ARTicle Magazine

Taking flight in London

Elizabeth Kerr · 21 June 2017

Baritone Benson Wilson, winner of the 2016 Lexus Song Quest, is at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama making the most of every opportunity that comes his way.

Lexus Song Quest prizegiving

Benson Wilson, right, after winning the 2016 Lexus Song Quest. Image: Jeremy Toth

“I had my Wigmore Hall debut last week,” baritone Benson Wilson tells me with some pride from London. “I performed with a project called Side by Side, which is run by an ensemble called Prince Consort, of which [2002 Mobil Song Quest winner] Anna Leese was one of the original members. It was such an amazing feeling to stand on that stage where so many great singers have had recitals. And it’s the most beautiful hall to sing in, with a perfect acoustic for singers – I love it!”

Last year’s winner of the now Lexus Song Quest has a lot to be excited about. Just four days after that significant debut, he was back on the Wigmore Hall stage to perform in Voice Works, a project that combines singers, poets and composers. “We’d worked together to come up with this innovative piece, called Flying, by Phillip Golub and poet Leo Doulton. Leo had been a stand-up comedian and Flying is about the feeling you have when you walk on stage – will you soar or fly into the ground, will the stage swallow you up? It was all about anxiety.”

Wilson appeared to have no performance anxiety when he took the stage in Auckland last year and won the prestigious Song Quest. His rich voice, musicality and compelling stage presence persuaded judge Yvonne Kenny that he has “the complete package” to succeed as an opera singer. After winning, he moved to London and has been at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama since September, making the most of every opportunity that comes his way.

“I’ve grown a lot in nine months; it’s such an exciting ride, and changing every day.” Soon after arrival, he was asked by the Guildhall to do a recording. “Yeah, sure, who’s it with?” he replied. It was no less than a live concert for the BBC and Wilson sang Songs before Sleep, originally written for New Zealand Samoan baritone and 1998 Mobil Song Quest winner Jonathan Lemalu, who Wilson describes as “an inspiration”. Lemalu visits the Guildhall regularly to offer master classes and coaching. “Every time I see him it’s great; he’s very uplifting and well respected here as an opera singer. It’s great to see other Samoan Kiwis excelling.”

Winning the Lexus Song Quest in 2016 was important, but for Wilson being runner-up in 2014 was the real watershed moment. “I knew I wanted to sing but I wasn’t sure if I had what it takes to be an opera singer. Getting second place at the Lexus gave me the boost I needed to believe in myself and push myself to work hard; it made me realise my full potential. I knew then that my next goal was to win the competition.”

Samoan singers have won the Lexus for the past three events. “When Samoans sing,” says Wilson, “we’re not getting up on stage and singing what’s on the page, we’re singing who we are. There’s something about the heart of opera – you have to be open and genuine. A lot of the recent Samoan singers are so heartfelt; but also musical, because of our upbringing.”

“Music is a massive part of our Samoan culture – we wake up singing, when we’re cooking we’re singing, we go to church we’re singing, we drive home we’re singing, drive to school, the radio’s on, we’re singing. It’s part of everyday life.”

Wilson grew up in South Auckland. “My mother was church pianist so we shared the piano stool and I always sat next to her and sang. My earliest memory of this is from when I was about four years old. And I remember harmonising with my cousin. Music is a massive part of our Samoan culture – we wake up singing, when we’re cooking we’re singing, we go to church we’re singing, we drive home we’re singing, drive to school, the radio’s on, we’re singing. It’s part of everyday life.”

At Havelock North High School in his teens, all that singing led to the school choir, singing lessons, four years in the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choir and then three in the National Youth Choir. “I was fortunate to have all that training in musicianship. It was the best training for any young musician.”

Wilson often uses words like “fortunate”. He acknowledges he’s been lucky with his New Zealand support team, which he refers to as “his village”. It includes his “very supportive” family and a “committee” of trusted teachers and tutors who provided lessons and advice and helped with the preparation of repertoire. “One of the hardest things now, the biggest challenge, is being on the other side of the world from everyone who’s helped me so far. But I’m building my “village” here, having trusted teachers and coaches. And I’ve come here with a mindset to work hard on my career and this is an appropriate stepping stone.”

Through its worldwide connections, the Guildhall provides many opportunities to its students. Talent-spotting European casting directors visit and Wilson has been able to show off his abilities. A highlight was a minor role in January in a semi-staged London Symphony Orchestra production of Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s mock-apocalyptic opera La Grand Macabre. “It was an amazing experience,” he says, “to sing with the LSO under Sir Simon Rattle, and under the directorship of Peter Sellars, who is just the most phenomenal director I’ve ever worked with.”

A singing career is inevitably based on many hours of hard work. Wilson and his teacher have been working on his technique, to make it “easy”, he says. “It’s about using my whole body to sing, opening up the sound and letting it ring freely, getting rid of tension, using the breath efficiently. We’re trying to amplify my story-telling and the beauty of the sound.”

When I ask if he’s been working on other aspects of Kenny’s “complete package”, he laughs. “My physical appearance! I’ve been going to the gym. It’s about health, really – your voice is like a violin, your body is the resonance chamber for the instrument. I’ve been working on that because I was a bit heavy when I left New Zealand [more laughter].”

Being one of just 12 singers accepted into the Guildhall’s prestigious two-year Opera Studies programme from September this year means Wilson’s medium term plans are settled. “But I’ll also be branching out and doing more international competitions, which are the best platform for a young singer to showcase what they have. My longer-term plan is to be here for 10 years and to solidify a good career here and in Europe. At the end of that time, I hope to be able to base myself in New Zealand.”

And right now? “I’m doing what I love!”

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Elizabeth Kerr has had a long career in music and the arts as a teacher, lecturer, arts manager, board member and critic and commentator, including for the New Zealand Listener and RNZ Concert. She is a member of the New Zealand Festival's Board of Trustees.

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