Marc A. Scorca: I just want to say, Ken Benson, thank you so much for being with us today. I'm really grateful for your time. As you know, we started to celebrate OPERA America's 50th anniversary back in 2020, but that was (a) short-lived celebration. But one of the projects that we were undertaking was to create an oral history, talking to 50 people who really have played a part in shaping the American opera scene over the last half century, and I really wanted to chat with you. I think I mentioned it back when we were still together pre COVID, but then we did take a bit of a hiatus. So again, thank you.
Ken Benson: My pleasure; thanks for having me.
Marc A. Scorca: Ken who brought you to your first opera?
Ken Benson: Me. I grew up in Brooklyn and there was no opera in my family at all. There was a great love of musical theater and classic pop. And so if there was an occasion (a birthday or an anniversary) we went to a Broadway musical, but no opera. But at that time, when I was a kid there was a lot of opera on TV and in Hollywood movies. So there was Voice of Firestone; Bell Telephone (Hour), The Great Caruso. So I sort of made the switch very easily, that opera was musical theater in a different language. And I started going to the Brooklyn library and getting on loan loads of LPs. I quickly discovered The Met broadcasts. So I ventured out on my own. I got my little family circle ticket at the old Met. I think it cost $2.65, and so I brought myself. In fact, I brought my parents to their first opera.
Marc A. Scorca: Do you remember what the first opera was?
Ken Benson: Absolutely. I had seen one or two things at Amato (Opera) and the Brooklyn Opera, and actually I'd seen one performance at City Opera (Faust) but the first opera at The Met was Barber's Vanessa in its first season. I guess I was sort of a funny kid because, even at that early age, I thought, "Well, I can always hear Boheme or Traviata or something, but there's a lot of buzz about this Vanessa." And in those days we had seven daily newspapers, which cost 5 cents each. So for 35 cents, I could get this many papers with articles and reviews, and opera was covered much, much more in the press, so Vanessa was my very first opera and I have a soft spot for the opera and it was a great cast. And the very first voice I heard from The Met stage was Rosalind Elias, who I loved ((and who) passed away last year). We became colleagues and friends much later, but I have a very soft spot for anything connected to Vanessa.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, for sure. And of course, Rosalind Elias lived right in my neighborhood on the upper west side. I would sometimes see her at a restaurant that we both frequented. It was always good to see her.
Ken Benson: It was wonderful, because she was part of history, and yet she was connected to the present as well.
Marc A. Scorca: You're the first person to really invoke the old Metropolitan Opera House building. And I confess that I never was in the old Metropolitan Opera House. I remember seeing it, while it was being demolished; that my father's studio overlooked - a block away - the old Met. And I remember seeing it with the wreckers ball, but what was the old theater like?
Ken Benson: It had an amazing, amazing atmosphere. It was basically a 19th century theater. So it was red velvet and the gilt. I know about all the shortcomings: no backstage space and bad dressing rooms and no air conditioning, all of which was true. But when you walked into the house, you did feel a sense of - not only occasion - but everything that had happened there before. And what was interesting is: I very often was a standee, and the standees entered the house first. They let us, the rabble, run in and get our spots before the actual seat holders entered. So when we entered the house, the house lights were at half and the fire curtain was down. And then at the half hour, the lights started to glow, the fire curtain came up and that was a pretty magical time. So every performance had a sense of occasion. And I think anybody who was in that house would probably give you a very similar impression.
Marc A. Scorca: I know that the seating capacity at the old Met was not far different than the seating capacity at the new Met. It must've just been very much more crammed in.
Ken Benson: It was. It had the box system and all the way down the side. When you say that: something I've been thinking about a lot in the last 16 months... In the pandemic of 1918, The Met, did not close for any substantial amount of time. In fact, they had the world premiere of Il trittico and Rosa Ponselle made her debut, and there was no ventilation in that house. It was packed and crammed, and I just can't figure out...I'd love to, as a piece of that puzzle that I don't understand, how it didn't have an incredible impact on the house, but it's interesting because when the new Met at Lincoln Center was available for previews, the spring before it opened, they brought some of the singers from The Met up to give them a little preview of the auditorium. And apparently they all had the first reaction: in the old Met, the seats wrapped all the way along the side, right to the proscenium. And that doesn't happen...there was no standees: that was the key. And the singers, Anna Moffo, Franco Corelli all said, "So where are the standees on the sides?" Because they felt that embrace, that energy of the standees. So that was a difference, but the capacity, you're right, is not that different. I think maybe a couple of hundred different?
Marc A. Scorca: It is that minimal?
Ken Benson: I think so. I think with standees, it's something between old Met 36/38 and the Met just under 4000.
Marc A. Scorca: Exactly. I wonder if going into Carnegie Hall today gives you a sense of what going into the old Met was like? Is there some similar feeling?
Ken Benson: I think so. Well, there's certainly the sense of history and occasion. That's the way my brain works, but every time I'm at Carnegie Hall, I look at the podium and think, "Oh, Tchaikovsky conducted the first concert there." So there is that. And I think even when it was renovated, it was done in a style that's very, very older world, so I think you do get some of that ambience. And certainly now that's the hall in New York that has the history, for sure.
Marc A. Scorca: Right. So how did you become an artist manager?
Ken Benson: You know, it's funny with all of the different courses and programs and things, I still don't really know of one for artists' managers. We all seem to have found our way into it through different routes. Lots of people were singers. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person in the business, or in the world, who didn't start as a singer, because everybody was a singer. I was just the world's biggest fan. And growing up in Brooklyn or Manhattan, I had access to everything. So I was like this sponge. At that time, there was not only The Met, but City Opera was doing eight shows a week; the recital scene was thriving, (Town Hall and Hunter College), so I just couldn't get enough of it. And I drank it in and I have a very good memory. So I was absorbing this, but in my family, they said, "I guess you want to be a singer?" And I never did. I didn't think I had the talent. And I actually didn't know about all the support jobs around it. I always say I would have been the world's greatest gofer and techie in Santa Fe when I was 15. I thought you either sang or you had nothing to do with opera. And finally, a friend of mine, a colleague who was in the field said, "You'd be a wonderful manager." I said, "But I've never seen a contract. How can I be a manager?" He said, "That part you can learn; you have good ears for talent; you have a good sense of what voices can do and not do, and you know the repertoire..." And suddenly I thought, "Oh my goodness, all of this opera trivia maybe is something (that) can really serve me as a career." And it suddenly all fell into place. But I'll tell you something interesting: even before that conversation, I was very intrigued about...I love finding new talent...going to Met auditions and competitions, and also I love following them and thinking, "They should do this." Or, some of them would really be successful and others would not, and I'd try to think, "Okay, why didn't that career develop the way I thought it would have?" So my brain was kind of working as a manager before I even really knew what the job was. I think because I never wanted to be a singer - I'm personally happy about that because my whole goal is to sort of smooth the way... I have so much admiration and respect for singers to this day. I'm kind of in awe of what they really do. And so the idea, if I can kind of smooth the way and clear the path as much as possible for them to do their work... I always say "Being managed is a full-time job; and so is being a singer, so nobody should do both." So I think to this day, that's what's rewarding in it for me.
Marc A. Scorca: So, you then have been a confidant, an advisor, a partner with these singers for decades. And I first came to know you back in 1980/81/82, because I was friendly with Jerry Hadley, and I got to know you through Jerry, but how has the scene changed for the singer? What was it like then? One has to audition, then audition. Now, people listening to you in a room that either has good acoustics or doesn't. How has it changed for the singer or not?
Ken Benson: I think there's been some changes; you're right. The basics are still there. When I started, it was around that time, maybe very late '70's, early '80's. Jerry was one of our first clients. And it was a great time. There was not only a lot of great vocal talent, but a lot of budding managerial talent. For whatever reason, a lot of talented people seemed to be interested in starting to get into management around that time. And we all relied on each other. We used each other as kind of a support network and we made our mistakes and could ask each other questions. I would say in those days...it's funny, you're talking about OPERA America being 50 years old, and of course I go even before that, but let's say the last 40 years, (because that's when I've been really working as a manager), I think it was maybe easier to have a freelance career then, and I know that sounds strange, but there were actually more companies. I think that 2008 was kind of a cataclysmic event for opera in this country because, when there was the big financial crisis, I remember thinking, "This is not going to be good down the road." Well, it wasn't good almost overnight. I'm sure you remember, companies began closing. If they didn't close, they reduced their seasons; companies that did five productions were doing two or three; fewer performances, and it all began contracting very quickly. But at the same time (it was already happening, but I think this increased it) the importance and the way the young artists programs were used began increasing at that time. And by that, I mean, people in young artists programs were given more and more important roles and important assignments. If the character was young, then that might be included as part of their young artists contract. When I started...for example, if I had a talented young baritone, I could call an opera company and say, "You should consider him for Silvio in Pagliacci or Schaunard...in each voice category as a mezzo, roles like Siebel.” Every vocal category had those introductory roles and suddenly they all went away onto the young artists' assignments. So if you were on the young artists program, of course, it was very good that you got those roles. It was a plum, but it was harder to break in freelance. I know some singers, who I would call middle level back in those days, who actually made very nice livings, just going from company to company, to company with occasional concert work, because - to be honest - productions didn't always rehearse as long in those days. So you might go somewhere for three weeks, but sing five performances and now you might go somewhere for four weeks or five weeks and sing two performances. So that's a financial thing. Years ago, if I did a talk with young artists, they'd say, "Is it possible to have a career in this country without doing a young artists program?" And at the time I would've said "Yes. With a lot of hard work and some luck, it is possible." Today, I would say, it's actually not possible. I don't know how an American singer would navigate this whole thing without having young artists programs be part of it in some way. I think the structure is just too much...has been created that way. So consequently, when you ask about auditioning, there's actually fewer auditions for sort of emerging mainstage singers. The young artists programs are great, and they get great opportunities, but when they come to the end of that time, it becomes harder for what I then call the young professional, moving from young artists to young professional, because the next group of young artists is coming up behind them. It's just the way it is; it's a fact of life. So that's a tricky thing to navigate; that's one of the biggest changes - for a young singer (hopefully with their manager's help) of trying to look at that and say, "Which programs are most advantageous? Which would offer me the best opportunities? Which would position me the best to then go into a solo freelance career?”
Marc A. Scorca: It's a really, of course, a good point and I've heard it before, but you explain it so clearly. Do you think that young artists programs are good for singers of a certain type? But that the dramatic voice, the big voice, the unusual voice - because they're not going to be good in scene work or chorus work - are we losing out, do you think, in our system today on the exceptional, unusual voices?
Ken Benson: Yes, I do. First of all, it's two things: the bigger voices, the evolving dramatic voices, and this could be the same, but different, is interesting, unusual voices, which I have always tended to like. I have always loved voices with a distinctive color or personality or singers who took risks. First of all, let's talk about dramatic voices, because you're absolutely right. A more lyric singer who sings Mozart or bel canto: by late twenties, thirty, they can be pretty well-developed in that repertoire, where if you're a dramatic anything (soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone) you're just a baby at that age. So you could do a young artist program as a way of just developing fairly safely. But you're right: they tend not to do much of that dramatic repertoire. When I'm talking to a budding dramatic voice (and those are rare and very precious talent) I will encourage them to do as much concert work as they can, where they can sing big and fully. They can sing a Beethoven Nine or a Verdi Requiem and Missa Solemnis but not be hurting themselves in the way that they would a full opera run. Or, those are the singers I might be more inclined to recommend going to Europe, because there are so many theaters there...many more do that repertoire and they do it also in smaller houses. If you're a budding Wagnerian, it's much better to sing a role 10 times in a 1200 seat theater than twice in a 4,000 seat theater. So there's that. And I do think also that voices with extreme personality and are quirky, we tend to sort of homogenize a little more. Who knows who we're missing. I often use two examples, because they are two of my favorite singers: Leonie Rysanek and John Vickers.
Marc A. Scorca: Two of my favorite singers. I went to everything I could see.
Ken Benson: You can't really explain them. Yes, they made recordings, but if you weren't there, you couldn't really explain it. And yet: they broke a lot of rules. And I often say, and I mean this, I don't think they would make it into a young artists program today. People would not know what to do with them. Put them in front of an audience and they set a theater on fire.
Marc A. Scorca: Leonie and her pitch problems. They never would've gotten in.
Ken Benson: I love to talk to young singers about voices. With someone like Leonie Rysanek, I go very carefully. Because she was such a stage animal, they're going to hear the pitch problems; they're going to hear a hole in the middle of the voice and I hear it too, but I can fill in on the blank. So she's an extreme but magnificent case, but a lot of great singers of that period didn't fit a mold. But I think people were more open to it. I think actually, if I may, CD recordings had something to do with some of that change in thinking, because big voices always had a problem. Singers like (Birgit) Nilsson and (Regine) Crespin never really loved their commercial recordings. They always thought their live recordings were better. And I think with CD's, everything became more tightly focused, and it favored lighter voices; voices that were more precise. And that I think then affected the way theater audiences listen. The old recordings in the '50's and '60's: their job was to capture the live performance, but then it reversed and it was like performances were supposed to capture the CD recording.
Marc A. Scorca: I agree a thousand percent with you. And of course, for a CD you can do 2, 3, 4 takes until you get it, and in the theater, it's one take.
Ken Benson: It is a kind of sterile perfection; that's what CD's were designed for. And I listened to so many live in-house performances. I am so willing to overlook warts, as long as there's an emotional impact. I always say to the singers, "Just say something; express something. That is your single most important goal. You know, by the time you walk into an audition, you're not going to have one more voice lesson or one more language coaching. So tell us the stories. People will get it, or not get it."
Marc A. Scorca: So Ken, when did singers begin to include American opera arias on their rep lists?
Ken Benson: It's interesting. They were always there in part; there was always a Menotti, for example. I happen to really like the Menotti repertoire. I know that there are two schools of thought. I think he wrote some incredibly effective pieces and wrote really well for the voice. There were those - and maybe if someone was really daring, they would sing Baby Doe or something like that. I would say that's a much more recent thing, maybe in the last 20 years or even less. It was becoming clear before the pandemic that American opera was really, really blossoming and flourishing in a way that it never had before. There was an interest in it. So that's when I began to say to singers, "Try to have something 21st century, if you can, to show those skills. If you have any interest in that repertoire at all, try to have that." But it wasn't a problem because I found at the same time singers were becoming increasingly interested in it and wanting to do it. So singers were often one step ahead of me with that repertoire. I would say it's kind of 21st century. Suddenly Billy Budd and Rake's Progress couldn't be your cutting-edge aria any more. And it's been interesting, because during the pandemic, that's one of the few things people could do, was create new work. So I think it's going to be really interesting as we hopefully keep reopening, to see how much of that virtual work...I think some of it is going to go on, definitely. And even to see how much of the things that were created online enter the repertoire, but certainly I think current contemporary opera was in good shape and it's going to remain in good shape.
Marc A. Scorca: I want to turn to talk about New York City Opera through two lenses. When you get to the second lens, which is the American opera seasons and how extraordinary those were. But I wonder if you can chat with me for a second about what City Opera meant in the life of the young singer; City Opera at its heyday, because as the City Opera you and I knew fades into operatic history, I think a lot of people won't understand how important City Opera was in career development. How important City Opera was to singers. Tell us about that importance.
Ken Benson: It was hugely important. I don't think we can even calculate how important it was. And I think that the further away we get from that, the less people really have a conception. I will say to young singers. "Do you realize that City Opera used to do two substantial seasons (in the fall and the spring); eight shows a week of about 20 something productions each season. And it was great in so many ways, because a lot of singers took their first steps there. And sometimes it would be a well-rehearsed new production and sometimes you were kind of tossed into a Carmen or Boheme, but that was trial by fire. And you had incredible professionals around you from chorus people to stage managers assisting you. But you were getting New York exposure. I never felt that City Opera was the shadow of The Met; I just felt it was an alternate. It was an equally valid alternative. Also for me as a young manager at that time...Of course it was nice for a singer to have a Metropolitan Opera credit, but right after that was a New York City Opera credit. So if someone had not been at The Met...if you could place soprano of the New York City Opera, I can show you all the regional opera companies in their brochures would use that. So it meant something all along the way. But you know, it's funny because I have such a rosy view of those days that sometimes you think, "Well, that's just nostalgia," but City Opera at a certain point did a lot of radio broadcast, some telecasts, but more radio broadcasts, and I'll listen to them and I'll think, "Wow, those are damn good; this was not my imagination." Those were really good singers from top to bottom, not just the leading singers, but the supporting roles 'cause it was so much a company at that time. And so you had your ensemble team who performed together all the time. So I just think for experience, for credibility. I think even now, looking back, it's even more impressive than I realized at the time. (I was going through boxes of old programs. I have this thing where I saved a program from everything I've ever seen, which has now become an issue and a storage issue). But I was looking through the programs and I thought, at a certain point, I must've gone to City Opera every night. I was still in school and did I ever sleep because I look at these names and I'll think "Wow, night after night," but there were some amazing talent and some of the talent that was still, I think in the earlier days, certainly in the Rudolf Bing at The Met days, there was a certain stigma against New York City Opera singers, no matter how wonderful they were and a few made it through, and some really wonderful ones didn't, but they still were... I think of singers who did sing at The Met like Donald Gramm or John Reardon, who were terrific artists. They had wonderful careers, maybe not the careers they would have had if they were known primarily as Met artists, but then other singers like Francis Bible and Norman Treigle never sang at The Met at all, which is scandalous really when you think about it. But City Opera, it was just this amazingly fertile, valuable. The pool of talent there on both backstage and on the stage was just amazing.
Marc A. Scorca: Of course, there weren't all the regional companies there are today. So it was a place where seniors could make a career. And reviews; just the number of reviews.
Ken Benson: Yes. And what's also fascinating is how much got reviewed, because it wasn't just the opening, just the premiere. I will go through some old clippings and if they had a new Colline in Boheme at City Opera, they got reviewed. It was a one column review. Every major cast change got a review, which of course was very valuable. It's very hard to get any kind of print press anymore for a singer, at any level, but you're right. And there would be articles before the production opened, then the reviews afterwards. So there was that asset too. The one thing it didn't have was really great fees, but we all understood that. That was just part of the territory. We knew that; we were still very happy to have contracts there.
Marc A. Scorca: So let's talk about the American seasons.
Ken Benson: Right around the time I started going...with the Vanessa City Opera: I had seen one performance of Faust. I went to Amato and saw Rigoletto, then I saw Faust at City Opera. Interestingly enough, both with Mignon Dunn in the cast, who is still very much with us teaching at the Manhattan School of Music.
Marc A. Scorca: I didn't realize that Mignon was at Amato Opera.
Ken Benson: I have a program of her singing Maddalena in Rigoletto along with about 24 other mezzos, 'cause they changed the cast with every performance. When I saw the Faust at New York City Opera, still at City Center, she was the Marthe. But Barry Morell, John Reardon, Norman Treigle, Francis Bible, Ellen Faull: good guests. When I saw the Vanessa, I loved it. And I loved the whole idea of discovering stuff. And at that time City Opera announced that they were doing an all-American season at City Center. City Opera had both a nucleus of works like Baby Doe and Susannah and the Menotti operas. But they would also do a couple of premieres every spring. This continued for about eight or ten years off and on. So at the tender age of 12, I was seeing The Good Soldier Schweik by Robert Kurka and Taming of the Shrew by (Vittorio) Giannini. And it seemed perfectly normal. As I said, the way my brain worked, it's like Boheme is always going to be there, and thank God it is, but I love that sort of discovery thing. And that continued and those seasons were amazing. And eventually they did all the things like Regina, The Crucible. They ventured out to Cradle Will Rock and they did Threepenny. They eventually started expanding it to 20th century American first. That opened up more possibilities. And finally, the last time they did a spring season, a special spring season...It was in '66 when City Opera had first moved to the State Theater. It was their first spring at the State Theater, and they did a whole season of 20th century. So that was the premier of Don Rodrigo, and actually the first New York stage performance of Dialogues of the Carmelites. They did Capriccio which we never saw. So they expanded the twentieth century, but still that was quite daring when you think back to it.
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely.
Ken Benson:... and really be confident that you could run a four or five week season with 20th century American operas...
Marc A. Scorca: and in spring of 1967, you were barely halfway through the 20th century.
Ken Benson: Yes. That's a great point. That's even before the OPERA America period anniversary, that we're talking about., That's a great point. I was not the only person; audiences were game and, I don't know if audiences became more conservative. I know there's that myth that a newer piece is harder to sell, but then we look at stuff at The Met and something like Akhnaten was a huge sell out. It was a hot ticket, and that's happened with other contemporary pieces, so we maybe don't give audiences enough credit.
Marc A. Scorca: Yes, and as tickets become more and more expensive, I sometimes think people are less experimental.
Ken Benson: I definitely think that's true. I was saying that I paid $2.65 for my Met ticket, and if I wanted to go to the side of the old Met family circle, it was $1.60. And maybe I would get a $10 birthday gift or something, and I can go to the opera five times. I always say to friends, I could afford $1.60 back then a lot easier than I can afford $400 now. So I think that's true: as prices went up, people want more of a sure thing. I think that happened with Broadway too. They wanted the big musical extravaganza, rather than really interesting drama and offbeat drama.
Marc A. Scorca: Fascinating. How has the role of a manager changed? (We've) talked about careers, the career of a singer. How has the role of a manager changed, if at all?
Ken Benson: I think it's changed, but I think that the essentials are still there. For me first as a manager, there's a pre-stage. It's quite daunting for a singer and manager to come together once in an audition, and for me to say, "I'd like to represent you; would you like to sign a contract?" I mean, it's happened, but it's a little daunting. So being in New York and traveling a good amount to companies where there are a lot of young singers, I have the luxury (and also I attend a lot of competitions). I go to a lot of places where there are young singers. Before pandemic, I was always at Juilliard or Manhattan and Mannes. And I just love the idea of getting to know singers without that pressure of 'do I sign you or not?' And the same pressure for them: you have a chance to get a sense of each other. So when you've seen someone's progress for maybe a couple of seasons, and then you feel really very secure. I would say so that's still there for me. The part of it that I like, is if I start working with a young singer, I like to sit down and make a ground plan, a roadmap. Say, what would the ideal, first few years look like. Now, maybe that's subject to change, but at least we have some kind of shape. And I think for any young singer, it's very important that they and their manager be on the same page about where they are vocally and what the repertoire's going to look like. Because if one of them has a different opinion, you're going to keep butting heads eventually. So I'll use an example of Jerry Hadley because he was teaching music in Connecticut.
Marc A. Scorca: At Hartt School of Music. I first heard Jerry as the tenor soloist at an Amherst College Glee Club event. I was at Amherst and Jerry was the soloist, up from Hartford, CT.
Ken Benson: So we both have an incredibly long history with Jerry. It's funny because my first partner - I had an independent management with Eddie Lou, and before I went to Columbia. And we were representing a baritone who was good, and the baritone said, "My girlfriend's a mezzo, would you hear her?" So out of courtesy, we heard her and she was very good. And we ended up representing the mezzo as well. A little while went by and they said, "We have a friend who's a tenor, who's teaching music in Connecticut.” And we thought, "Oh wow, we're going to be pushing our luck. I mean, the girlfriend turned out to be talented," but we heard Jerry and we both loved him. And you know what? He was not having a great day. He was having a lot of allergies and he was so upset and he had a lot of gunk and a lot of congestion. And he said, "Dammit, this always happens when I come to New York for an important audition." And we were like, "No, we get it. We totally get it." We heard the beauty, the expressivity and there was enough there, but we made one of those three-year plans, but Jerry's career jump-started so fast that everything went out the window. Suddenly it wasn't the regional companies, which was going to be the stepladder. It was one minute original company, and next minute, the Vienna State Opera. And if I can tell you how that story happened, this is the kind of thing you can't predict. Jerry was singing with the Washington Opera. He was doing Boheme. And it was when Reagan was inaugurated. Reagan had become President. So they put together a gala and Jerry did the act one scene from Boheme, with Karen Hunt: he did the aria and 'O soave fanciulla'. And Loren Maazel was there. And Lorin Maazel said, "I'm taking over the Vienna Staatsoper next year. I'd like you to come and sing these five roles." And Jerry said, "You want me to come and audition? Right?" And Maazel said, "No, I'm offering you the contract." Now that's something nobody can plan. And the minute that happened, then everything went to another level. So there's a part of Jerry's career: he did his Lake George apprenticeship and all of that. I can still see him in the chorus of Mikado. So he did that. But that career jumpstarted because the talent was so enormous, and he was such a great colleague and everybody loved him. And he was so musical and suddenly it was like Munich, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and Florence. So you hope that that happens; it doesn't always happen.
Marc A. Scorca: But you said this roadmap that you work out with a singer, thinking about what the first few years might look like...you were doing that 40 years ago. Do you still do that today?
Ken Benson: I do to some extent, because I think we need to start with a coherent picture, but your important question was 'how has it changed?' I think a big way that it's changed is connected to what I mentioned earlier of the shift in the young artists, because I've always loved launching young artists. I find that very rewarding. I don't have as many opportunities, because the young artists programs have taken care of that. I mean, an opera company may very well plan their repertoire and they'll say, "Okay, this role - Micaela is going to be sung by a young artist." They don't know who it is yet, but it will be one of their soprano young artists. That gives me less of a dialogue. So there were fewer of those opportunities. Also, another way in which to change is: I think some of the administrators in those days understood voices so well and loved singers so much, and I'm thinking there are many, but I'm thinking of people like Speight Jenkins or Lotfi Mansouri, who were in for the long haul. They stayed in their companies a long time and they had a plan for those singers. They could talk to me and say, "We have someone I heard... You should hear her when she's in New York." I could call them and say, "She'd be fine for this, and Speight would say, "Well, I'm thinking of her for Violetta in three years, but I want to see how she does with this first." There was more of a plan. And I think because a young artists program is a finite amount of time. It's two or three years. There can't be that quite that kind of long-term planning. Of course, they can bring an artist back as a principal. But I think that's different. There's less today of that shaping dialogue. Things are kind of moving faster if you know what I mean; people are moving around faster.
Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting too, that you say, and I don't take this as a negative commentary about today, but that some of the general directors in years past, really knew their singers and singing, perhaps a little bit more than today's general director who is fully occupied with administering companies and dealing with fundraising, all sorts of other things.
Ken Benson: Yes, it's very true. Today's administrators have so much to deal with, with raising money, with the community outreach, all of that. And I remember the first time I went to an OPERA America convention, I was a kid; I was a baby. And it was in Florida and somebody who was having a reception after the official stuff. It was like a cocktail thing. And it was nothing but general directors sitting around, talking about old singers and singers they loved. I don't know that that would happen in the same way today. It's not good or bad. It's just different. One way in which my role has changed - because you know, those roles for a young baritone may not be available. He's done his young artists (programs)...he's had that part of his life; he's ready to be freelance; ready to sing, Figaro in Barbiere or whatever, but the roles may be going to young artists. So it's up to me to create more opportunities. I've always been someone who loves concert work. So that's always been there. I always think if a singer enjoys it and finds it rewarding, it's an incredible adjunct to a career. It's a way to meet conductors who will ask for you again. Today, we've all had to learn social media skills. So I think today, it's not as cut and dried. It isn't like: this is your City Opera period, your regional opera, and then a summer festival, and then maybe some Messiahs at Christmas time. Now we have to be open to any projects that are developing, at any stage, which certainly is interesting. I'm happy to go with that. I always encourage singers to do a workshop of a new piece because they don't know which of those pieces will turn into Silent Night or something like that, which will have an incredible life, and you've been in on the ground floor. So I'd say that's been part of it for me too, is how that's changed. The basics are still there, 'cause it's kind of what I developed in my earliest years. I try to keep a balance. I think we have to acknowledge the changes and the moving forward, but also that something did work in the past. So we shouldn't be completely ignorant of that. It's kind of like what worked so well in the past that we can recycle in 2021. And what's just not realistic any more, and try to find a balance.
Marc A. Scorca: Ken: you are a role model to many people, but I'm curious to know - if you keep doing your job long enough, you become a role model. That's what happens. If you do it well, you really become a role model - who is a role model for you, in your early years as a manager. Did you have role models?
Ken Benson: Yes. Someone who was a friend from the standing room days was Matthew Epstein who was momentous in planting some seeds and staying on me. I also remember some people who were just very kind and helpful in the early days. There was a soprano I loved and still love at the City Opera named Arlene Saunders, who should be much more known than she is, but she was a wonderful artist. And I was a groupie and a fan and she introduced me to her manager, Larry Wasserman, who was with the Thea Dispeker office who had a very long, established, respected career. And I remember he had lunch with me. He said, "I have a friend at Columbia Artists. He's in community concerts. You should talk to him." So there were people like that that helped me on that path, which sounded so far fetched. And then this is sort of a great role model. When I actually got to Columbia Artists, there was a legendary woman named Nelly Walter, who was fantastic. And she had a career that would make a TV mini series. I mean a life and a career. And she was working in a very advanced age, but still really getting on planes and zipping around the world. And she was not only kind but fascinating. And I had an office across from her and she would come in to ask, "So how do you send a fax or how do you do that?" But then she would stay and talk about Berlin in the '30's, because she worked at the Berlin opera in the '30's before the war. And she was Leontyne Price's only manager. And she represented (Renata) Tebaldi and (Cesare) Siepi and (Carlo) Bergonzi and amazing legendary singers. She was the one who brought Domingo to Julius Rudel and said, "You have to..." It was the end of the days at City Center; it was the last fall season. And he said, "I have one performance open: Don Jose." And Nelly said, "I'm begging you. Just on my...you have to...I'm staking my reputation." So she had artists of that level. But she would have a rose from the premiere of Rosenkavalier (like the world premiere). Her parents took her and said, "You're not going to understand this, but we want you to see it with us.” So Nelly was amazing because again, like all of us, she had to kind of get up to speed and up to date, but there was no denying this amazing history that was there. So I would say she pulled together a lot of threads. It's the history of management, but also of European opera before the war. I mean, it would be an amazing book. We used to say, "Nelly, you should write a biography." And she said, "Oh, it would be interesting." That's a place to start.
Marc A. Scorca: So, you are so generous with your advice to young singers. If you were to meet a young you, wanting to become an artist manager, what would you say today?
Ken Benson: I do meet young 'me's and I do try to give them some time or some words. I would say, "It's not easy." I was talking to a young singer friend just very recently. And he said, "Well, you know, if I didn't do this, I could see really getting into administration, either being a manager or being an artistic director at an opera company." And I said, "Well, keep in mind, an artistic director buys; we sell, I'm just putting that out there." He said, "I like buying better." I said, "Yeah, well, okay. I get that." I would just try to be realistic about it because I've had a lot of friends, not so much young me's, but just people who were bored with their jobs, or they loved opera. And they'd say, "Oh, what you do sounds so interesting and could I get into that?” And I thought, "Well, I'm a good advertisement because I'm obviously giving off a positive energy." But I had a very good friend once and I would meet him on the west coast and he was not an opera person, but I would take him, and he knew me quite well, and he said to me, "Really, aside from going to a lot of performances and taking artists to lunch, what else do you do?" And I thought, "Oh, okay, wow." Then we're disguising the work part of it. I mean it's a 24/7 job for sure. I remember the days before email and faxes, where you could leave the office on a Friday. And unless there was a cancellation, you could count on a fairly quiet weekend. And now Saturday night at midnight, things are exploding. So that's part of it. I would just say, you've got to have the passion for it. I think it really helps. I did all the groundwork without knowing it, which is just having this insatiable interest and passion for opera, but singers too. Not to separate them, but it's singers. I mean, a lot of people think singers are interchangeable. I never think singers are interchangeable. I get very upset when singers names are not listed on a website, which they used to be. I think it matters. It matters to the singers, but it also matters to anyone who knows them. Now is an interesting time because we've had yet another major jolt, and I don't think any of us know exactly...I mean, of course we're gonna go back and try to do things the way we did, but we may learn that, okay, we need to make some adjustments. I would just say, if you have the passion, there's always the need. This is the thing: I think there's always the need for good managers, believe it or not, because there are always far more talented singers than there are talented managers. The ratio has always been terribly out of proportion. So if you really have the passion and interest and the ears for talent and know the repertoire, that's the most important stuff. The rest you can learn; you can figure it out. So I think those are skills, and I would have said that 30 years ago, and I'll say it today. The need for good managers are there, because good singers are there. There's always going to be good singers who need management.