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12 novembre 2020

connecting with... Benjamin Bernheim!

von Saskia Müller-Bastian

You have already talked in the past about the difficulties you have encountered in your career, and how you didn't like your own voice for example. Has there been a decisive moment that helped you to get where you are today?

Yes, there were many, and there are many moments that changed the course of my young career. I didn't have a red carpet in front of me 10 years ago, so I had to fight, I heard a lot of  «you will not make it» or «you're not interesting enough» or «we just want to hear you sing in  German and no other language» and so it was a long fight for me, but today I have to admit that I have to thank also all the people who rejected me, because this world of opera and classical music, it's a world of rejection. When you are taken, it means that 20 people are rejected, so you know, to go from being part of the rejected to being part of the people who are taken, it is a lot of chance, I think the chance that I had to meet the right people at the right time, and fail the auditions. I failed a lot of auditions, I was not good for them, I was not good enough, I was not in a good shape and finally, today, I see that it was a good thing that I did not do a great audition in such big houses because maybe, if I had a good audition, they would have given me things too soon, too early, and I would have not been able or ready enough. So I think a lot of this is chance, even failing an audition, even not being good enough at the right time, that is also a big chance, because  it allowed me to work on my own, to have more of an introspection about what I could do better, also about my voice. The «déclic» for me was that at some point I just decided to stop working with any professor, you know in this opera world, it's common sense for people that we always have to have a coach, to have a singing professor, and everything. So I thought I needed one too and so I searched for different professors, I met very interesting people, but I decided when I was 27, 28, to work alone, to work on my own, to only trust my ears and my feelings, and actually there is one person who knows how I want things to sound with my voice, and it's me. After all, I have a great relationship with my coach Carrie-Ann Matheson who is playing with me for recitals, and we've been working a lot in the past years in Zurich, but never vocally, it was always about finding a good strategy for the roles, for the concerts, musically, but vocally, technically, I do my own work and I decided to accept that I don't really like my voice. I decided to accept it and to be at peace with it, and that the most important is if it pleases an audience, and if I can tell a story to an audience. So now I'm at peace with it, I still don't really love my voice, which I think is a good thing also because I don't think it would be good for me to be in love with my voice. So, I think it's a good balance and for now it works, and who knows what happens tomorrow.

I'm sure also it helps other young singers to hear you talk about it this way, and to say that rejection and all the auditions that don't work are part of what brings you where  you are.

Yes it definitely is because in the end we think we have to be ready when we are 23, 24, 25. The reality is, some people can, some people are ready when they are very young, and some people are not. And even though I wanted to be ready, I wanted to make auditions for big houses, and I wanted to make it work, well I was not ready, the voice was there, the potential was there, I could sing a few arias, but   holding a whole role on stage, holding a whole series of performances was a different thing, and things came at the right time for me, even though I wished they arrived before, they did not and in the end, today, I can say it's a good thing. But I can tell you that five years ago, I was frustrated as hell because I was part of these young singers who are just wondering why doesn't it work, or why doesn't it work the way I want it to work. I mean of course you're not happy when you fail an audition, you're never happy, but with distance and with time you also realize that it's for a reason and it makes us grow. It made me grow, it made me want more, the more people would tell me «well we don't think you can do that», «well we don't think this is the repertoire for you» or «we don't think you can sing the big tenor repertoire», the more I also doubted and I thought «well, maybe they are right, maybe I'm not able». But my body was moving forward, and it was working for me, so I followed that, even though sometimes I had no hope anymore. But it was going in a direction where I was working for it, so...

Your programme includes many romantic works. Is that just by accident or is the romantic era your favourite?

I don't think it's mostly my favourite, I think it's where my voice works the best at the moment. I also have to serve the audience and the repertoire where I can serve it the best possible way, so for now, yes, the voice works well with tortured people, tortured characters, tortured melodies and lieder, and it works like this, and why not, and for now it's like this. With my team, we are thinking about the future, but for now it's where it works, to sing Romeo to sing Werther, Hoffmann, to sing all these very tortured characters who are suffering and being socially awkward, and it works, the voice serves it well now. And I also think it is where it doesn't go too far in terms of the voice, of weights, vocally. I don't put myself – I do put myself in danger, but not too much, that it would hurt my voice or hurt my ability to sing on stage.

When you prepare for such a lieder recital, how do you work on the poetry part?

In my case, it is always a work in progress, because I know that for example «Les nuits d'été» by Berlioz, I cannot sing it today the way I want to sing it, and I think it's important for me to not think that I have to be ready to sing something, but that I propose to an audience a work in progress, because if I think on stage, I am ready and it's exactly the way I want, then I don't think it is worth it. I think it's also interesting to bring to the audience a work in progress that is not finished because it's never finished, and I will never sing – actually the reality is that I will never sing it the way I really want, the way it is in my, how we say in German: «Vorstellungskraft», my imagination, where I wanted to go and that's the beauty of this. And for example, for the texts that I sing, every time I sing it in a different place, it's a new taste, it's a new try, it's a new experimentation, because I don't think it should be – it shouldn't be presented like an album and it's «fertig» it's definite and engraved and forever like this, every performance. And depending on the acoustics, depending on, I don't know, the weather, depending on the time of the year, it brings a new colour it brings a new version of it and this is what I like about this.

Now you have mentioned a few times also opera roles that you sing, you're also an acclaimed opera singer, not just a lied singer. How do you manage the transition between the genres for your voice, and also for preparation, for everything?

These are two very different worlds. Actually, I really see now that I prepared myself when I studied to be an opera singer, and not a lied or melody singer, because when people asked me to begin to do recitals, I saw that my knowledge about melodies and lieder was very limited. It is a much more self-centered and egoistic exercise to do recitals because it is all about you and your voice and the accompanists, which is nice, I'm beginning to enjoy it, but clearly my preference for now is clearly to go to opera because it is being part of the story, I'm not alone, we are a team. I like this idea of being a team, with an orchestra, with a conductor, to be part of a bigger thing. A recital for me is still feels quite selfish and I prefer to be part of the story than to be trying to attract the light on me, but it also goes with my career now that opera houses and concert halls want to have me for a recital so I have to embrace it and I have to find also some pleasure in it, but I think the most important in the end is not that I find pleasure in it, it's that I can convince the audience and the critics and the people who hired me and whether I'm in a comfort zone or not – clearly I'm more comfortable on stage for opera, but in the end for lieder and melodies, it is an exercise that I'm learning now, I'm very new in this.

So to someone who has never been to a Liederabend in their life, or to a recital and what would you tell them to convince them to come to a recital at the Philharmonie?

It's very limited in terms of intensity, so it's not something that is going to be aggressive. It's something that is very calm, a Liederabend. Because you have a piano and a singer, this is very intimate compared to a big orchestra, which is sometimes, very hard to say, spectacular. A recital is something much more intimate, much more like taking the time for a little thing that we don't know, like trying a new dish, trying a new type of movie. Like, say, well you never tried Star Wars, well what about you try! You never tried recital, what about you try! And you never know, maybe you get out of it saying «never again», or you say «well, maybe I'll try again, but maybe with a lower voice, or a woman's voice» or anything but I would say to people who had never tried something because they think «oh it's not my thing» to just open their minds and try, because maybe I am not the one who will make them love a Liederabend but maybe I will open the wish to go to others that they will like. So, I think to invite people like this to say try a new dish, try a new movie, that's maybe the only way.