Opening of a Life of Opera – Harvard Gazette


Countertenor, conductor and composer Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg compares opera to a sporting competition under pressure and at breakneck speed.

“Opera is a high intensity sport that needs a team,” he said. “And being part of a team is very important to me. There is nothing like the feeling that everyone can come together and see each other’s work come to life.

Fittingly for the metaphor, Wenzelberg first realized that he wanted to pursue a life in opera while “literally running” between the buildings of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center Plaza as backing vocalist and soloist. of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus and a composition student at Juilliard Pre-College for eight years. He liked the hustle and bustle and camaraderie between musicians, singers and workers on the stage to start a production.

And now, Wenzelberg’s last act on campus as a student, his graduation thesis, will be an opera commissioned this spring for Lowell House Opera, designed for an ensemble and based on an epic literary work: “Ulysses “by James Joyce.

Wenzelberg, a mid-year graduate who will participate in the spring 2022 launch exercises, knew opera would be his life. But when he got to college, he decided he also wanted to learn more about the stories and languages ​​behind some of his favorite productions, like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Magic Flute. “. He was drawn to the liberal arts curriculum and the possibilities for interdepartmental study.

“I have always felt that my artistic identity matched the profile of opera, because I believe that an interdisciplinary approach is needed to create the best possible art, and opera is interdisciplinary”, combining song, composition and dramatic performance, said Wenzelberg, who focused in English and received linguistic quotes in German and Spanish.

“HUM10 [Humanities 10] changed my life, and ‘Ulysses’ was the most mind-boggling, terrifying and fascinating novel, ”said Wenzelberg. “It’s famous for being a raw, vivid, and complete picture of the lives of many humans, like a reimagining of Homer’s ‘Odyssey.’ I also postulate that it is a traumatic novel and d “A story about mourning. It has a very bittersweet ending. You also have two versions of the same story told in the same book, which is very conducive to the opera scene. It becomes a duet.”

Wenzelberg has written the music and libretto for the opera, titled “NIGHTTOWN,” for the past two years. He will work with Lowell House Opera on orchestration and choreography ahead of the scheduled performance, which coincidentally marks the centenary of the novel’s publication. As part of his thesis submission, Wenzelberg also recorded a demo of the full opera himself.

Doing one of the three components of opera would be “a full-time, genius project,” said Russ Rymer, guest lecturer in creative writing who advised Wenzelberg’s thesis. “It’s amazing that he did them all and started out with a very literary idea at the beginning.”

Wenzelberg is “so accomplished musically, but he came out for a thesis on creative writing in an English department, which shows just how much he is interested in literature and the writing process, not just using the language. literature as a foundation for good music. He’s at the start of a career that’s going to go to amazing places, ”Rymer added.

Wenzelberg grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey, and started directing at age 4 for a teddy bear audience in his bedroom, according to an interview he did with Her parents, who are not professional musicians (although her maternal great-grandmother Pauline Covner conducted a choir at Carnegie Hall in 1950), took her regularly to concerts, operas and the theater – Wenzelberg recalls having was fascinated by Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. at the age of 5. Along the way, he trained in children’s programs like the one at the Met and Julliard and starred in a 2013 New York City Opera production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”. This year- There also saw the interpretation of a piece of a college student’s work-in-progress, “Sleeping Beauty” by the Chelsea Opera.

For “NIGHTTOWN”, Wenzelberg focused on the character of Molly Bloom, the wife of protagonist Leopold Bloom. Molly is an opera singer who has lost a child and has been unfaithful to her husband. In “Ulysses”, Joyce focuses on Molly only in the last section of the book (called “Penelope”). In opera, she takes center stage.

“The purpose of the opera is to take a cutting edge episode of the book that serves as a microcosm of the whole story and to found it, frame it and reimagine it through Molly Bloom’s a woman in her own odyssey of self-discovery, said Wenzelberg. “It offers new and contemporary connotations on an ancient and archetypal history, modulating ancient Greek nostos [homecoming] history of asking not where, but who defines the house.

Wenzelberg was also drawn to some of Ulysses’ themes which dealt with topical issues. In “Ulysses”, several women and non-binary people accuse Leopold Bloom of unwanted sexual advances using the phrase “me too”, almost 100 years before the #MeToo movement began. And in a section called “Circe”, Léopold meets Bella Cohen, who runs a brothel and presents himself as fluid. For “NIGHTTOWN,” Wenzelberg adapted these scenes using contemporary word choices around sexual assault and wrote Bella Cohen as an explicitly non-binary character named Bell *, with several possible endings depending on performer selection and including music can be sung at any octave. according to the voice of the interpreter.

“I think contemporary opera has to speak to the contemporary era,” said Wenzelberg. “It’s a way for the opera to move in that direction through adjustments in the music and the design of the art form. “

Wenzelberg has served in musical director roles at Harvard College Opera and the Mozart Society Orchestra, appeared in productions at the Lowell House Opera, sang in the Harvard University Choir, and helped wherever he could on stage and backstage. He has also served as guest conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra and travels internationally regularly for conducting and performance opportunities.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted most of Wenzelberg’s production plans on and off campus, and he took a semester off from college. He focused on “NIGHTTOWN”, attended the Gstaad Conducting Academy in Switzerland and participated in the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in 2021 as a countertenor. He mourned the loss of live performances, rehearsals, and collaborations with Harvard friends and other musical peers, but found the themes of “Ulysses” to resonate with his own situation in a way that he did. did not expect.

The opera is “a testament to many losses, personally and collectively, during COVID. It is also a love letter to everyone who has been a part of my life, especially these last years and several months, “he said.” However, it has also been the greatest gift to be back on campus and knowing this opera will have a live performance I have tried very fervently to make the most of a meaningful last semester here.


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