Benjamin Bernheim
Photo by Edouard Brane

Benjamin Bernheim: “This is an art form that is alive”

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Short Profile

Name: Benjamin Bernheim
DOB: 9 June 1985
Place of birth: Paris, France
Occupation: Opera singer

Mr. Bernheim, as an opera singer, when did you first realize that there was something special about your voice?

When I was younger, and when my singing was well aligned, it would make people say: “Hmm.” Not “Wow!” but, “Hmm. If he goes in the right direction, that could be something.” It wasn’t that people were saying, “Oh my God,” but rather that people were saying, “It’s not ready yet, but let’s see.” So that was how, with time, I realized that there is something special, and I defined what exactly is special about it. And that can be difficult! There are many different shades and reasons a voice can be special; the reality is that it's different for everyone. Some people will love the power of my voice, but some of them will love the vulnerability and the softness.

And at what point did they go from saying, “Hmmm…” to saying, “Wow”?

There are still people who are saying, “Hmm!” (Laughs) It happens. It's normal, you cannot please everyone. But I am lucky to be in a very good place in my career where I have been supported and pushed. I was also lucky to do some big debuts in big houses where things went well. Being on stage is like an artistic proposal that you make to an audience, to 2000 people at once. And each one of those people will have a different interpretation of what you give them. That’s the amazing thing about it.

“When the audience is there, there is that ‘in the moment’ feeling. It’s a crucial moment for you as an artist to propose something to the audience.”

Would you agree there’s something inherently different to hearing someone’s voice live in an opera house, compared to hearing their voice on a recording?

Absolutely, I think watching a YouTube video or listening to a CD is very different than on stage. This is an art form that is alive, it is the voice ringing in a space. We have to cut through an orchestra, sometimes 70 to 90 musicians, and we are alone on stage with our voices. This experience is quite unique, there is no great technology that can show how special it is to hear a voice live. It cannot be compared. The real-life experience is something that is very unique. As singers, we are rehearsing for weeks, we feel very comfortable. When there is no one in the theater, we can try things, but when the audience is there, there is that “in the moment” feeling. It’s a crucial moment for you as an artist to propose something to the audience.

And how is that on-stage experience for you as a performer? You once described it as like falling in love 60 times per year.

Many years ago, one of my professors and I created this mind image, which is like a tunnel — that’s what I imagine when I go on stage in order to help me concentrate to the best of my abilities and not let any noise get me off the rails. And this is crucial for the emotional side of things, you can give a very real aspect of your life and your personality, but you have to protect yourself. I do know some singers who go on stage, and it touches a nerve! Some of them collapse on stage, but it's part of the game. A lot of sopranos refuse to perform Madame Butterfly because it was just too much, emotionally. And I can understand that. You have to train your mind and your heart to be like a blank slate, to really act like this is the first time that it’s happening even though it’s not. You have to bring a story to the audience, you have to make it believable.

It’s so many different things at once: not only singing and performing, but acting and storytelling as well.

Yes, and that’s not always easy! Sometimes it can be that I fail. Sometimes people will say, “Oh, Romeo met Juliet way before that!” (Laughs) So it’s important for me to come to each opera house with this sort of blank slate mentality, so that I’m surprised when a knife comes at me, to be scared when someone is trying to kill me, or sad that the love of my life leaves me, or when my best friend is dying. You have to go through them as if it's the first time.

Does your approach change with each portrayal? Is the Romeo you are currently playing in Paris the same as the Romeo you once played in Zurich, for example?

I have the feeling that these are two different Romeos, in terms of projection, in terms of intensity, in terms of what I get from my heart. It definitely depends on your colleagues, your partner, on where you are in your life and, yes, where you're singing the role. I think depending on where you are, you will be able to develop a very different panel of colors than in another place. Playing Romeo here in Paris, I feel that every performance has been different, that I’ve given different shades of my voice every time.

And what about when you’re singing in a different language? Does your voice or the way you use it also change?

Absolutely! Different languages bring different feelings. Weirdly, German is a very hard language, but it's also a very strong language, I have the feeling that I can sing things in German that are so strong. Italian is a language I often compare it to the cuisine, you know, for me, when I sing in Italian, I see the sun, I see gold, I see those ripe tomatoes, red wine. Whereas when I think of the French language, I think I feel something that is much more silvery. It’s my mother tongue, and I think it's the language that gives me the biggest possibility of color palettes. Russian is a schmaltzy language, if that makes sense! I have to say it's a language where I can really give all the schmaltz in my heart, whereas French can sound much more dry. So yes, every language would allow me to bring different colors.

“When I’m preparing for a role, I listen to a lot of other singers singing that part. Then of course there’s a point where I have to stop and simply make it my own. This is what performance is about.”

Is it difficult to sing in another language? I’m guessing you don’t speak Russian.

No, I don't speak Russian! I'm able to speak a bit of Italian but I understand almost all of it. German I speak quite well. But you don't really have to speak it, I think the most important is to make the effort to read, to work on the prosody, the sense of the text. Sometimes people don't really make the effort and say, “Oh, this language is so difficult, I don't want to sing it.” Whether it's Russian, English, French or German, it's very important to make the effort to be understandable. And some of the best compliments I've heard is Russian people telling me, “We understood everything, thank you for making the effort.” That's a very important thing.

Apparently when you heard Roberto Alagna sing many years ago, it changed your perception of what French operatic singing could be like.

Oh, yes. It was a recording on a CD, actually, and I think I was 16 or 17. My perception of French singing before that was not great, because I heard a lot of singers from many different countries trying to make French understandable, and I was never really convinced. And suddenly, I heard Roberto Alagna… I did not know it was allowed to sing in French like this. Not that it was possible, but that it was allowed to really make an effort in that way. And for me, that experience as a listener made me want to go in that direction. And even though we have two very different vocal identities and localities, we are absolutely not the same; he was a big example of how do you make the French a very special operatic language.

Do you spend a lot of time listening to other singers?

When I’m preparing for a role, yes, I listen to a lot of other singers singing that part. I think it’s better to listen to a lot of different versions because if you listen too much to the same person playing that role, you begin to copy it or mimic it. You begin to think a bit like the singer; like a young football player or a young tennis player would copy Federer, or Nadal, or Ronaldo. If I have a lot of different versions in my head, different localities that have nothing to do with one another, I can then make up my mind with my own colors, with my voice. Then of course there’s a point where I have to stop and simply make it my own. This is what performance is about.