No singer’s path to stardom is a straight line — some experience twists and turns in life that eventually lead them to the stage. They may even have their sights set on a completely different career, but possess a natural talent that is so potent they’ll have no choice but to pursue for a career in opera. This was exactly the case for tenor Ben Bliss.
Bliss, an alum of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, originally sought a career in the film industry. Though he had extensive classical music training in his teen years, he never thought he’d end up as a full-time singer. Having worked in the entertainment industry for some time after graduating college, he eventually returned to opera and has already garnered major success at some of the top opera houses around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, Oper Frankfurt and, most recently, his role and house debut as Robert Wilson in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at Santa Fe Opera.
We caught up with Bliss during his time in Santa Fe to discuss his blossoming career, as well as his time at LA Opera and how it prepared him for the exhilarating, although sometimes daunting world of professional opera.
“It’s exciting,” said Bliss. “It’s a very weird feeling to have gigs on the books for the next few years. But it’s also very reassuring.”
Growing up in Kansas City, Bliss was exposed to opera through his mother, who sings in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City chorus. Though he was primarily interested in filmmaking, he participated in his high school’s theater and chorus. When it came down to applying for college, Bliss knew he wanted to end up in the heart of the entertainment industry — Southern California. Though he entered as a film major, he received a large choral scholarship from Chapman University in Orange, Calif., during which he sang with the university’s choir and received private voice lessons. He also participated in Chapman’s opera program, which Bliss states he initially resisted.
“In my sophomore year, my voice teacher told me he’d lower my grade if I didn’t audition for the opera, because they always needed tenors,” he laughed.
Bliss sang his first Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Chapman (a role he’d later sing at LA Opera), and would subsequently sing the title role in Britten’s Albert Herring. Seeing how involved he was in the music department, he eventually added a music minor before graduating. But music was still just a hobby for Bliss. He felt a need to pursue a career in the film industry and, following his graduation, put music on the back-burner as he toured a short film he created at film festivals across the globe. He would soon land work on The Dr. Phil Show, which we worked on for three seasons. However, he felt burned out and left to pursue his other artistic interest: opera.
“I realized I wasn’t into that environment or that product, and didn’t want to move up any further,” said Bliss. “I had done some commercial work and was encouraged to move forward with that, but I didn’t really see a clear path forward in that work. So I switched gears.”
After leaving The Dr. Phil Show in January 2011, Bliss began taking voice lessons again and auditioned for anything he could. He was put in touch with Joshua Winograde, now Senior Director of Artistic and Program Development at LA Opera, through a colleague from Chapman. Winograde took an early interest to Bliss and had him audition for Christopher Koelsch, CEO and President of LA Opera, and Plácido Domingo. After three auditions, Bliss was accepted into the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. It was an exciting advancement for his career, but Bliss had to play catch up first.
“I like to say I was a very sponge in a very wet environment. The program was my equivalent to graduate school,” Bliss stated. “I was put in language classes and learning the operatic repertoire and getting into the groove the things.”
Of the program, Bliss continued to say: “It was completely invaluable in every way. Being in an A-level house, seeing how everything works and being up-close and personal and friendly with a lot of the world class singers that come through … watching that process, getting the musical and stylistic input from Maestro Domingo and Maestro Conlon was immeasurable.”
He went on to sing a number of supporting roles during his tenure as a young artist, such as Benvolio in Gounoud’s Romeo and Juliet and Barbarigo Verdi’s The Two Foscari. Following his graduation from the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, Bliss was accepted into Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, where he continued his training before venturing out as a professional in the industry.
Bliss stated: “I felt pretty secure technically, and went to the Lindemann program mostly to finish polishing my instrument. I viewed everyday as a tiny little audition, and I felt it was a really fruitful time.”
Now on the brink of major success, Bliss has his plate full with work all the way through 2021. But he’s not biting off more than he can chew. As he puts it, he’s in no rush to sing repertoire that may be deemed “too big” for him.
“I’m really happy to sing what sits easily in my voice for as long as it sits easily in my voice. So far that’s been Mozart, Britten, even a little Rossini,” he said. “I would love to sing a lot of other stuff, but I would also like to still be singing at age 45 and 50.”
However, one role that he’s been excited to tackle is Robert Watson in Doctor Atomic, which chronicles the development of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico and the atomic bombings in Japan during World War II. The production, which has received rave reviews from The New York Times and LA Times, was deemed as one of the hottest tickets in the 2018 season. Bliss feels fortunate to have been offered the role not only for its relevance in history, but also because he felt a certain connection to his role.
“Dramatically, if I had to choose one role in the piece to play — voice type aside — it would be Robert Wilson,” Bliss stated. “He’s sort of the moral voice of the whole Manhattan Project.”
From Santa Fe, Bliss travels to the Aspen Music Festival and School for a series of concerts, followed by the role of Peter Quint in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw with Seattle Opera in October. He’ll also return to the Metropolitan Opera for The Magic Flute, Canadian Opera Company in Toronto for Così fan tutte and then to Houston Grand Opera for Don Giovanni. Though his success requires him to travel the world, he’s happy to be able to call LA Opera his home turf.
“This is a weird business. There is a smoke and mirrors, but it was at LA Opera where I felt I was given the most genuine, honest and thorough responses,” Bliss said. “There is a really great culture, and it’s a great place to call home.”LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.