Classical Music & Dance

The Classical Beat: Rising opera star Ben Bliss, of Prairie Village, to sing for free at the Folly

Ben Bliss, of Prairie Village, is the son of soprano Judy Bliss. He didn’t love opera when he was young, however. Bliss makes his American recital debut on the Harriman-Jewell Series this Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Folly Theater in a free Discovery Concert.
Ben Bliss, of Prairie Village, is the son of soprano Judy Bliss. He didn’t love opera when he was young, however. Bliss makes his American recital debut on the Harriman-Jewell Series this Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Folly Theater in a free Discovery Concert.

There must be something in the water in Prairie Village.

The Kansas town has produced not only opera superstar Joyce DiDonato, but also another opera star in the making: Ben Bliss.

Bliss, who has appeared on opera stages around the world, will make his American recital debut on the Harriman-Jewell Series this Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Folly Theater. The recital is a free Discovery Concert.

“It’s fun to get to see a local native at this point in his career, when he’s just starting to ascend into the starry heavens,” said Clark Morris, executive director of the Harriman-Jewell Series.

Bliss’ ascent does seem written in the stars. His mother is soprano Judy Bliss, a popular singer who has appeared in many Lyric Opera of Kansas City productions. Although he was exposed to opera from a young age, it really wasn’t young Ben’s cup of tea.

“I would go see my mom’s opera when I was a little kid, but, in all honesty, I usually wanted to leave at intermission so I could come home and watch a Chiefs game,” Bliss said. “I was really not super-interested in music.”

In high school, Bliss was 6-foot-1 but only 115 pounds, so his experiment with football didn’t work out. It was theater that really caught his attention.

He decided to pursue filmmaking and searched for a school in Southern California that might provide a scholarship. That’s when he discovered Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

“They offered a choir scholarship even if you were not a music major,” Bliss said. “So I sent Chapman University a CD of me singing a couple of solos with my high school choir, and the dean started calling my house every week, talking to my parents and talking about our options and he offered me a choir scholarship.”

When Bliss showed up at the school with his parents on the first day, they were greeted at the gate by the dean.

“He took us on a tour of the whole university and the new music school, and then he said, ‘Here’s your schedule. You’ll be in choir Tuesdays and Thursdays, and your voice teacher is Patrick Goeser,’ ” Bliss recalled. “I told him I didn’t really want to take voice lessons, I just wanted to be in the choir, and he said, ‘Your voice teacher is Patrick Goeser.’ 

Bliss took voice lessons with Goeser while studying film, and in his sophomore year, Goeser told him he had to try out for an opera. Again, Bliss was reluctant.

“I told him I wasn’t interested, but Patrick said if I didn’t try out for the opera, he’d lower my grade,” Bliss said. “He’s not averse to a little strong-arming. So I tried out for the opera, and one day my friend came walking out of the music school, and he said, ‘Dude, you got Tamino.’ And I was like, ‘Is there a cure for that?’ 

After singing the male lead as a tenor in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Bliss caught the opera bug, but he still finished his degree in film. He made a short film that won many awards on the film festival circuit and, in due course, took a job working on the “Dr. Phil” show at Paramount Studios.

“It wasn’t as fulfilling as I hoped,” Bliss said. “It was, in a lot of ways, unrewarding and a little relentless. I wasn’t super-happy.”

Finally, after 2  1/2 seasons of the “Dr. Phil” show, Bliss called his former voice teacher.

 ‘Well, Patrick, I’m going to be a singer, so let’s kick this thing into gear,’ ” Bliss told him.

Bliss started taking lessons with Goeser and paid for them by doing odd jobs, like drywalling Goeser’s garage. He also took a part-time job at the Lego Store. “The best job I ever had,” Bliss said.

Finally, he got a break. A conductor friend from Chapman was able to get Bliss an audition with Joshua Winograde, a senior director with the L.A. Opera. Winograde was impressed enough to have Bliss return to sing for opera legend Plácido Domingo, the L.A. Opera’s artistic director.

Bliss had a list of audition pieces; Domingo chose a Spanish song from the Three Tenors album for Bliss to sing.

“I stood there singing it for Plácido and a few other songs, and then he said, ‘OK. I approve.’ 

Bliss was part of the L.A. Opera’s young artists program for two years and then scored another big audition, this time for James Levine, artistic director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Bliss was accepted into the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, which he finished in 2015.

“My first gig out of the Met young artists program was a tour of several southern cities in England with the Glyndebourne Company,” Bliss said. “After that I came home and L.A. Opera hired me to sing, of all things, Tamino in ‘The Magic Flute.’ I’ve been super, super fortunate and have a very full schedule with a lot of exciting companies. My furthest out gig is scheduled to wrap up in 2020. It’s kind of wild.”

But in his hometown, you can discover him for free, courtesy of the Harriman-Jewell Series.

7 p.m. Oct. 22. Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th. Free. Visit HJSeries.org to download tickets.

Mozart’s Requiem

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died before he was able to complete his Requiem, so his widow, Constanze, desperate for money and needing to collect the commission, employed Joseph Eybler and later Franz Xaver Sussmayr to finish things up quickly. Scholars have always been troubled by their rushed work.

The Kansas City Symphony and the Kansas City Symphony Chorus will perform a realization of the Requiem by Mozart scholar Robert Levin that many critics consider one of the finest. Levin more closely hews to Mozart’s style in small and large details.

The program will open with the Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra by Alexandre Guilmant. Written for the large symphonic organs of 19th century France, Guillmant’s symphony has a big sound. I mean, really big. With superb organist Paul Jacobs at the keyboard of the Casavant organ, it should rock Helzberg Hall.

7 p.m. Oct. 20; 8 p.m. Oct. 21 and 22; and 2 p.m. Oct. 23. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $38-$88. 816-471-0400 or KCSymphony.org.

Puccini at UMKC

Although not performed all that often, “Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi” contain some of Giacomo Puccini’s most gorgeous music. The opera department of UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance will present the two one-act operas for four performances.

“Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi” with “Il Tabarro” make up Puccini’s Il Trittico, three operas he intended to be performed together. Today, they are often performed singly or in various combinations.

“Suor Angelica” is the story of Sister Angelica, who entered a convent after being forced to give up her illegitimate son. “Gianni Schicchi,” based on an episode from Dante’s “Inferno,” is more of a farce. Although the opera is mostly comic, it includes one of the most lushly romantic arias ever written: “O Mio Babbino Caro.”

7:30 pm. Oct. 20-22 and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 23. White Recital Hall, 4949 Cherry St. $12. 813-235-6222 or tinyurl.com/zgh4hro.

Danish String Quartet in Mission

The Danish String Quartet is as sleek, stylish and elegant as a fine piece of Danish modern furniture. These four young musicians are breathing new life into the chamber music repertoire with energy and flair.

On the program on Friday, Oct. 21, presented by the Friends of Chamber Music, is a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach arranged by Mozart, the String Quartet No. 12 by Ludwig Van Beethoven and the String Quartet No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

8 p.m. Oct. 21. 1900 Building, 1900 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Mission Woods. $35. 816-561-9999 or ChamberMusic.org.

Contact Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat.

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