A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes, 9: Ben…Benjamin Luxon in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale

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Benjamin Luxon
Benjamin Luxon

Stravinskys Soldier’s Tale is a recalcitrant work, its center always just out of reach It is difficult for me to know what the actual action is. It would seem to be three or four encounters with the devil, but this devil is a protean fellow and has no graspable human characteristics. He can seem to be a talking mask. Good devils have the human touch. They are us. The thing I admired most in Ben’s narration of the tale in the Mahaiwe this weekend was his attempt to humanize him. In his imaginations of the evil one there was that touch of vulnerability. It made perfect sense when this devil danced his frustrating dance in Ben’s performance, because we had at least a little invested in his persistence earlier in the drama. Ben did not exaggerate the differences of the characters so much that he lost his own voice. After all there are several: a narrator, a soldier, an old woman, several visitations from the devil, and all of these need to be clear. Ben did this, but he had also a store of warmth (which is the natural color of his voice itself) which I identified as him. This has something to do with the fact that he is my friend, but I believe that everyone in the Mahaiwe heard this. The dancing mostly done by Anni Crofut, some by Ben and Anni, also had the human touch. It seemed to have a good and useful function, not be a display of technique.  The dancing at the end where the drama can seem preachy was artless. It was simple. None of this could be accomplished without great skill, a secret skill.

I first heard about Ben Luxon from Jan DeGaetani. He was coming to Boston to sing the John Passion while I was at New England Conservatory. Jan, who was also in the BSO’s Passion performance, gave a masterclass at school and encouraged us to cross Huntington Avenue and listen to Ben Luxon, who was singing Jesus. She said that here was an artist whose singing was entirely natural and whose instincts were so grounded that he seemed to be speaking to you. And here’s what I liked best about what she said: it was “with Ben singing seems to be a natural language.” Every time I have heard him since, this has been confirmed. Two performances near the end of his singing career were masterclasses in this very way. He sang a Falstaff where the words came out with complete rightness. Again, nothing seemed exaggerated, nothing seemed ignored. It was as if the fat knight were singing to us in a language that was some kind of seraphic speech, as natural in the ear as laughter. His baritone solos in Britten’s War Requiem, especially the almost unaccompanied narrative at the end, were some of the greatest singing I have heard. Britten, trustful, depending utterly on the dramatic skill of his singers, leaves the last and final things that the Requiem says to the tenor and baritone soloists with only a wisp of accompaniment. These bars in Ben’s performance had an almost gnomic mystery and rightness to them. As always his great skill and experience on stage helped him in this barest of concert music. It is the human touch that always comes across in his voice, singing or speaking.

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