Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan offers this interesting profile of opera singer and Ben Avon native Benjamin Werley. He sounds like a singer to watch.
Tenor Benjamin Werley "bitten by the opera bug"
FORT LAUDERDALE — While Ben Avon native Benjamin Werley was in his junior year at Avonworth High School, he attended a Pittsburgh Opera student matinee of Puccini's "Tosca." He was, in his words, "bitten by the opera bug," especially by the riveting performance of Greer Grimsley as the evil chief of police, Scarpia. "He had such a great voice," Mr. Werley says, "and he was so riveting on stage, that I was hooked on having a career in opera right then and there." The tenor has been working towards an opera career ever since, and this season will make his Florida Grand Opera debut, as a member of the Young Artist program, playing two supporting parts in the April/May production of Verdi's "A Masked Ball."
Of course, no matter what your aspirations, you can't sing in opera if you don't have the basic vocal material. Mr. Werley, now 28, had been singing in choirs. His high school choral director, Regis Vrana, sent him for voice lessons to Pittsburgh mezzo-soprano Jeanne Wentworth, but that "Tosca" performance was the turning point. The young tenor applied and was accepted into Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, where he attained his undergraduate degree and continued on for a masters, studying with star soprano Carol Vaness.
It's a long road to the professional opera stage. In 2012, a YouTube posting of an aria from Puccini's "La boheme," taken from Mr. Werley's senior recital, led to his professional debut as Rodolfo with the Arbor Opera Theater in Ann Arbor, Mich. The following year he reached the semi-finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, subsequently joining the young artist program of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. After being advised that his lyric tenor voice was "headed in a bigger direction" — that is, likely to progress with age into a dramatic or even Heldentenor size — Mr. Werley chose to take it slowly, honing his craft in a series of apprentice and young artist programs that have allowed his voice and artistry to develop step by step.
Most regional American opera companies today have apprentice or young artist programs, which are usually a double win. The young singer gets the benefit of onstage experience and training with established artists, while the company benefits by having a cadre of young performers to fill supporting roles and to cover — i.e., understudy — the principal parts.
Mr. Werley has participated in several such programs: with San Franciso's Merola Opera in Summer 2014 and Opera Colorado in 2015-16. This season, as a Florida Grand Opera young artist, he has been covering leading tenor roles in advance of his actual stage debut.
"It's invaluable experience" the tenor says, to be onstage with great artists, to hear their voices up close and learn by being right there next to them. I got a chance to sing [the leading tenor role of] Gustavo in the first week of rehearsals, because the original singer had cancelled early on, and his replacement was already booked for that week."
Philip Pierce, FGO's director of artistic administration, recalls that at Mr. Werley's audition, "I was completely won over by his beautiful timbre, his ringing voice, but above all by his courage in allowing us into his soul while he was singing. He throws so much of himself into the music that he inhabits these characters in technicolor."
Next season Mr. Werley is slated for bigger things with the South Florida company, which performs in both Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He will take on two parts in Strauss's "Salome": the young soldier Narraboth, an important role that is usually given to a singer in the "young Heldentenor" category, and also one of the quintet of Jews, an ensemble assignment of notable intricacy and difficulty. It's possible to do this, because the character of Narraboth kills himself half way through and the Jews don't appear until later. Still, it's quite a feat and rather unusual for the singer of Narraboth to take on a second assignment in one night.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.