|Benjamin Wenzelberg and Alexandra LoBianco in the Chelsea Opera’s Amahl and the Night Visitors Robert J. Saferstein|
When 13-year-old Benjamin Wenzelberg of Tenafly becomes bar mitzvah this summer, his job will be easier than most.
“I learned the trope and it’s been great,” said Benjamin, recognized as a music prodigy since he was 5 years old. “Now I can read any haftarah.”
Benjamin, who now is working on an opera that will be given a piano-vocal reading by New York’s Chelsea Opera next week, concedes that “playing and singing by ear is helpful.”
He attributes his musical talent to his great-grandmother.
“She conducted at the opening of Lincoln Center, ran a boys’ choir, and was a composer and violinist,” Benjamin said, adding that while his parents are not musical in the same way, “they love listening to music.”
Indeed, he said, his parents exposed him to Broadway show soundtracks during car rides to preschool.
“I hummed along,” he said, and he began to play the violin when he was 5.
“My violin teacher had a piano in her studio,” he said. After practicing some songs on the violin, “I walked over to the piano and started playing. My violin teacher [told my parents] I could play by ear and had perfect pitch, so we got a piano.”
While the piano is now his go-to instrument – as in “If I was in a room and I could only play on any one instrument I would go to the piano” – Benjamin lately has been attracted to the harpsichord. He also dabbles at the clarinet and ukulele and recently began playing viola for the Tenafly Middle School Orchestra.
Calling his son “a regular kid, humble about his successes,” Charles Wenzelberg does note that Benjamin was always precocious when it came to patterns, repeating clapping patterns when he was 18 months old, and by the time he was 2 1/2, “repeating things he shouldn’t be able to.”
Benjamin said that after his first piano lesson, “I wanted to be a pianist,” admitting that some of his decisions are made “in the heat of the moment. When I heard Bernstein conducting La Valse for the National Orchestra of France, I wanted to be a conductor.”
The youngster also can sing. He has performed with New York City Opera – he played Miles in “The Turn of the Screw” – sang the title role in Chelsea Opera’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” and is going into his fifth year with the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus, where he will play Mustardseed in the group’s upcoming production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
In addition to attending public school in Tenafly, Benjamin studies composition and conducting at the Juilliard School Pre-College, is a scholarship student at the 92nd St. Y School of Music in classical and jazz piano, and participates in the New York Youth Symphony’s apprentice conducting program.
When he first got up to conduct – being appreciably younger than the other participants – “they were very accepting. At first, they probably thought ‘He’s just a kid’ but then they noticed that I could lead and started following what I was doing.”
What was “really cool,” he said, was conducting and rehearsing his school orchestra. The players being his own age, “there was automatic acceptance. I was able to work with them.”
Benjamin’s love for opera began when his violin teacher brought in a guest vocal artist to work with her students. Appreciating Benjamin’s voice, he suggested that the boy try out for the Met’s children’s chorus. He was subsequently cast in “Tosca.”
“I got a recording of it and I fell in love with it,” he said. “It was so new and exciting.”
Thus began his “obsession” with Puccini, who remains his favorite opera composer.
“I loved it so much, I wanted to write an opera,” he said.
But, he decided, his opera would have to have a happy ending.
“I want to make people love listening to this,” said Benjamin, noting that he thought of fairy tales, “since they usually have good endings.”
Rejecting Alice in Wonderland – since many movies had already been done on that theme – “I remembered my favorite, ‘Sleeping Beauty,'” he said. “I decided to start on that.”
On July 19, Chelsea Orchestra will do a piano and vocal reading of his work in progress. Another concert in January will feature full sections of the piece.
Benjamin said that while he has done some orchestration, “it’s where I need to keep improving the most. There’s always more depth I can go into. My idea is to write a bunch of operas that would appeal to kids. Also, operas for middle schoolers and high schoolers.”
Young people, he said, would ideally listen to them in succession and then be ready for the “biggies, like Tosca.”
While music has clearly been the driving force in Benjamin’s life – “I don’t know what I’d do without it,” he said – the teen also calls himself “an official fanatic” when it comes to roller coasters.
“I’ve got books and books of roller coaster stats” and pictures of how things look from the front car, he said. “I’ve researched parks and made a list of parks to attend before I’m 20.”
Benjamin said music can help him “express every emotion. If I look back” at something I wrote, “I can see what I was feeling. It becomes a part of me.
“I can do anything with music.”
For more information about Benjamin’s opera, call (866) 811-4111 or go to www.ChelseaOpera.org.