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Ben Johnson on singing bel canto

By • London

Young British tenor Ben Johnson’s star is most certainly in the ascendency. Not only did he win the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2008, but became a BBC Young Artist last year and had critics reaching for superlatives following his performances as the Novice in Michael Grandage’s acclaimed staging of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne in 2010. He is about to appear as Nemorino, one of the pearls of the Italian bel canto repertoire, in ENO’s revival of Jonathan Miller’s staging of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love). I caught up with him during the final stages of rehearsals to find out how it all started.

“I was always involved in music but I wasn’t very good at anything I tried. I was alright, but never good enough. I was quite a bad violinist for a long time and it got to the point where I thought that I might try being a conductor, which was the next thing left to me as I played the piano, the organ and I sang in choirs but I never thought that singing was something that I would do full time.” It was at the advice of his friend who sat next to him in the choir and felt that Ben had a good enough voice to pursue a singing career, that Ben seriously began thinking about following his friend’s advice.

“I was seventeen and had become a tenor when I was quite young, and he pushed me to take things further. At that time there were two major tenors who influenced my decision – the late Anthony Rolfe-Johnson whose discs with the accompanist Graham Johnson opened me to a world of music that I didn’t know but I came to adore - and Luciano Pavarotti, who in my opinion is one of the greatest vocal operatic tenors that there’s ever been. Pavarotti is still my point of reference, he was quite incredible.”

Ben’s original plan was to go to Cambridge as a choral scholar, but having decided that singing was to be his vocation Ben rang all the music colleges in London, asking them to send him a prospectus. Despite their assurances that ‘one was in the post’, only one actually fulfilled their promise of a prospectus and that was the Royal College of Music, “so I called the head of vocal studies there who happened to be a very jolly Scottish fellow called Neil Mackie, himself a very fine tenor, and he invited me along to meet him.” They met, lighting struck, “and we just clicked. He told me I had something and made me believe in it.

Ben fell in love with the College and having received lessons from Neil up until his audition, was accepted at the age of eighteen as an undergraduate. “I ditched my Cambridge application as I just wanted to study with Neil. That was it – I knew he was the right man for me. That’s the funny thing about this business, the most successful singers are not just the ones who’ve got talent, everyone’s got talent, it’s those who’ve got the nose for what’s best for them who really succeed. I knew Neil was good for me.”

He did six straight years and went straight from being an undergraduate to the opera course without any postgrad, which was a bit unusual, and started his professional career at a relatively early age. One of the key things that Neil instilled into Ben was learning repertoire, “to get my nose into what being a tenor’s all about. I learned lots and listened to lots. I didn’t do too much opera but Neil was very good at keeping me on the straight and narrow.” Having won every vocal prize by the time he was in the Opera School, he was evidently destined for great things. He sang small roles in their stagings, but his crowning glory came in 2007 when he sang Albert Herring for British Youth Opera, “as that put me on the map – and I also sang with Benedict Nelson, who will be singing Belcore with me in The Elixir of Love at ENO.”

Winning the Ferrier Award the following year was to prove a pivotal point in his career, “that just turned everything upside down and was such a kick-start. I know it sounds like a cliché but after that the phone did start ringing.” He got an agent, started auditioning across Europe, became a BBC Young Artist and has just joined the ENO’s Young Singer’s Programme. Talk turns to his forthcoming role debut as Nemorino and Ben is full of praise for Jonathan Miller’s staging. “It’s fab. Since I started working professionally I’ve had to work very hard not be seen as an ‘English’ tenor as I my idol was Pavarotti and I wanted to sing like him so I found a teacher called Jeffrey Talbot who helped me find the Italian tenor in me. He has given me the tools to be able to sing Nemorino, because it’s a pure bel canto, difficult sing, so with his help I have now been able to take this on and it’s a great joy for me to do this as my debut here. It’s really what I’m about. And this is a brilliant production set in America in the mid-west in the 1950s, so the translation fits perfectly with the surroundings and in many ways singing in an American accent is easier than singing in ‘pure’ English. It’s a delight from start to finish.”

Not surprisingly Ben’s diary is full, and he’s looking forward to a recital at the Wigmore Hall in October, his first Tamino in Oviedo in Spain and following his ENO debut he returns to sing some Mozart next season and even further on the horizon there’s the prospect of some Verdi in 2013, but for the time-being that has to be kept under wraps.

Jonathan Miller’s staging of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love opens at the ENO, London Coliseum on Thursday 15 September. www.eno.org.

Tags: Opera


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