Tenor Ben Bliss is considered a rising star in the world of opera. And, like opera diva Joyce DiDonato, he grew up in Prairie Village, Kansas. Bliss credits "the support of arts and education and public education" for leading to his musical career. It's something, he says, he "got a really good dose of growing up."
Bliss's father is a freelance cartoonist and his mother sings with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City chorus.
"I grew up with music in the house all the time, and going to see my mom's operas on Sundays," says Bliss, but football was more of a passion for him. As Bliss told host Steve Kraske on Up to Date, he discovered at Shawnee Mission East High School that he had the frame for football at 6'1, but not the build — so he turned to theater and choir.
Bliss was drawn to visual storytelling, and, after graduating from East in 2004, he pursued film studies on a choir scholarship at Chapman University in Orange, California. During his sophomore year, his mentor and voice teacher Patrick Goeser threatened to lower his grade if he didn't audition for an opera. It was then, says Bliss, that he discovered his love for the art form — starting with works by composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
On the challenge of Mozart
"Once I did The Magic Flute (Mozart's two-act opera), I really enjoyed that, the combination of difficult music that seemed to fit my voice well. And I'd taken some German in high school, so I had a leg up there. And I just really enjoyed the challenge of it.
"You know, it's like rubbing your tummy and patting your head — you're doing a lot of things at the same time. You're trying to act, and be on stage, and keep your singing together with a 100-piece orchestra, and singing in German, and doing all this stuff — and I really liked it."
On having to work for it
"If I learned one thing in college — doing music and film and trying to get all this stuff done at the same time — I feel like I learned how to really hustle. That's what I always tell young singers — is that, you know, nobody is going to come and knock on your door and offer you this or that."
On deciding on a career in opera in 2011 instead of in Hollywood
"I (started as) an errand boy (on Dr. Phil) ... production, problem solving, every day was different. It was really pretty grueling, it was long, long, long, long days, and a lot of work and problem solving ...
"Did it for awhile, and wasn't super happy, so I found the opportunity to leave. Called my voice teacher from Chapman (Patrick Goeser) before I left the studio. As I was walking out the security entrance, I said, 'Well, Patrick, I think I'm going to give this singer thing a try.'
"I kind of missed it. I always really, really enjoyed the craft of it, and I hadn't done it in awhile. And I thought that door would maybe still be open."
On embracing his role as a 'tall tenor'
"Patrick (Goeser) had always been really, really encouraging. As a tall tenor, he always said, 'Oh, there's no tall tenors out there.' And he thought my voice was particularly well-suited to it, that I had sort of the drive and the ambition to really go after it."
On auditioning for legendary tenor Placido Domingo
"I was nervous going into it, but once he came into the room, all the pressure disappeared ... with all due respect, he was like Santa Claus. He came in and he was just the smiley guy, and came over and put his arm around me, and said, 'Eh, what will you sing?' ...
"It was a really, really warm environment ... he's really dedicated to nurturing young singers."
The Harriman-Jewell Series presents tenor Ben Bliss in his American recital debut, Saturday, October 22, 2016, at 7 pm, at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th Street, Kansas City, Missouri. This Discovery Concert is free to the public. 816-415-5025.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.