When we last checked in with now-15-year-old Benjamin Wenzelberg of Tenafly, he was working on an opera, “The Sleeping Beauty,” due to be given a piano-vocal reading by New York’s Chelsea Opera. Now, for the first time, that opera will be performed in its entirety.
“Benjy began composing the piano and vocal score for his opera at age 11, and spent the last three years developing the score,” said Rochelle Lazarus, public relations director of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, where the opera will be performed on January 25. The cast will include professional singers as well as members of the JCC Broadway Youth Ensemble.
“It’s been a magical experience,” Benjamin said. “It’s so great to work with such wonderful singers and the JCC to put it together.” The cast, he continued, “has been incredible. All of the singers have been people I’ve worked with in singing and composing collaborations. They’re incredibly talented, and dedicated to the piece and to music.”
|Benjamin Welzenberg began working on his opera when he was 11.|
Many of the chorus members are current or former students of the JCC’s performing arts department as well as friends of his.
“I get to work with people I know,” Benjamin said. “We sing, play, compose, and have a friendly experience. They’re all accomplished singers. I’m honored to work with them.”
Benjamin chose the JCC for the debut because “it has been the place where I discovered my love for music.” While he has dabbled with singing, playing the piano, and even composing “since I was born,” as he put it, it was at the JCC where he first began to spread his wings.
Ms. Lazarus noted that Benjamin has studied and performed with the JCC School of Performing Arts since he was 7, starring in many productions. “I’ve known him since he was a little kid,” she said. “He was adorable in all those roles.”
Even more, she said, besides choosing to unveil his full opera in his own community, the composer will play the piano and sing the role of the frog in the JCC production, and he will donate all proceeds to the JCC School of Performing Arts and to cultural arts and music programs in the Tenafly public schools.
Deborah Roberts, director of the JCC’s performing arts school, has a long history with the talented young man.
She recalled that “when Benjy, at age 7, saw the CenterStage flier on the JCC bulletin board and asked his mom if he could go to the musical theater camp, I agreed to interview him even though he was clearly below the age that the program was designed for. I quickly discovered how excited he was about music and about being in a performance.”
“He sang beautifully for me,” Ms. Roberts said. “He also played an original song that he was creating on the piano and read a little monologue that I handed him. I was thrilled with his skills and his tremendous potential. I accepted him on the spot.”
“Several years later, he played the title role in a musical that we created at the JCC for our Professional Children’s Theater Series: ‘Aaron’s Party Under the Sea.’ I wrote the book, Glenn Gordon composed the music, and Amelia DeMayo wrote the lyrics. We also took it to the main stage at bergenPAC. Benjy did a superb job bringing the boy I had envisaged to life.”
Ms. Roberts said that Benjamin “has played many other roles here with wonderful sensitivity and understanding. His singing and musicianship have always been exceptional, and his acting has long since caught up. Now his talents have taken him to many much larger venues and major successes.”
Nevertheless, Benjamin still maintains a close relationship with the JCC.
“When he has a moment, he enjoys coming to perform in our CenterStage Lunchtime Cabaret and talking to our young campers about his experiences,” Ms. Roberts said. “Recently he told them all about his ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and sang beautiful portions of it.”
Ms. Lazarus said that Benjamin recently returned to the JCC “to prepare for a solo he was singing with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, as well as for an exciting film he recently completed, ‘Boy Choir,’ starring Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, and Debra Winger, where he sings the voice of the lead character.”
Not only does Ms. Roberts have nice things to say about the young man, but she clearly appreciates the opera he has written.
“No matter how familiar the story, Benjy brings a very appealing and youthful sense to it – the beautiful princess who hopes to find a prince and an evil wise woman who casts a magic spell that makes a whole castle fall asleep,” she said. “The suspense rides on whether a prince can get there in time to save the kingdom, and whether he will really be the princess’s true love. It’s a rare and delightful opera for all ages.”
His opera, Benjamin said, “is definitely something for people of all ages.” Inspired by his own love of opera – particularly the works of Puccini, Strauss, and Britten – “my love for it made me want to write one.” He also wants to introduce other young people to the art form, exposing them to opera at an early age. That’s another reason he chose the JCC for the debut. “It’s got a lot of children and families,” he said. He hopes that by the time today’s children are his age, they’ll choose to attend operas and learn more about them.
Calling opera “both entertainment and a source of joy,” he said he decided to base his work on a fairy tale so that children could relate to it. “The only thing was, I wanted it to have a happy ending. So it’s a way for people to get into opera, it has a familiar story, and it has a happy ending.”
When the young composer turned 13, the completed first act of the work was presented in concert in New York City by the Chelsea Opera, and the following spring, the opera once again performed orchestrated excerpts, earning Benjy an ASCAP Young Composer Award and a prestigious music scholarship.
As a singer, he recently performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in the New York City Opera’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Last year, he made his solo debut at the Metropolitan Opera in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and he is now performing there in “La Boheme.”
Over the years, Benjamin has performed with the Atlanta Opera, the Little Orchestra Society at Avery Fisher Hall, Shakespeare in the Park, Central Park’s Summer Stage, and the US Open, and he was invited to sing in Israel. He also has been a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and is in his sixth season with the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus.
Among other compositions, he wrote a percussion piece, “The Storm,” which premiered at NYU’s Percussion Ensemble last fall, and a piano trio, “Midnight Tides,” which won a BMI Student Composer Award and Carlos Surinach Prize last spring. Benjamin studies composition with Dr. Eric Ewazen at Juilliard Pre-College and both classical and jazz piano at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan.
Is there time for school? Yes, said Benjamin, a sophomore at Tenafly High School, who insists he has kept up with all his school work.
“The Tenafly school system has really been supportive, meeting me halfway,” he said. “It’s a really good balance. I’m able to pursue all I want to do musically while still succeeding academically.” In fact, he said, a teacher asked him to compare the story of Tristan and Isolde with the Wagner opera that dramatizes it.
“It illustrates how important opera is to education,” he said.
And does he ever relax?
“Well, of course, music is part of relaxing,” he said. “But I also love to read and write and I’m taking Spanish at school and trying to become fluent by talking to friends.
I also love amusement parks,” he added. “Roller coasters have been a big thing for me since I was young.”