Q & A: Bass-baritone Ben Wager speaks with BCO’s Executive Director, Julia Cooke about singing ‘Reverend Olin Blitch’ in our SUSANNAH this week.
Ben Wager makes his Baltimore Concert Opera debut as the Reverend Olin Blitch in ‘Susannah’ this week. We are so happy he has time in his busy schedule this season to sing with us in between appearances with Lyric Opera Kansas City and Deutsche Oper Berlin. Recent years have brought Ben to Opera San Jose, Minnesota Opera, OperaDelaware and Den Norske Opera in Oslo. We are delighted to welcome Ben to BCO in this “dream role” of his. He was kind enough to share some thoughts about his career and journey as an opera singer, and in particular, singing the role of Olin Blitch with us.
Q: What drew you to a career as an opera singer?
A: I had been involved with music from an early age but it was not classical. I grew up playing guitar and bass guitar in rock bands but I never did much singing. When I was a senior in college, I went to local music store to find a singing teacher since I wanted to front my own band. After the first or second lesson I was persuaded to give classical music a try since I had an unusual voice part that was also pretty loud. I spent the next few years getting second opinions and steadily improving. I always wanted to be more in the spotlight but bassists didn't really belong there, singing bass made more sense for my personality than playing it!
Q: Tell us about singing Blitch. I know you're very invested in this role, what makes it so interesting to you?
A: It really is a dream role. It was written for my voice part (bass-baritone) which is essentially a bass voice whose strength lies in the upper part of his voice rather than the lower. Plus, it's always more interesting to play morally ambiguous or even evil characters than good ones. Blitch is just that: you don't know exactly where he lies on the moral continuum (he does feel remorse, after all) but it's not on the lighter side. It's also very interesting to explore how much a character like Blitch actually believes what he says he believes, versus what's simply showmanship. Samuel Ramey made the definitive recording of the role and his is a style of singing I've always admired and tried to emulate.
Q: What is it like to sing a role for the first time? Particularly this one.
A: A challenge! While Floyd knows how to write for the voice he writes some pretty difficult intervals and harmonic shifts. Often you have to sing very low notes in your range and then very high ones immediately after. In addition, Floyd will often have the singer sing a dissonant note that isn't supported by any other instrument in the harmony. As a native of Philadelphia, I'm also finding it challenging to deliver the text with a convincing Inland Southern dialect (it's written into the text so it must be done) while not compromising the musicality. Finally, I'm looking forward to playing a role that is histrionic within the context of the piece itself: rarely does a singer get to "perform" within a performance as I will get to do with Blitch during the revival scene.
Q: Do you have any thoughts about the concert opera format, how it is helpful/challenging/anything else?
A: It's probably my favorite way of performing anymore. I love the intimate setting, the gorgeous surroundings, and simply stripping the show down to its essentials. Everyone in the room can hear every note and see every expression on your face. It may sound daunting but it's intensely rewarding to perform in this way.
THANK YOU to Ben for taking the time to answer these questions!
If you don’t have your tickets for SUSANNAH (2/24 at 7:30pm and 2/26 at 3pm), we do still have some available. Click here to find out more about Ben and the rest of the cast, and click here to buy tickets which start at just $27.50.