The Ongoing Career of Baritone Benjamin Luxon

English baritone Benjamin Luxon remains prized for the intelligence of his portrayals, and his unfettered directness of expression. Now 72, and devoting much of his time to theater, Luxon came to fame as a member of Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group. After creating the title role in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, he proceeded to perform a wide variety of roles in many of the world’s leading houses.

Luxon’s legacy includes a marvelously engaging Papageno in the David Hockney-designed Glyndebourne Production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Arthaus Musik DVD), as well as roles in Glyndebourne’s Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Equally important, in fact indispensible, are Benjamin Britten’s audio recordings of Owen Wingrave, The Rape of Lucretia, and Billy Budd; Britten’s made-for-TV Owen Wingrave DVD; Mackerras’ made-for-TV Billy Budd DVD; and a slew of definitive English song recitals on Chandos, Naxos, and other labels. Other audio recordings include Bach’s Magnificat conducted by Karajan; Delius’ A Mass of Life and A Village Romeo & Juliet with first-rank, quintessentially English casts; Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex conducted by Solti; and a number of fine Haydn recordings.

Toward the end of his singing career, Luxon collaborated with the late Bill Crofut in a number of folk music concerts. The marvelous CD, Dance on a Moonbeam, preserves this aspect of his work. After his singing career was cut short in the early 1990s by a debilitating hearing loss, he settled in Western Masachusetts.

In this interview, Luxon discusses his role in a forthcoming production of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale (L’histoire du Soldat), as well as the length and breadth of his career.

Benjamin Luxon

Jason Victor Serinus: I heard you whistle as Papageno on the Glyndebourne DVD of The Magic Flute. It’s quite lovely.

Benjamin Luxon: We’re ordered one of your whistling CDs because my youngest grandson, who is six, is at the moment crazy on whistling. He’s actually pretty good, and he’s whistling all the time. He sits down at meals and whistles away. So we’re going to give him your CD for Xmas. He’ll get a tremendous kick out of it.

JVS: I went to my collection of CDs, absolutely expecting to find a recording of L’histoire du Soldat. All I found were two recordings of the suite, one of which refused to play. The music is fabulous, but your part I don’t know much about. Please tell me about your role and what happens in this story. The Devil is the violin, am I correct?

BL: Yes.

Actually, I’m not sure what’s happening at the moment, because I have to find out a way to do this. Yehuda Hanani happened to see me in a play, Under Milkwood, in New York State; afterwards, he came up to me and said I had to do something with his concert organization, Close Encounters With Music. I said, okay, if I do something, I’d love to do The Soldier’s Tale.

JVS: Since I haven’t heard the dialogue, and have only read a summary, could you talk about the story, as well as its power and impact?

BL: It’s really a kind of hodgepodge of stories. Basically it’s the Faustian story of the soldier and the devil. Of course, the devil acquires the soldier’s fiddle. It’s not worth anything – it’s very ordinary. But in exchange for it, the Devil gives him untold wealth. I suppose the fiddle is a symbol of the soldier’s soul.

The devil then tricks the soldier to come away with him. So the soldier can teach the devil how to play the fiddle, and the devil will then teach the soldier how to work this book which gives you information about events before they happen. So the soldier becomes very rich. Then he realizes that he’s been away for three years instead of three days, and everyone think he’s dead. He’s become a ghost to his mother and ex-girlfriend. He’s very rich, but he realizes that it doesn’t mean anything. He thus decides that he wants to be as he was before. But he doesn’t know how to do it.

The narrator goes to a strange land, gets rid of all his money, and finds that the princess of the kingdom is sick. Anyone who can cure her will marry her. He decides he’s going to try. The Devil has gotten there first, but the narrator tells the soldier that the reason the devil has power over him is that he still has some money that is the devil’s.

He has to get rid of all the money. The soldier challenges the devil to a card game, and of course the devil has to win because he’s the devil. The devil isn’t smart enough to realize what the devil is doing. Gradually the soldier manages to lose all the money that he ever had from the devil, and he’s free again. Then he gets his fiddle back, and wins the princess.

It’s a strange piece. In the end, she wants to know about him. She wants to know his background. He says he used to be soldier, and used to live with his mother. She asks if she can go there, but he says no, because he is saved as long as he stays where he is with the princess. If he goes back into his old territory, the chances are he’ll place himself at the devil’s mercy. But she tempts him. Again, it’s that Faustian story. He thinks, well, I could go back, I could see my mother. And then maybe my mother can come and live with us, and then I’d have everything. So he goes back to his hometown, steps over the front door, and the devil has him. So that’s basically the story.

You know the early plays. In style, it’s a kind of morality play that used to go round before Shakespeare, when traveling theater companies told these quite crude stories about alliances with the devil.

The translation is very good. It’s an almost literal translation from the French, and it’s quite rough. It has a certain rustic quality to it in the rhyming. It rhymes all the way through, but they’re clumsy rhymes. It has a certain power, there’s no two ways about it. [laughing] There you are.

JVS: So what are you going to do with it?

BL: After Yehuda and I agreed to do it, we looked through various versions. Because of his budget, he can’t afford to bring in actors. That in turn would require staging, and something much more expensive than his budget can put on.

We’ve both seen a version with one guy doing the whole lot. Since we know it’s feasible, that’s what he’s asked me to do. I’ll have to play the devil, the soldier, and the narrator, but I do refuse to dance. I may try to find a dancer as well, because there’s quite a chunk of music that goes on when the Princess comes back to life.

First, I have to solve the problem of how to play these three characters in conversation with one another, and present it onstage. I’m going to have to get clever in my old age.

JVS: I suppose you couldn’t put masks on and off without taking too much time and covering your face. I suppose you could move slightly from place to place…

BL: Yes, I’m going to have to do that. But masks would be ridiculous, because the conversation between the characters is so quick that it could turn into a comedy act if you’re not careful. And I’m determined to learn it by heart. Number one, I feel that I can’t be carrying around a script or the music. I have to be free. So we’ll see. It will be a test of ingenuity.

JVS: I’m very sympathetic when you talk about turning it into a comedy act, because that’s the fine line I tread as a whistler. I wonder if you could have a graphic of the faces of the three characters arranged in an arc behind you, and you turned your head slightly in one direction or another.

BL: Until I have the script in my head, it’s going to be difficult to do anything. I have to be free to improvise. Obviously, there will be a certain amount of mime as well. It’s a difficult one, and an instant challenge.

JVS: So they chose it for Xmas, not because it has a Christmas thing, but because you wanted to do it and it’s such a delight.

BL: I don’t know. I have a feeling that maybe because it’s unusual. And it can be very dramatic. It’s a powerful piece.

JVS: How much dialogue do you and the other characters (whom are all you) have?

BL: Lots. There’s a huge amount of dialogue, although not so much with music. Maybe there are about five or six pieces out of at least a dozen or so where there is dialogue over the music, which is very specific. It’s absolutely marked, so you have to be musically accurate. But besides that, there are whole scenes between the soldier and the Devil, the narrator and the soldier – a huge amount.

I have to find accents and voices for the three characters. That’s one thing. The soldier will probably have me move to my own original West Country accent, which I think the soldier is. He’s a peasant, obviously. The Devil, I don’t quite know. He’s an old man in the beginning, and at one state he’s an old woman.

A lot of will be done with sound and different kinds of voices. I also think it will be one of these things when it’s directed right at the audience, with a feeling of very strong contact and commentary from the stage and all of the characters, not just the narrator. It’s going to be directed right at the audience.

JVS: I recall Lotte Lehmann’s recording of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig (The Earl King), where she changes voices for the narrator, father, son, and death. Have you ever sung that song?

BL: Schubert was my god.

It’s quite interesting, moving into the spoken word because I can’t sing anymore. What happened is that my hearing loss is not only huge – if I don’t have my cochlear implant on my hearing aid, I’m very much deaf and don’t hear much at all. So it’s a miracle, these aids. They’re incredible.

JVS: Are you able to hear the full spectrum of sound, or is the upper range limited?

BL: What happened when this all started was horrific distortion. The amount of distortion was incredible. In fact, when it really hit, it went fast. I was doing a recital in London, and I couldn’t pitch to the piano. I tried standing by the keyboard, at the end. The music of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin would start, and I had no idea where to sing. It was so distorted.

I tried to get through the recital. Well, I didn’t. Song two, song four, and song five couldn’t even begin. So I had to stop. Fortunately, I had announced at the beginning of the recital that something was going seriously wrong with my hearing.

That was a Friday evening. On Sunday, I was deaf. And that was the good ear. The other ear was where the through the immune problem was. I was left with bedlam. I couldn’t hear the difference between men and women’s voices. They all sounded like weird robots. And I had no idea then whether I would lose everything or not. It was a very strange time.

JVS: Did you ever consider making a pact with the devil to get your hearing back?

BL: He hasn’t come to me, that’s the problem. If he’d have turned up, I might have done it. Who knows? Life goes on. It’s quite interesting.

Eventually things quieted down. I was left with one deaf ear and about 50% of the other ear with no high frequency. I have no high frequency hearing left at all, but that’s fed back into the hearing aid. The hearing aid gives me all high frequency, which gives me what clarity I have. But something has happened with all this damage to my hearing; my pitch is kind of destroyed. It’s very, very inaccurate.

When I got the hearing aid, I thought I could sing again. I went back into the profession on quite a reduced schedule. There was nothing wrong with my voice, but I couldn’t really happen what was happening around me. I kept it up for two to three years, but I felt I was far too damaged to carry on a major international career. And there was no pleasure. I was running scared all the time. I just didn’t know. So I called it quits. Since then, life has been very different, and, strangely enough, very rich.

I had my career. It was far richer than I expected. I never expected to sing at the places where I sang, or do most of the things I did. I never really expected that. It was all a bonus, really. And once I stopped the profession, I began to look around, and look a little bit more at life and at people.

Now it all seems like a fairy tale, a very nice fairy tale. I can listen to some of the records, and hear well enough to enjoy what I did. That’s kind of great. And life has moved on.

If I try to sing a song nowadays, it will just go until I sing a totally wrong note. Also, I can sit down and play the piano and sing something and it will be a tone sharp or a tone flat. I’ll have no idea, because that’s what my ears are hearing. I sing what I’m hearing, but what I hear is not what is really happening. Singing is really out of the question. I do some little concerts in our arts center here, and I’ve sung things like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Go Out in the Midday Sun.” Well, in order to keep that in pitch I have to practice up for about a month beforehand, and sort of pound it in to my system. If I think of the sophisticated musician I was, and now where I am with music, it’s quite laughable really.

And I’ll have a job in hearing the ensemble. I’ll have to remember patterns if I’m going to be accurate with the music. I’ll have to do a lot of counting like a dancer; dancers are always counting. I’ll have to learn the patterns, because I won’t really hear the pitches or anything.

JVS: Somehow I had heard that you had lost your voice. I assume that isn’t the case. I’m sure your voice has aged some, because you’re in your 70s, but it was the hearing that affected your ability to sing.

BL: It’s just gone. I cannot sing in tune. Sometimes I feel I like to sing, and I’ll sing away and think, ‘This isn’t bad.’ Then I’ll ask my wife, and she’ll say, ‘Ben, no, don’t do it.’

JVS: Your wife is Sue Crofut?

BL: Yes. Do you have any of our records of Bill Crofut and I?

JVS: I only have the marvelous CD Dance on a Moonbeam,that includes Bill, you, and Julianne Baird. I love it very much.

BL: There’s a DVD we have of an hour’s concert we did at Jacob’s Pillow maybe 30 years ago. I think you’ll find it very interesting.

Bill and I worked together for years. It was wonderful, because I’d always loved folk music, but I don’t play a folk instrument. I think if I’d been born 500 years ago, I would have been a minstrel. There aren’t very many around, you know. There are lots of singers, but that kind of minstrel is something different.

Working with Bill, and the banjo, we had a lovely band of all kinds of brilliant musicians. Then, we eventually split up because the demand was increasing because we started to do Pops Concerts and things with orchestras. That really didn’t interest me; I liked the pure folk, and I was already working with orchestras all the time. It just got to be too much, and it was still very much a subsidiary to my main career and a lot of fun. Bill wanted to push on, and I couldn’t. So we eventually split.

Shortly after that, Bill got ill all of a sudden. In five months, he was dead of esophageal cancer. It’s a nasty; you don’t beat that one. In the meantime, I had separated from my wife back in England for two or three years. So Susie and I got together. We were old friends for 35 years or more. So I ended up in America, and we married about seven years ago.

Then I discovered of all things that I was entitled to American citizenship, because my mother and her whole side of the family were Cornish Americans. And my mother was born in Bisbee, AZ. My grandfather went there in 1898 as a young boy, straight from school at 16, for the copper mining.

JVS: But you were born in the U.K.?

BL: I was born in the U.K., but because my mother was American, and my grandparents, there’s a particular window that says if you were born between 1932 and 1941, and I’m slap bang in the middle of that, you are entitled to American citizenship. So when we got married, I suddenly found that while there I had needed a work permit every time I came over here, I was actually eligible for American citizenship. Very bizarre.

JVS: Do you know what caused your hearing loss?

BL: That’s a very debatable one. They decided it was auto-immune. You remember it used to be that if you were ill, nobody understood it, but it was a virus. Well, suddenly we’ve discovered auto-immune. We don’t know too much about the auto-immune system, so all kinds of things are attributed to it. There’s no official explanation when this happened to me in 1990. But I happened to go to someone who said, ‘I know what this is. There’s not a term for it, but it’s an auto-immune disease which can attack the eyes or the ears. People can for no known reason suddenly go blind or deaf. I’ll tell you, I’m certainly not a fan of his, but I think this happened to Rush Limbaugh. He went deaf suddenly for no apparent reason.

JVS: Well, Rush Limbaugh has been deaf to the truth for many, many, many years. But that’s another story. We don’t want to go there.

BL: Poor old America.

JVS: You live in Western Massachusetts?

BL: Yup. In a little place called Sandisfield, which is west of Tanglewood by about 16 or 17 miles.

JVS: What are you doing with your career these days?

BL: I’ve been working with some theatre groups in this area. I started once I got my cochlear implant; before that, I didn’t have the confidence, because I’d have a hard job picking up what people were saying to me from six feet away. But the cochlear implant suddenly opened Pandora’s Box, if you want. So I went back.

I’ve been working with a company in New York State, and I’m working with Shakespeare & Company. I’m also doing a Christmas show with them, which is a sort of improvised version of Cinderella based on the Rossini opera.

This is a difficult area for me. I don’t know how much theatre I want to be doing, because actors work very differently from musicians. All my life, I was used to being prepared for any concert or opera I was doing. I knew exactly what I was doing when I showed up.

Actors seem to be reversed. They turn up not knowing, and put it together during the rehearsal period with the director. It drives me crazy. I’m ready to go when I show up for the first day of rehearsal, and virtually no one else is. It means I get in a vacuum and get frustrated. It’s a very different process. At my age now, I don’t know how much of that I want to do.

I should have been doing King Lear earlier on this year, but I turned it down because I knew it would drive me crazy working with people who do things that way.

JVS: I was listening to some of your singing. When you talk about folksong, I think of how direct your singing is in the Mozart clips on YouTube. Some voices are artsy, but yours is right there in the most wonderful way. Have you considered teaching?

BL: I don’t do a lot of teaching. At the time I might have gone into teaching, I didn’t have the confidence, because my hearing was so shot. But the problem with a lot of singers is that they never get past singing. They’re so wrapped up in their singing, their voices or their beautiful voices or their huge voices or whatever, that they don’t really get there. They haven’t quite grasped the whole point that if you don’t really communicate, then it doesn’t matter. The beautiful voice goes so far, and then, after a while, you think, okay, tell me something. What’s happening? I want something to happen. I just don’t want to listen to a beautiful voice. It’s lovely to listen to beautiful voices, but… And I do think that if you’re going to stand up in front of people, you have to say something.

JVS: Did you find yourself in casts where some of your fellow leads had beautiful voices but did not know how to communicate?

BL: Yeah. I found that a lot, if I think back.

Singers are a strange breed. They’re changing of course, and they’re becoming far more sophisticated. I wouldn’t want to be in the profession now, I don’t think, because it’s so cutthroat. There are so many young singers coming up all the time, extremely well trained and technically so proficient, but I wouldn’t like to be there.

As a singer, I was probably very often more interested in the text than the music. The text fascinated me more, which is why it has been so easy to move on into the spoken word, because it’s kind of just like singing. I was always interested in text.

JVS: You make me think of Lehmann again, because in some of her later concerts, she stood up there with the words on cards so that she was sure to get it right. And after she retired, she did recordings of poetry, while you’re doing theater.

It’s really been an honor to speak to you. Thank you, dear man.