear new singers and experience different interpretations."